The Land of Wonderbugs

(To those who stumbled upon this page by coincidence: I am a linguist specialising in Finno-Ugric languages, a long-time friend of Hungary and the Hungarian language, professor at the University of Vienna. My contact data can be found by way of this URL or at the end of this text. I wrote this text first in my native Finnish, to vent the frustration of many linguists like myself, and translated it into my non-native English, to save time – time and again, people baffled by what they have heard from their Hungarian friends want to know whether there really is “something” behind the “alternative” ideas which are gaining popularity in Hungary. I dedicate this to my Hungarian friends, many of whom are colleagues of mine and get confronted with the “alternative” ideas much more often than I do.
    For those who read Hungarian, I warmly recommend the linguistics portal www.nyest.hu, the articles about language relatedness at http://fgrtort.nytud.hu/index.php/table/nyelvrokons%C3%A1g/, Ádám Nádasdy’s article “A gonosz Budenz”, and the Turkologist Klára Sándor’s article series on the website galamus.hu. For anybody who wants to know more about how historical linguistics works, there are numerous good handbooks available in English; my two favourites are both entitled “Historical linguistics”and written by R. L. Trask and Lyle Campbell, respectively.)


Sometimes I hear from fellow Finns that they have been unpleasantly surprised by their new Hungarian acquaintances. Instead of happily embracing the idea of “being related” with the Finns, the Hungarian guy has told them that “we don’t believe in this Finno-Ugric thing any more, you know, it was just Commie propaganda”. In fact, the whole Finno-Ugric relatedness was made up by agents of the Habsburgs, in order to humiliate the proud Magyars, and later instrumentalised by the imperialists in Moscow as well. The truth is that the Hungarians descend from the Huns, the Scyths and other proud warrior peoples of the steppe zone, but also from the Sumerians; other ancient civilisations, from Etrusks and ancient Greeks to India, Japan, Atlantis and the outer space can be mentioned as well. This truth was well known to everybody in the Middle Ages, when traditional lore about the Huns was written down in Hungarian chronicles. During the Dark Ages of Socialism, this true knowledge mainly survived in the Western world, in books published by Hungarian emigrants, but now that the proud people of Hungary has shed the yoke of Communism, the truth can finally come out. And so it does: even many educated Hungarians “don’t believe” in Finno-Ugric relatedness any more, and numerous alternative works on the prehistory of the Hungarian language are available on the Internet and in any Hungarian bookshop.

Of course, with almost any nation you can find “alternative” pseudo-research – research which has partly or completely abandoned the principles and good practices of science such as objectivity or source criticism – into the national prehistory. (As for my native country Finland, one could mention the fantastic ideas of the artist Sigurd Wettenhovi-Aspa who claimed to have found traces of an ancient Finnish civilisation everywhere in Europe, the psychiatrist Panu Hakola who believes in the relatedness of all agglutinating languages around the world, or the almost as fantastic ideas of the phonetician Kalevi Wiik about Germanic being originally “Indo-European spoken with a Finno-Ugric accent” and Finno-Ugrians originally inhabiting the whole Northern Europe.) In Hungary, however, it seems that the position of alternative prehistory-writing is exceptionally strong. Despite whatever the scholarly establishment does to spread information, the “Anti-Finno-Ugrists” are supported not only by the general ignorance of the masses of what linguistics is about but also by political developments. The present government of Hungary cultivates a highly emotional patriotism, including an emphasis on the glorious history of the Hungarian nation and the uniqueness of the Hungarian language. The right-wing populist party Jobbik has even included the “reappraisal of the Finno-Ugric narrative” in its official programme (see the English-language web pages of the party).

