The Reform of the Language and irodalmi tudat


OF Joseph II’s numerous attempts at reforming his Empire nothing caused greater concern, at least to Hungary, than his project to introduce the German language for public and official transactions. When he issued the Royal decree on 6 May 1784, he could not have envisaged the opposition which it would meet from all quarters in Hungary. The decree was conceived in the rationalist fashion of the times; in his Empire no fewer than seventeen languages were spoken, representing a minor Babel – why should not the language with the greatest tradition be spoken universally at least as far as officialdom was concerned? Hitherto Latin had served the same purpose: as the lingua franca of his subjects in the Kingdom of Hungary, it had the approval of the Hungarian nobility, for they had been educated in that language. ‘If the old, the customary, the legal Latin language is to cease for us’, claimed the deputies of one of the megyes,*A megye is an autonomous selfgoverning administrative unit, somewhat similar to the English county, or the French départment; historians often use the term comitat (derived from the Latin comitatus) as its equivalent in English. ‘and the foreign and to us novel language of Germany is to be introduced in its stead, it is impossible to say what a fearful convulsion of all things, the state included, must ensue.’ Another body of petitioners stressed the role of Latin as a carrier of national traditions. ‘The idiom to be destroyed is ... the language of the learned, the universal tongue, the tongue which for eight centuries up to the present time our beloved Kings have studied, have used, have made their common speech – in which from the very cradle of the Kingdom all our laws, decrees, charters and privileges have been drawn up and so handed down to posterity.’

These statements may have contained much rhetoric, but they also contained a grain of truth. The use of a dead language had some justification; being the native language of no one, its use offended nobody. The introduction of the German – although Joseph II was guided by the loftiest principle, rationalism – apparently offended everyone whose native tongue was not German, including Slavs, Hungarians, and Romanians.

It particularly offended the rising national consciousness of the Hungarians. Why should not Hungarian, the language of the people who had founded the Kingdom, and who constituted the majority (although not absolute majority) of the population, be the official language, if Latin was to be discarded? The Hungarian nobility suddenly realized that their most treasured possession was the neglected and despised language of the Hungarian peasants, and since the time of Bessenyei they had been fully aware of the fact that a national culture can flourish only in the national languge. In other words, the decree of Joseph II directed public attention dramatically to the Hungarian language and started indirectly a process which served its modernization.

Bessenyei and other writers noticed that their language was underdeveloped: its vocabulary lacked important native words for expressing abstract ideas, as a tool it lacked sophistication and precision, the former being necessary for literary usage, the latter for scientific and scholarly use. Most of the abstract notions were expressed by Latin words: universe, revolution, or virtue were universitas, revolutio, and virtus in Hungarian as in Latin. For an Englishman ‘poet’ is a natural English word – only educated people knew that it is derived from the Latin poeta. Hungarians used poéta,*Apparently the Latin poeta superseded the native költő (first recorded 1395) in the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries. but the word was immediately felt to be foreign by all speakers; in addition uneducated speakers might not understand it at all. The lack of an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ word for the above ideas caused no concern for Englishmen, but the same words did not satisfy speakers of those languages which have no common ancestry in Latin. In addition everyday life, particularly trade, commerce, and town life, was interspersed with German words and expressions, and as German was regarded as the language of the foreign overlords of the country the alien nature of German words was felt twice as strongly as that of other ‘ordinary’ foreign words. Hence, the political implications in the attempt at reforming the language were inherent. Joseph II’s experiment lacked the political wisdom to treat a sensitive issue carefully; in the present century too we have seen how the dormant nationalism of otherwise peaceful people is immediately awakened if their language is felt to be at stake.

Apart from the political reaction to the introduction of a foreign language, the zealous reformers were not raising a false alarm – certain words were restricted to dialects, and perfectly good words in the contemporary vocabulary were quietly superseded by fashionable foreign words. Hungarian as a vehicle for literature and intellectual life was seriously endangered. The aim of the reformers was threefold: to enlarge the vocabulary, to reform the spelling, and to raise the language to the highest status, that of the official language of the country.

The obvious model for the reform was the German experiment. It was in the eighteenth century that the Germans realized that their various dialects diverged to such an extent that their language might serve rather as a barrier than a common medium for understanding each other. The language needed standardization if it was to be understood by everybody. Hungarian dialects on the other hand, were not so different, and the aim in Hungary was not to choose a certain dialect to become the literary language, but to create a literary language out of all dialects. Divergences in pronunciation did not affect mutual understanding; differences arose rather as a question of class – on one hand the speech of the educated classes with a heavy load of foreign phrases, and on the other the unspoilt language of ‘the people’.

