The Hungarian Language

In this article, we summarise the most important information about the Hungarian language. Hungarians call their language “magyar” (Hungary = Magyarország “land of the magyars”, Hungarians = magyarok). According to the estimations, Hungarian has approximately 15 million native speakers and an additional 2 million Hungarian as second language speakers worldwide. Almost 10 million native speakers live in Hungary; most of the remaining native speakers also live in the Carpathian (or Pannonian) basin: Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria; however, the number of Hungarian native speakers outside Europe might be close to 2 million (the majority living in the North American continent). Hungarian is the official language of Hungary; the country is a member of the European Union, and as a consequence, it is also one of the official languages of the EU.

Officially, Hungarian is a member of the Uralic language family (sometimes Uralic is referred to as Finno-Ugric), belonging to the Ugric branch. Hungarian has the most speakers of all the Uralic languages (second is Finnish with approximately 5 million native speakers); it is also the largest non-Indo-European language of Europe. Although we have relatively much information about the Uralic language family, there are still a number of linguists and other professionals (most of them living in Hungary) who argue that Hungarian does not even belong to the Uralic language family. Other critics have a more moderate stance, suggesting that Hungarian is a Uralic language, which forms its own branch and does not simply belong to the Ugric branch.

Hungarian is an agglutinative language: syntactical properties are indicated with affixation (as a matter of fact, Hungarian uses affixation extensively). The basis of the Hungarian writing system is the Latin alphabet; nevertheless, it is expanded with several other letters: accented letters “á, é”, digraphs “ty, gy”, and even a trigraph “dzs”. Unlike e.g. English, this language has a highly phonemic orthography, which means that it is relatively easy to infer the pronunciation of words based on their written form. There are many Hungarian dialects; however, they are very similar to each other. The grammar is basically the same in every dialect; there can be minor differences in vocabulary; the main differences between dialects originate from phonetics, but to tell the truth, it is extremely easy for Hungarian native speakers to understand each other regardless of their dialects.

The founding letter of the Abbey of Tihany (Tihanyi alapítólevél), which was written in 1055, is the oldest written record of Hungarian. It is, however, written mostly in Latin, Hungarian is only present in fragments. The oldest continuous, complete Hungarian text is called the Funeral Sermon and Prayer (Halotti beszéd és könyörgés), which seems to have been written between 1192 and 1195. The oldest Hungarian poem that survived in writing is the Old Hungarian Laments of Mary (Ómagyar Mária-siralom) from the 13th century (it is actually a translation from Latin). By the time of the 17th century, Hungarian was relatively similar to its modern form; nevertheless, the language was still lacking an accepted literary form. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the language went through major changes which were initiated by notable Hungarian writers, poets and linguists. The Hungarian word-stock was radically changed and substantial efforts were made to simplify and standardise the language that proved to be successful. As a consequence, in 1836, Hungarian has become the official language of Hungary, replacing Latin.