It is actually not very difficult to explain why the Finno-Ugric relatedness holds true and the “alternative” theories don’t. There are two basic tenets which the “Anti-Finno-Ugrists” refuse to understand. First, relatedness between languages, the fact that they stem from a common proto-language, does not necessarily mean that these languages are now mutually intelligible or “look similar”. With greater time depths, relatedness cannot be found out by laymen comparing word lists and spotting accidental similarities; it takes special expertise and methods to find out whether and how languages are related. Second, because the transmission of languages from generation to generation doesn’t function in the same way as the transmission of genes (or culture, or ethnic self-identification), especially with greater time depths there is very little correspondence between the history of a language and the history of the genetic composition of its speakers. When I say that “Anti-Finno-Ugrists” refuse to understand these two facts, I mean that for them, their alternative ideas about the prehistory of Hungarians and their language are an act of faith, a matter of patriotism understood as something sacred. For this reason, a linguist debating with Anti-Finno-Ugrists is in a similarly hopeless position as an evolutionary biologist among fundamentalist creationists.

Both the alternative “research” and its “antidotes” look back to a long tradition in Hungary, as also shown by the established expressions for these concepts. Anti-Finno-Ugric theories are often called “wannabe-linguistics” (nyelvészkedés) or “mirage linguistics” (délibábos nyelvészet). Already in 1943, the linguist Miklós Zsirai published an often-cited book on “prehistoric freaks” (or, literally, “wonderbugs”: Őstörténeti csodabogarak).  Most of this literature only exists in Hungarian – except material published especially by expatriate Hungarians on the Internet – and the debate mainly takes place in Hungary and among ethnic Hungarians in other countries. Otherwise, anything that is stated in this debate is probably self-evident for the informed and uninteresting for the most. This is why I wrote this text. Let me here offer my apologies to all those good Hungarians and friends of Hungary who would rather remain silent about this embarrassing debate; it was not my intention to ridicule or offend any well-meaning person.

How it all began: The poor relatives who smell of fish fat, and the bad, bad Habsburgs 

For centuries already, learned Europeans have known that the strange language of the Hungarians doesn’t seem to resemble any major language of Europe, and already in the 17th and 18th centuries some learned gentlemen thought that it might have something to do with some other equally strange languages of the North and the East. Finno-Ugric relatedness in its proper sense was finally proven by a Hungarian scholar: the astronomer János (Johannes) Sajnovics on his expedition to Northern Norway in 1769 observed the Sámi language and published a book (1770), in which he demonstrated that Sámi and Hungarian are related (or, in the undeveloped terminology of those times, “the same”: demonstratio idioma Ungarorum et Lapponum idem esse). In fact, the idea that languages which are not similar at all may still be related – that languages change with time and sister dialects may, given enough time, lose almost all traces of their original similarity – was new in those times, and Sajnovics was one of the founding fathers of historical-comparative linguistics. Sir William Jones came up with his revolutionary idea of relatedness between Sanskrit and the major European languages only 16 years later.

However, many Hungarians of those times were not so proud of Sajnovics’s accomplishments. Hungary in those times had just been liberated from the Turks, only to become part of the Habsburg empire. The glorious times of the old Kingdom of Hungary, when the Renaissance court of the righteous king Mathias Corvinus was famous throughout Europe and Hungary understood itself as the defender of Western civilisation against the Eastern barbary, were gone for good. Actually, from the 16th century on Hungarian patriotism looked back to the glorious past – to the Middle Ages and even further, up to the half-legendary conqueror ancestors who had come from the steppes of the East and who already in the mediaeval chronicles had been connected with the legends surrounding Attila the Hun. This noble and war-like past did not suit very well together with the Northern “relatives smelling of fish fat” (halzsíros atyafiság). In those times, the “Lapps” were generally believed to be ugly, primitive and ape-like half-human Untermenschen – something like what was thought about the African Pygmees, for instance – and they obviously didn’t have a glorious, war-like past nor heroic deeds to show off. Already in those times, the main argument against the Finno-Ugric relatedness was that it was humiliating. Why is national prehistory researched, if not to raise the national self-esteem?