The ideology of the reform was rooted in the philosophy of history as taught by Rousseau’s German disciple, Herder. Herder became a household name in Hungary on account of his reference to the Hungarians in his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, in which he claimed that the Hungarians would probably disappear altogether in the sea of German and Slav peoples and that their language would face extinction. The prophecy caused much heart – searching and torment among Hungarian intellectuals and was the chief cause of pessimism about the future of the country, epitomized in the Romantic vision of nemzethalál (death of the nation), which was popularized by leading poets. But Herder’s teaching about a mystic Volksgeist was equally important to the Hungarians. Herder claimed that all peoples have their own specific character rooted in prehistoric times and that the language, popular tales, songs, and customs preserve the ‘spirit of the people’ (Volksgeist). To gain knowledge of the properties of that ‘spirit’, its manifestations (i.e. the songs and tales) have to be examined. The reason for the study of these properties of the Volksgeist was paramount in Herder’s teaching – they represented distinct values in the universal diversity of the nations, for according to Herder’s philosophy it was not the universal and general, but the particular and specific that were the main values of mankind.

Herder’s influence was twofold. On the one hand, the value of the language as a distinct entity, the carrier of a particular way of thinking, the treasure-trove of the fundamental values of those who spoke it, became clear to Hungarian intellectuals; on the other hand, they realized that if the language was indeed the carrier of the Volksgeist, they ought to have paid it much more attention in an attempt to distinguish those specific traits which made the national identity different from any other.

While the sudden interest in the language resulted in many studies which explored different facets of the Hungarian language, it was bound to produce excesses as well. Most of these excesses manifested themselves in efforts to find the ‘truly’ distinguishing marks of the Hungarian language at any cost. The universal search for characteristics which no other language possessed overstressed the alleged or genuine peculiarities of the Hungarian language and provided fuel for both national pride and inferiority complex, the two most important characteristics of nationalism. While dilettantes produced the most extraordinary proofs of the uniqueness of the Hungarian language (e.g. stories or poems made up of words containing identical vowels in all syllables, or long palindromic sentences), Kazinczy, the chief architect of the reform, was worried about the shortcomings of the language. ‘Herder says’, – he wrote to a friend, ‘that when a nation does not possess a word, it does not possess the idea or the thing that it represents.’

Therefore the first and foremost task which faced the reformers was how to enlarge the vocabulary, or rather how to replace foreign words. Of course there were as many views as reformers, but a pattern emerged for the successful coining of new words. Obsolete words and suffixes were reactivated, dialect words were introduced into the standard language, foreign compound words were translated, and even non – existent roots and suffixes were used (e.g. Latin materia became anyag on the analogy that mater equals anya, but the suffix* -g probably never existed, although words do end in – *g, e.g. csillag ‘star’). What was surprising was that the public accepted a fair proportion of the coined or reactivated words, and within a generation they became part of the standard language indistinguishable from other, ‘natural’ words. No valid reason can be found why certain words became popular and others did not. Properly formed words were rejected, sometimes curious hybrids survived; words formed by employing the same principle did not all have the same chance of survival (e.g. ‘villany’ ‘electricity’ became standard, ‘éleny’ ‘oxygen’ was rejected). The language reform (nyelvújítás), however, definitely proved at least one property of the Hungarian language – its elasticity, and an almost infinite variability of suffixes and prefixes.

The reform of the spelling was a relatively simple business; by reaching a successful compromise, although not without fierce debates between the advocates of the historical principle and of the standard pronunciation, the reformers produced a spelling which, unlike that of English or French, caused little difficulty for schoolchildren and foreigners alike. In spite of the simplicity of the task, the reform of the spelling had its difficulties, epitomized by the so-called ‘Y war’. One group of reformers was inclined to employ the historical principle when the various suffixes could be recogized in the spelling (e.g. láthatja) the other party preferred the phonetical spelling (e.g. láthattya). Eventually the historical principle was accepted, and Hungarian spelling has seen only minor changes since the 1830s (e.g. the apostrophe was abolished, the compound letter ‘cz’ was deleted from the alphabet in 1910, except in family names, and certain rules regarding compound words were simplified).

