Hungarian and Russian: strangers or relatives? (Part 1)

Hungarian is one of the few non-Indo-European languages in Europe with a large number of speakers. There is a common belief that it is one of the most difficult languages in the world. In many cases this belief is supported by Hungarians themselves. However, a lot of foreigners trying to master the language think the same. This is mainly explained by uniqueness and remoteness of the Hungarian language from others. Here is one of the recently popular images in this regard.

The picture shows that, being part of the Finno-Ugric language family, Hungarian is quite a remote and rare phenomenon, at least form a lexical standpoint. In fact, as I noticed by the comments on the above picture in Facebook, this is considered as another proof on “why Hungarian is so difficult”. This claim is also generally shared among the Russian-speaking community in Budapest. Since I belong to the group, and am keen on foreign languages, I would like to prove quite the opposite: Hungarian language is much closer to Russian that one may think. In particular, this is visible from Hungarian lexicon, or vocabulary. There are many more words of Slavic origin in Hungarian than it may seem.

Before giving evidence though, I would like to make a short historical note. Such historical background will help understand the connection between Hungarian and Russian, as well as other Slavic languages. As they say, one cannot fully understand the present, nor predict the future, without understanding the past.

Around 900-1000 B.C. Hungarian tribes moved from the regions of Siberia and Ural mountains (present Russia) to the Pannonian plain (flat area along the Danube river), as well to the Carpathian region, namely Transylvania (present Romania). The tribes that moved had to compete for resources with the Slavs (from the north and south), the Germans (from the West) and the Romanians (the Wallachs) from the East. As a result of the contacts with all these peoples the Hungarians, as well as the Romanians, adopted many of the Slavic lexical elements, which now constitute one fifth of the Hungarian language. The map below is a vivid illustration that the Slavic influence onto the Hungarian territories was inevitable.

In the period between 1541 and 1699 the majority of Hungarians lived under the Turkish dominance. The Turkic influence in Hungarian became quite strong. After becoming part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire the German influence became predominant. In addition, there were borrowings from the Latin and Greek languages after adoption of Christianity. However, the neighboring Slavic communities had the biggest influence on the Hungarian language, Approximately the same influence came only from the Uralic languages spoken at the “territory of origin” of the Hungarian tribes.

Noname

In the next part I propose to look at specific examples of the Hungarian words originated in the Slavic languages, and Russian in particular.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Hungarian and Russian: strangers or relatives? (Part 1)

  1. The Hungarian words of Slavic origin doesn’t mean that “the Hungarian language is much closer to Russian that one may think”. You simply cannot speak about “Russian language” before AD 1000 when the Slavic influence on Hungarian was relatively strong.

    You’re also absolutely wrong about that “In the period between 1541 and 1699 … the Turkic influence in Hungarian became quite strong”. Perhaps only 100-200 words could originate from Ottoman Turkish. The Old Turkic strata in the language is much more important:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_language#Prehistory

    Like

    • Hi Leto, thanks for you comments. Regarding your points, I would agree and disagree at the same time.

      1) “You simply cannot speak about “Russian language” before AD 1000”. In a way it’s true. But when can you speak about “pure Russian” then? I drew a parallel with Russian here for two reasons: a) it is the most widely spoken language from the Slavic group; 2) I speak Russian and I see many parallels; 3) i have Russian-speaking friends (as mentioned in the beginning) who find Hungarian difficult.

      2) “Perhaps only 100-200 words could originate from Ottoman Turkish. The Old Turkic strata in the language is much more important”. This must be true. But I didn’t mean to make a history lecture out of this post. Moreover, for most Hungarians the Turkish rule is much closer in historical memory than the much earlier Turkic influence. Also, what I wrote does not contradict your statement. The idea is that the Ottoman rule became a catalyst for the influence. Without the older Turkic strata this may not have happened.

      The bottom line that this post is about the lexical parallels between two languages – Hungarian and Russian.

      But you can make similar research, of course, for Turkic, Turkish, Uralic languages, English, German etc.

      Anyway thanks a lot for your knowledgeable comments. Will be happy to hear more!

      Like

      • Hi Alex,

        “when can you speak about “pure Russian” then”

        Well, you probably know that it’s a very tricky/difficult question what a separate language is in fact… Are Croatian and Serbian two languages or one? Is Norwegian one language or two? (Nynorsk vs. Bokmal). Is Swiss Deutch a dialect or is it a language?
        One thing is sure though: one can speak only about Slavic before AD 1000.

        “The idea is that the Ottoman rule became a catalyst for the influence”

        I don’t think so… Ottoman Turkish was already very evolved from Old Turkic in the 16th century. Something like Finnish and Hungarian relate to each other now: there are grammar similarities like vowel harmony and agglutination (compounding suffixes in words) and some basic words do sound similar (at least to linguists… “hal” (fish) in Hungarian is “kala” in Finnish, etc).

        Like

      • Hi Leto,

        Thanks for commenting! Here is how I see this:

        1) “One thing is sure though: one can speak only about Slavic before AD 1000″. I absolutely agree! We share the same thoughts here. At the same time, though, I am drawing parallels between contemporary Hungarian and contemporary Russian, as representative of the Slavic family of languages. The key word is ‘contemporary’. So I cannot speak about ‘Slavic’ as a predecessor to Russian, but I am interested in the parallels out there which are visible TODAY. Maybe it will be more clear from the next posts.

        2) As a Hungarian (I assume) you may know better than me about the Turkic and Turkish influence. So I don’t want to argue here, it was just a historical remark to demonstrate that development of Hungarian (like any other language) was influenced by other language communities. As for the relation to Finnish – more than true. This is no accident that linguists assigned Hungarian to the Finno-Ugric language family.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s