During the 19th century, while scholars in Hungary and in other countries collected and organised the evidence for the history of the Finno-Ugric language family, many Hungarians turned their gaze towards mediaeval Hun legends or the glorious East. In the 1820s, Sándor Kőrösi Csoma set out to find the roots of the Hungarians in India; he didn’t find them (at least in the opinion of today’s scholarly establishment), but on his way he became the founding father of Western Tibetology. The Turcologist Ármin Vámbery waged the so-called Turkish-Ugric war against the Finno-Ugrist József Budenz; this conflict was solved when the developing methods of historical-comparative linguistics could show that the abundant Turkic elements in the Hungarian language are not inherited from the earliest strata of the proto-language but borrowed from different Turkic language varieties. However, this solution was not accepted by all laymen, and many still doubt it. The reasons for this have nothing to do with science and research.

Especially since the late 20th century, there have been more and more attempts at a “reappraisal” of 19th-century Finno-Ugrian studies by way of national-political prejudices. Forgetting Sajnovics and his successor Sámuel Gyarmathi, who wrote an even larger comparative work including numerous other Finno-Ugric languages, the “alternative” critics concentrate on the two gentlemen who after them established Finno-Ugric language studies in Hungarian academia: Pál Hunfalvy and his protegé József Budenz. Both are suspect because of their descent. Hunfalvy came from a family of German settlers, originally called Hunsdorfer, in the area of Zips (Szepesség) in today’s Slovakia. Budenz was a German linguist who only moved to Hungary after his studies at the university of Göttingen had inspired him to find out more about the mysterious past of the Hungarian language. As we know, Hungary in the 19th century struggled for emancipation – and even fought for its independence in 1848-49 – against the Habsburg monarchs who lived in the German-speaking city of Vienna and spoke German. For many Hungarians of today, the conclusion is self-evident: Finno-Ugrian studies were invented by German bad guys, and the whole discipline was initiated by an order from the Viennese court. Nobody seems to remember that both Hunfalvy and Budenz regarded themselves as Hungarian patriots. In fact, Hunfalvy was one of the secretaries at the revolutionary Diet of 1848, and after the Hungarian insurgents had been defeated, he was compelled to go underground for some time. The Viennese court actually never showed a major interest in supporting Finno-Ugrian studies. In Hungary, there were a couple of attempts (by Hungarian activists!) to create a university chair for Finno-Ugrian studies, but these requests were not granted by the administration in Vienna; the chair was only founded after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, under the Hungarian minister of educational affairs. At the University of Vienna, the Finno-Ugrian Department was only founded in the 1970s.

Many people still believe that the idea of Finno-Ugric relatedness was established in the academic world not on scholarly grounds but on political ones. Hunfalvy and Budenz, so they claim, were academic dictators who silenced their opponents or even destroyed evidence. (A wild legend circulates about how Hunfalvy got hold of hundreds of ancient Hungarian-Hunnish texts in runic script and had them burnt. I will return to the runic scripts later.) In particular, two statements keep resurfacing in “alternative” literature. The first one stems from the (amateur) anthropologist and alternative historian István Kiszely. He claims to have found in an archive in Vienna an order of the court chancery to Austrian historians from 1821: a new prehistory must be written for the renitent Hungarians, something that they cannot be proud of. To the best of my knowledge, Kiszely has not published a copy or a photo of the original text anywhere, not even a literal quotation or proper source information (precisely in which archive and where the text is to be found) – not to speak of whether there was any reaction to this among the historians of the Habsburg empire. Another die-hard legend tells about the so-called Trefort quotation. It is claimed that in the 1870s Ágoston Trefort, the minister of cultural affairs, explicitly prohibited research into any other theories on Hungarian prehistory except the Finno-Ugric one. The historians writing on the website Töriblog have tried to find out the origins of this quotation, but the trail ends in the 1970s: prior to an article written by a Mrs. Háry in the journal Valóság, there are no traces of Trefort's order in any contemporary publications or protocols.  (Link to the Töriblog article, in Hungarian.)