From the 1790s onwards the use of the Hungarian language gradually gained ground in schools and establishments for higher education (a chair for Hungarian language and literature at Budapest University was established in 1792), as well as in scholarly works. By the 1830s no self-respecting scholar would publish a treatise in Latin, and the crowning success came in 1844 when a bill was passed in Parliament making the use of Hungarian legally binding in all public transactions.

The chief architect of the language reform, as has already been mentioned, was Ferenc Kazinczy (1759-1831). His career really started when he returned to public life after having spent 2387 days in prison for his involvement in the Jacobin conspiracy. Before his sentence Kazinczy, a nobleman by birth, was only a highly-educated county official whose chief aspiration was to establish and serve a refined literary taste mainly through translations. The long days in prison, with ample time for reading and thinking, released some hidden qualities in Kazinczy’s personality which compelled him to take the leading role on the literary scene.

He was pardoned in 1801 at the age of forty-two, and moved to a small place in north-eastern Hungary which he renamed Széphalom,*Fairhill. and which became a symbol and the chief stronghold of the language reform, for Kazinczy, although living alone there, soon become involved in an extensive correspondence with his fellow-intellectuals. Kazinczy was not a truly creative artist; although he attempted to write both poetry and prose, these writings lacked the inspiration of a creative genius and were rather the products of a refined mind with a cultivated taste (except for his personal reminiscences and prison diary, which are rich in subtle observations and belletristic details). He was at his best as a translator; he provided examples in his translations of his clearly formulated ideas about the language as a vehicle for sophisticated communication.

He was a true child of the eighteenth century; his thinking was characterized by bold ideas and a theoretical approach, but he apparently lacked any appreciation of historical continuity. In other words, he represented the radical spirit of the French Revolution in his approach to the reform of the Hungarian language. He upheld the view that language must be freed from obsolete conventions and that new laws can be artificially formed if they are in accordance with the genius of the language. Greatly influenced by Herder’s ideas, Kazinczy and his followers left no stone unturned in the universal search for new words and construction. Opposition to them came mainly from the Debrecen area, noted for its conservative thinking, although some writers in Transdanubia also opposed Kazinczy’s eagerness for innovation. The conservative intellectuals could not bring themselves to approve any outlandish influence in case it meant losing the old way of life (and traditional values) and, which they believed to be the only valid manifestation of national identity. In the endeavours of Kazinczy and his followers the conservatives saw an essentially foreign (i.e. German), and therefore evil, influence. Everybody professed to know that what was at stake was more than just how to coin a couple of thousand words – this modernization of the language was incompatible with their conservative thinking and thereby their whole way of life. As they feared, the language reform did indeed contribute to the final rejection of the age-old philosophy expressed by the aphorism ‘Extra Hungariam non est vita’.

Kazinczy’s programme was unfolded in his enormous correspondence. He established contact with every writer. He approached them in long letters, containing friendly chatter, discussion of new books, advice, and criticism. In a relatively short time he gained the recognition of practically all writers, who respected his opinion on most subjects, following his advice and happily accepting his verdicts. In short, he became an ‘enlightened despot’ in Hungarian letters; to be a Hungarian writer was to be a friend of Kazinczy. Kazinczy’s programme was more moderate than that of his predecessor, Kármán; he was convinced that the first and foremost need of Hungarian literary life was to absorb and imitate all the significant literary achievements of the culturally advanced nations. He realized that to accomplish his goal translations were of paramount importance, and this was the chief reason in Kazinczy’s mind for the language reform – to create a suitable medium for the transmission of the sophisticated literary products of other nations. It was not, however, an overambitious programme; he opposed originality, believing that a mastery in imitation had to be acquired first, because he held, not without reason, that originality could not manifest itself until the tools of the trade – language and style – were ready for those with original ideas. ‘We have merely begun the work of reform. Our life has had to be spent in clearing and preparing the path of progress. But the time draws nigh when the sons of the gods will appear and cover Hungary with glory. Still, if the path has been made ready for them, the merit is ours’, commented Kazinczy on his own role in bringing about ‘an elevated style’ (Fenntebb stylus).

By the 1820s the dictator’s grip on literary taste was slackening; the young generation of writers who became known as the Aurora Circle rejected his ideas and leadership as both old-fashioned and unacceptable. In other words, ‘the sons of the gods’ eagerly awaited by the ageing master appeared at last, led by the poet, Mihály Vörösmarty, but paid little respect to the master who had paved the way for them. Their appearance was the result of the emergence of Pest as the literary centre; no Hungarian writer had lived permanently in Pest until the beginning of the nineteenth century. (The earliest group of significance was the short-lived association of the testőr writers, centred in Vienna; it was followed by Kármán’s attempt to form a loose association of writers in Pest at the very end of the eighteenth century.)