Sumerians, Scyths, and the Hungarian Jesus

World War I destroyed the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the old Kingdom of Hungary. In the peace treaty of Trianon, two thirds of Hungary and one third of its ethnic Hungarian population came to belong to the new neighbour states. Since then, Trianon has been a major trauma for the Hungarians, and any questions of Hungarian patriotism are connected to it.

Between the two world wars Hungary was formally a kingdom, technically ruled by the Regent, Admiral Horthy, in an increasingly autocratic style. Revanchist ideas were popular, but relationships with other countries of “Intermediate Europe” were also built up. The new independent states of Finland and Estonia were interesting contact partners. The state of Hungary supported the teaching of Hungarian in these countries, among others, cultural contacts between “kindred peoples” were encouraged and the idea of Finno-Ugrian relatedness being humiliating was more or less forgotten. However, alternative hypotheses also flourished; the so-called Turanists emphasised and romanticised the ancient contacts of the Hungarians to the warrior peoples of the Eastern steppes. (Turanism is an ideology which embraces the unity of especially the Turkic-speaking peoples, but in a wider sense, the Finno-Ugrians have also been counted to the “Turanic peoples”.)

Beside the officially supported cultural contacts to the Finno-Ugrian “kindred peoples”, the public consciousness about the roots of the Hungarians probably included a jumble of competing alternative ideas: the traditional connections to the Turkic peoples, to the Huns or the Scyths, but also other alternative hypotheses, and also the traditional idea of Hungarian being a completely unique language, idioma incomparabile. When after the tumults of World War II and the defeated revolution of 1956, thousands of politically traumatised Hungarian emigrants settled down in the West, many of them started to channel their patriotic feelings into amateur “research” of the roots of Hungarianness. In Western Europe and in the Americas there were not so many institutions offering Finno-Ugristic expertise or even source literature. Instead, the Hungarian emigrants, many of whom were educated but no linguists, could find statements of Western scholars about the uniqueness of the Hungarian language or comparisons between Hungarian and Greek or Basque. Some exile Hungarians in the Americas found Hungarian-sounding elements in a local indigenous language (there is a die-hard legend about “an Indian tribe in South America who can communicate with Hungarians”).  Others searched for the roots of Hungarianness in the available literature which, of course, often dealt with the well-known ancient civilisations. Among these, Sumerian became particularly popular.

Sumerian, the language of one of the oldest civilisations and perhaps the oldest written language of the world, is generally considered to be an isolate language, that is, no languages related to it are known. However, ever since the cuneiform texts in Sumerian were deciphered for the first time, there have been attempts to connect Sumerian to other languages of the world – in particular to other agglutinating (“affixing”) languages, such as the Finno-Ugric ones. Expatriate Hungarian “Sumerologists”, the perhaps best known of whom was the historian Ida Bobula who lived in the USA, published numerous Sumerian-Hungarian comparisons spiced with patriotic emotion in the post-war years. Typically, Bobula and other amateur “Sumerologists” didn’t know very much about linguistics, not even about the Sumerian language, they just interpreted Sumerian text editions with the help of Modern Hungarian, that is, tried to find similar-sounding Hungarian “equivalents” for Sumerian words. So, for instance, the Hungarian word pók ‘spider’, according to Ida Bobula, reflects the Sumerian PA ‘tree’ and UG ‘stinging worm, spider’. (Bobula, like the other “Sumerologists”, obviously had no idea that the capital letters in text editions only stand for so-called Sumerograms, a special type of cuneiform signs – she uses only capital letters, probably believing that they are the standard way of transliterating cuneiform script.) Of course, Bobula knew that pók was generally considered to be a Slavic loanword in Hungarian, but to her, the Sumerian etymology was more credible, as the ancestors of the Hungarians had certainly known spiders already before they arrived to the neighbourhood of the Slavs. (In probably any language, there are loanwords which have replaced an original word without any obvious reason or motivation. But, as already mentioned, Bobula and other amateur researchers of her ilk were no linguists.)

How did the descendants of the Sumerians come to Hungary? The road from the Mid-East to the Carpathian Basin goes through the Eastern steppes populated by nomadic warrior tribes. In addition to the Huns, the alternative prehistorians love the Scythians, a people (or, more probably, an ethnolinguistically diverse group of tribes) described in Ancient Greek sources and inhabiting the steppe zone from north of the Black Sea to Central Asia; in their tombs, beautiful jewelry and works of art have been found. South of the Scythians, in today’s Iran, there lived the Parthians, a people who (like at least part of the Scythians) spoke an Iranic language. And from here, a route is opened for brave new theories which connect Hungarian patriotism both with Christianity and with the strong Eastern Central European tradition of Antisemitism. The theory which Ferenc Zajti developed already in the 1930s in his book Zsidó volt-e Jézus? [‘Was Jesus a Jew?’] still enjoys popularity in certain circles: Jesus was in fact a Parthian prince, Christianity had originally nothing to do with the Jews. And because the Parthians and their neighbours, the Scythians (the ancestors of the Hungarians, that is), were descendants of the Sumerians, Jesus was technically a Hungarian, and the first Hungarians already practised something like an original, pure and non-Judaic Christianity. The most famous representative of these thoughts was Ferenc Badiny Jós, a former army officer and a private thinker who lived in South America after WW II; in the 1990s, shortly before his death, he returned to Hungary and founded a private “university” and a religious community of his own.

Runic scripts and the Hun petition

If the ancestors of the Hungarians were carriers of the oldest civilisation of the world (as the “Sumerologists” interpret the ethnonym magyar: MAH-GAR, ‘people of knowledge’), how did they maintain their culture when riding on the steppes, conquering and devastating? At least one technique typical of higher civilisations was known to them: they knew how to write with the so-called Old Hungarian runic script (rovásírás).

In Hungarian-speaking areas – not in today’s Hungary but in Szeklerland in Transilvania, today’s Romania – the so-called Szekler runic script was known. The runes resembled the Germanic and Old Norse runic scripts, for obvious reasons (the shapes are angular because the runes were not drawn with a pen but engraved in stone or wood), but their origins are probably in the East, in the runic scripts known by Turkic peoples and documented also in Central Asia. The Szekler runic script was documented already by 16th-century scholars, some of whom used it as a kind of an academic inside joke. Otherwise, no longer texts in the runic script have been found and nothing indicates that the runes were ever used for the writing of literature in modern sense: most remaining runic texts are very short, names or minimal comments in the style of “Kilroy was here”.

In the same way as the ancient Germanic runes, the Szekler runes have inspired the imagination of romantic Nationalists, and people obviously feel tempted to ascribe mystical and magical meanings to them. Even today, it is claimed that writing in the “Old Hungarian runic script” is beneficial for one’s spiritual development; on an “alternative” website, some fanatics declare their belief that the Hungarian runic script was not created by human hand but comes ultimately from the heavens. In the last few years, revitalising the “Old Hungarian runic script” has become a popular activity especially in extreme right-wing circles; Hungarian runic fonts for your computer are available on the Internet, and not only in Szeklerland but also in Hungary some activists want to have the names of towns and villages written on the signs also in the runic script. Of course, this revitalised runic writing is something completely different from the actual runic scripts written centuries ago, and the rune activists easily forget that there probably never was a one and only, unified runic writing system in the whole area of Hungary (not to speak of “runic literature”).