The potentialities on which the Aurora Circle could rely to establish literary life in Pest grew out of changes in the social structure of the city. Till the early nineteenth century the city had been predominantly German-speaking; its emerging middle class, after the recapture of the twin city on the Danube, consisted mostly of German-speaking settlers; but then the national spirit penetrated the Hungarian upper class and the nobility, and they began to assert their nationality by using their native language more often in public, and by their dress. Contemporary foreign travellers frequently referred to the colourful Hungarian national dress to be seen on the fashionable streets of Pest and Buda. At the same time a process of assimilation started up among the middle class. Of course, these external signs of awakening nationalism and assimilation were not enough to change the intellectual climate of a city. The milestone in the radical change that took place in the course of half a century (1780-1830) were the establishing of various cultural institutions in Pest, all serving explicitly the Hungarian intellectual revival. The Royal Hungarian University of Nagyszombat was transferred to Pest in 1784; a Hungarian National Museum was founded in 1802; the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, advocated by Bessenyei, was founded in 1825, mainly as a result of a single-minded magnate, Count István Széchenyi, son of the founder of the National Museum.

Periodicals were established which proved not to be short-lived attempts (unlike Kármán’s Uránia or Magyar Museum, Kassa, 1788-92, edited by Kazinczy, Batsányi and Baróti Szabó), but became organs of a thriving cultural life. The paper Domestic Intelligence was founded by István Kultsár in 1805, complete with a literary supplement from 1817 to 1842 (Useful Entertainments). The leading cultural periodical Scholarly Miscellanea was started in 1817, and in the course of the next two decades it featured many prominent writers and scholars on its pages. Its reputation was quickly established; its quality was noticed abroad barely two years after it was first launched. ‘This journal, although it is confined to Hungary alone, obtains extraordinary success ... (and) proves that Hungary does not remain behind in the progress of civilization,’ claimed the contemporary London Monthly Magazine in 1819. The verdict on Useful Entertainments was again favourable: it was said to be ‘very carefully digested ... and the relation of the articles does honour to the taste of the editor’. Booksellers and publishers transferred their shops and offices to Pest and Buda, among them the University Press from Nagyszombat (founded in 1577) which was transferred to Buda in 1777. New publishing and bookselling firms were also established, or new branches opened.

Plans for a permanent Hungarian National Theatre had existed since the 1790s; however, it was a German theatre which was founded in 1812, for the opening of which Beethoven composed the incidental music. At the same time provincial companies were performing their plays in Hungarian in Pest, very often with great success, although the permanent National Theatre was not established until 1837. The success of the provincial companies and the increasing number of bookselling firms proved the existence of an educated public in Pest prepared to spend its money on Hungarian cultural commodities. With the appearance of a public whose cultural needs could be catered for only in Hungarian, the prerequisites of a healthy literary life were present. Furthermore, the demands of this public, as reflected by the bookselling and publishing trade, provided useful guidelines for the writers as to the tastes of their readers.

The writers attached to the new institutions were able to keep in touch, form groups, and later earn a living by their literary activity, thus achieving professional status, and above all losing their sense of isolation, which until then had been the greatest handicap of former Hungarian writers. The subject of paramount common interest for most of the writers was the language reform. Kazinczy’s views were represented in Pest by a group of writers, traditionally called ‘Kazinczy’s triad of Pest’. These writers acknowledged Kazinczy as their leader and championed his views, sometimes vehemently, against opposing trends. The nucleus of the group was formed at the time of the ‘Y war’ (Révai versus Verseghy. These writers accepted Révai’s historical principle and, as Kazinczy shared Révai’s opinion, he too became involved. When Kazinczy visited Pest on his way to Vienna in 1808 the loyalty of Horvát, Vitkovics, and Szemere to Kazinczy became almost unconditional. Among other things, they made ambitious literary plans for publishing a critical periodical and prepared the works of Dayka and Berzsenyi for publication. They established contact with Berzsenyi and Kölcsey – who lived in the countryside – both of whose writings were greatly appreciated by them. Horvát produced a literary almanac in which he published the writings of Kazinczy’s friends, and Vitkovics held literary evenings where not only were new works presented and discussed, but visiting writers always found a congenial atmosphere.