Who were the people who maintained the runic script and other cultural accomplishments throughout centuries, and how did they bring the legacy of the Sumerians to Hungary? The Hungarian alternative “historians” struggle for a reappraisal of the Eastern nomadic peoples, who are usually depicted as primitive and brutal in old European sources. In this, they can refer not only to the beautiful art of the Scythians but also to the fact that of the Huns, the Eastern warrior people who conquered and devastated large parts of Europe in the 4th and 5th century AD, very little is really known. Of their language, which may have belonged to the Turkic group, there is no proper documentation (only a handful of words and names, partly of Germanic or Slavic, partly of Turkic origin, have been recorded).  Traditionally, the Huns have been identified with the xiong-nupeople mentioned in old Chinese sources, but this, too, is uncertain. And because all descriptions of the Huns were written by their enemies and victims, it is easy to claim that these stories about fierce and dreadfully ugly barbarians are mere propaganda – in reality, the Huns were not only brave but also wise, beautiful and enlightened. This was also stated in the petition signed by more than 2000 Hungarians who even in our days call themselves Huns; in 2005, they applied for official recognition as an ethnic minority. The parliamentary commission for human rights and minority affairs, however, relying on statements of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, was not convinced.

(For some time already, Hungarian alternative websites have circulated a word list in the Hun language, allegedly based on Armenian and Greek original sources which were found in an – apparently non-existent – Armenian monastery in Isfahan. The list was originally published by a retired Hungarian archaeologist in a children’s colouring book (!). The story is too fantastic to be true, especially as there is no documentation whatsoever about the original source texts, their background, transcription etc.; the “Hunnish” words are simply distorted Hungarian. For more information in Hungarian, see a nice article on the nyest.hu portal.)

Since the Middle Ages, there has existed a tradition of identifying the ancestors of the Hungarians with Huns. The Hungarians, just like the Huns and the Scyths, were originally a war-like nomad people of the steppe zone; like the Huns – although four or five centuries later, in the late 9th century AD – they came to Central Europe from the East and were first known as fierce warriors and a severe threat to their new Christian neighbours. In those times, centuries before modern comparative linguistics and the idea of a nation-state based on language were even thought of, it was natural to identify peoples with each other on the basis of similarities in culture and way of life. For this reason, the early Hungarians, whose culture was formed by massive influences from Turkic and other steppe peoples, figure in Byzantine and Western European sources as “Turks”, later also as “Huns”. Probably because of this identification, the originally Turkic ethnonym on-ogur ‘10 arrows (= 10 tribes)’ also acquired its folk-etymological initial h-; Ungaria became Hungaria, and even in our days, many people consider this as a piece of evidence for the Hunnish origin of the Hungarians.

Klára Sándor has analysed the research on the history of Hungarians’ self-identification as “Huns” and comes to the conclusion that probably it was Western Europeans who first believed that the Hungarians were a subgroup or descendants of the Huns, and the Hungarians themselves only took over this idea a little later (article in Hungarian on the galamus.hu website). The first medieval chronicle in which the Huns were mentioned as the ancestors of the Hungarian nation was written by Simon Kézai in the 13th century. Now medieval chronicles are no reliable historical documentation in the modern sense of the word – they are tendentious compilations of facts, fiction and folklore in the service of certain political goals. Kézai may well have noticed the similarities between the Hun legends and the Hungarians’ own folklore (a considerable part of it goes back to the shared cultural heritage of the peoples of the steppe zone!), and by identifying his people with the Huns he gave them an internationally acknowledged “label” and a “noble descent” – in a similar way as the ancient Romans claimed to descend from heroes of the Trojan war. By describing the warlike past of the Huns, the chronicle-writer could provide the Hungarian gentry with accomplished ancestors to legitimise their families’ privileges. For Kézai’s employer, King László, emphasising the “non-Western” origins of the Hungarians may also have been especially important, as the king himself was half Cuman – his mother was a princess of a Turkic-speaking wild nomad people settled in Hungary, a people which in his time was still resisting the missionary activities of the Catholic church. Even for later kings, the identification with the Huns was a PR strategy to highlight their role as mighty and feared warlords; in the 15th century, King Mathias Corvinus let his chronists call him “the second Attila”.

Over centuries, medieval chronicles became an important part of the national cultural legacy. In the time of Romantic Nationalism in the 19th century, when everywhere in Europe glorious national histories were constructed on the basis of heroic epics, folk tales and legends, the Hungarians, understandably, made use of the Huns who had already become a part of their national history-writing. Poetry and prose was written about Attila and his tribe, the Hunnish history of the Hungarians was presented in children’s storybooks, paintings and sculptures. One of the most important literary accomplishments in this genre was Géza Gárdonyi’s popular historical novel A láthatatlan ember (‘The invisible man’, 1902), the story of a young Byzantine scribe who on a diplomatic mission falls in love with the daughter of a Hun chieftain.  The Huns in this book are described as unmistakable Hungarians, with abundant references to Hungarian language, folklore and the runic script. Thus, the imagined legacy of the Huns has become part of Hungarian cultural history. Even in our days, Attila is a popular boys’ name, and the national anthem mentions “the blood [= descendants] of Bendegúz”, father of Attila. Giving up this Hun tradition would mean the same as giving up the national epic Kalevala would mean for the Finns. (Which, actually, has a certain historical truth as well – the major part of the folklore material for Kalevala was collected not in Finland but in Karelian area on the Russian side of the border. But that’s another story.)

How we became Bolsheviks: From Huns and Sumerians to active Anti-Finno-Ugrism 

In the post-war years, the Finno-Ugric origins of the Hungarians were not a question of primary importance for the Hungarians who were struggling under the yoke of Stalinist dictatorship. In fact, in the first few years of Communist power in Hungary, Finno-Ugric relatedness was a taboo: until 1950 Soviet linguistics followed the doctrine of Marrism, according to which language relatedness in the traditional sense does not exist at all. Even after that – contrary to what is imagined now – Finno-Ugric relatedness was not a major concern for the Socialist rulers. But of course it came in handy as a nice addition to the usual Socialist liturgy about “friendship between peoples”, when the contacts between Hungary and Finland, the perhaps nicest and most harmless capitalist country, started to develop again from the 1960s on.

In the Socialist system, no multiple truths were allowed. This, of course, could mean censorship and suppression of facts, but on the other hand it also kept a large part of pseudo-scientific flim-flam under cover: there were no publication channels dedicated to astrology or homeopathy, and nobody could seriously state in public that the piles of corpses in the photos from Auschwitz were actually made from papier-maché. In historical linguistics, this meant that “Sumerologists” and other alternative groups couldn’t make their voice heard very easily. And because a major part of them lived in exile in the West and combined their prehistorical fantasies with ardent right-wing patriotism and Anti-Socialist rhetoric, a political Berlin wall was gradually built between mainstream linguistics and flim-flam as well.

Perhaps we could put it this way: The political barrier between a “Sumerologist” in Argentina fantasizing about the Hungarians’ glorious past and a “normal researcher” earning his/her small but guaranteed salary in Hungarian academia was gradually understood as a barrier separating “patriotic” from “non-patriotic” research. This may have happened especially as the Socialist system in Hungary collapsed and the pressure created by political censorship exploded. Some “alternative” researchers vented their frustration by accusing Hungarian Finno-Ugrists of “goulash Communism”. The de-censored media and increasingly the Internet offered a new channel for conspiracy theories and fabrication of sensations: All these years, they have lied to the people of Hungary about their history, but now, finally, we will tell you the truth! According to the basic principles of propaganda, people will believe almost anything if it is repeated often enough, and now the means for endless repetition are available. In addition to the above-mentioned “order to Austrian historians” and the “Trefort quotation”,  an excellent example is the completely unfounded statement which most Hungarians will have heard: “In Finland, Finno-Ugric relatedness is not taught any more. The Finns have rewritten their school textbooks and removed the Finno-Ugric myths in 2003.” (An article with lots of nice counter-examples, in Hungarian, on the nyest.hu website.)