The oldest of the triad was Mihály Vitkovics (1778-1829), son of a Greek orthodox priest whose native language was Serbian. Vitkovics befriended Horvát during their university years: their common respect for the teachings of Révai brought them together. A part of Vitkovics’s original works was the result of his interest in the folk-poetry of the Serbians, highly fashionable in those years, thanks to Goethe’s favourable verdict on a collection published by Talvj. Vitkovics wrote several successful folk-song imitations, but his other poems, notably his love-poetry and poetic epistles (a form enjoying great contemporary popularity) also revealed his craftsmanship, while his native heritage contributed to the variety of his poetic forms. As a self-appointed host to the pro-Kazinczy writers, he secured the friendship of the younger generation of writers; Vörösmarty and other Aurora writers also frequented his meetings.

His friend István Horvát (1784-1846) studied law at the University of Pest and was influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. His main driving force, however, was his unconditional loyalty to the national movement; probably this accounts for his profound, though sometimes misguided, interest in the language and early history of his country. While this interest produced little of lasting value, as a professor at Pest University he directed his students’ attention to the problems of early Hungarian history, which was to be a cardinal factor in shaping the second phase of Hungarian nationalism. First it was the language reform on which the general interest focused, interest which had been partly generated by the ideas of the Enlightenment; then the attention of the intellectuals turned to the early history of the nation, coinciding with the Romantic movement, and providing a special feature of Hungarian Romanticism. Not that the Romantics in other countries lacked the inspiration of remote ages – ever since the ‘discovery’ of the Ossianic songs in the late eighteenth century, the semidarkness of early, unwritten history had fascinated both poets and writers – Tennyson’s interest, for example, in the Arthurian legends lasted till the 1880s, well over the peak of the Romantic movement.

The quest for a national identity was served by the investigation of the distant past. Several self-professed historians, in whose writings critical acumen was sadly lacking, often yielded to wishful thinking. Yet the discovery of the earliest relics of the national culture and traditions was the result of interest generated during the Romantic era. At the same time, the popular success of epic poetry dealing with the ancient glory (régi dicsőség) also illustrated the prevailing literary taste, which was shared by writers and readers alike – Vörösmarty was as fascinated by Horvát’s research as were his students, or the general public who gratefully admired and dutifully bought the contemporary flood of epics.

The third member of the triad Pá1 Szemere (1785-1861) came from a noble family, and had the usual education of the nobility: law. From the beginning of his literary career he was the most devoted follower of Kazinczy. He made a name for himself with his experiments in sonnet form, and his sonnets were justly received with acclaim; they were polished and meticulously executed, athough they seem somewhat affected to the modern reader. His record as a reformer of the language is impressive; following Kazinczy’s principles and constantly seeking his approval, he coined a fair number of words, without which it would be impossible to write criticism – among other things – in Hungarian now. The very word irodalom (literature) is one of his lucky strikes. When coining words he revealed boldness, happy instinct, and sure taste; his driving force was to achieve a sonorous effect. It was Szemere who, with Kölcsey, poked fun at those opponents of Kazinczy who attacked their master in Harangue (1813) for the alleged excesses of the innovators (Answer to the Harangue, 1815).

Kazinczy’s supporters included János Kis (1770-1846) whose father was a serf in Transdanubia. A Protestant pastor who eventually rose to the office of the Transdanubian episcopate, Kis was a faithful and loyal satellite in Kazinczy’s ‘solar system’. His own poetry reflected his mentor’s taste well enough, but he lacked originality and power. His loyalty was acknowledged and rewarded by the Kazinczy circle; Kölcsey wrote a flattering piece of criticism about his poetry. Kölcsey’s view, a misplaced enthusiasm for the perfect pupil as it were, nevertheless illustrated the influence of Kazinczy’s magic circle – partisan views were one of the most noticeable features of the newly-born literary life. Kazinczy’s camp also included László Ungvárnémeti Tóth (1788-1820), who had been educated in the classics, particularly the Greek authors; his own poetry revealed the marked influence of Pindar and Anacreon, and his knowledge of prosody left little to be desired. There is currently a revival of interest in his poetry, the chief promoter of Ungvárnémeti’s popularity being Sándor Weöres, one of the major poets of our own day, who has found much congeniality in the delightful lines of the earlier poet.