So, here we stand and watch how the wonderbugs come creeping from under every stone. More and more often normal, sensible, educated Hungarians conclude that this Finno-Ugric thingy must have been a Habsburg-Communist plot,  how else would so many people write about it everywhere. Rabid Anti-Finno-Ugrists demand that all institutions for Finno-Ugric studies in Hungary be abolished and a brave new research of prehistory constructed along the Hun-Scyth-Sumerian lines. Time and again, I get hate mails from Hungarian fanatics (“you are a racist and an idiot, and besides, you are just envious, as Hungarians had their apostolic kings when Finns were still living in trees”). And this is nothing compared with what my Hungarian colleagues now must live through: threats, accusations of treason and Bolshevik propaganda, and plain insults. I know Hungarian Finno-Ugrists who will not reveal their field of study to strangers any more, to avoid unpleasant comments.

Behind all this, one can sense a more general “brutalisation” of discourse which anybody following the Hungarian media cannot fail to notice. “Hate speech”, openly racist or Anti-Semitist tones are tolerated more and more often. Besides, the present government cultivates an emotional style which, in the eyes of an outsider, seems to bring the country back to the 1930s or the 19th century. Could you imagine a Western European state passing a new constitution with a preamble full of romantic nationalist liturgy (“the National Creed”), pleading to God, mentioning the Holy Crown as a symbol of Hungarian statehood and “pride” (in our unique language, etc.)?

Perhaps the most essential and symptomatic problem of this debate around “Finno-Ugrism” and “Anti-Finno-Ugrism” is that it is exclusively Hungarian. All this alleged criticism of Finno-Ugric historical linguistics concentrates on the Hungarian language, its position and its history and presents two Hungarian (or “Hungary-based”) Finno-Ugrists as the main scapegoats. As if there were no research on Finno-Ugric language relatedness in any other country of the world. (Were the Finns M. A. Castrén and Erkki Itkonen – and numerous others –, the Swedes K. B. Wiklund and Björn Collinder, the Norwegian Knut Bergsland, or the numerous Finno-Ugrists of Germany in the 20th-21st century paid by the Habsburgs or by the Communists in Moscow? Which institution finances my chair in Vienna? A major international investment, only in order to humiliate the proud Magyars...) And as if Finno-Ugric linguistics were not an organic part of the study of historical linguistics worldwide, employing the same methods which are used in the research of numerous other language families as well.

Many alternative critics of “Finno-Ugrism” are not only ignorant of the methods of historical linguistics but also illiterate in any other language than Hungarian, and probably this applies even more to their readers. Now in this case, we can really blame the Communists – or the compulsory Russian teaching in Hungarian schools in the Socialist system: nobody wanted to learn Russian, and very few learnt it properly, but the resources spent for Russian were lost for other foreign languages. In any case,  according to a recent Eurobarometer studyHungarians belong to the six most “monolingual” nations of Europe – only in the UK and in Ireland, an even smaller proportion of the population can speak a foreign language. Beside the ideological reasons, there are also practical reasons for the Hungarians not being able to see beyond their borders.

The language barrier also works in the other direction, and this is the final reason why I wrote this text. Recently, the famous Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff has openly criticised Viktor Orbán’s regime, its media policy and the increasing racism, xenophobia and political chauvinism in Hungarian public discourse. In his interview to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he claims that this nationalist hate speech fails to provoke worldwide outrage only because Hungarian is like a secret language, understood by very few outsiders only. This applies to “Anti-Finno-Ugrism” as well: very few outsiders are able to follow the Internet fora which praise Hungarian as the original language of all humanity and portray university linguists as accomplices of an international Jewish-Freemason-Jesuit-Communist mafia. Perhaps it could be a good idea to translate a few samples into a more accessible language.




November 1, 2011
johanna.laakso [at] univie.ac.at