Hungarian Dialetcs

The best summary of certain characteristic features of the Hungarian language is given by Géza Bárczi in A magyar nyelv életrajza (The Biography of the Hungarian Language). The Hungarian vernacular and literary language developed on the basis of the spoken language and unity of dialects, so that folklore developed through the “folk language”. It preserved the major inflectional and syntactical features of its Finno-Ugric origin, even through the thousands of years of its separation from the Ugric community. The significant majority of its stock of root-words developed and became enriched from the word stock of the Ugric period. Its vowel system is characterized by colourfulness aided by the variety of vowels, the sharp differentiation of long and short vowels, and the diphthongs. The richness of the consonant system is also worthy of attention. The Hungarian language avoids the excessive clustering of consonants and the monotony of vowel harmony. The system of accentuation emphasizing only the first syllable does not make cadence oscillate very much, but because of the flexibility of the language, Hungarian is one of the few living languages in which metrical poetry is possible with a cadence almost as perfect as in Greek or Latin. Through thousands of years the Hungarian language continually expanded and enriched the word stock of the Finno-Ugric original language without changing the inflectional and syntactical character; foreign words were incorporated into it, as into others, but this did not disturb the unity of the literary and vernacular language that developed after the 16th century. Furthermore, the word-building ability of the Hungarian language rests on its very rich system of suffixes and its tendency to create compound words. The entire character of the language (its system of verb conjugation and possessive conjugation, the system of verbal prefixes, etc.) is distinguished by an attempt at a great degree of conciseness and a synthetic creation of language. Thus, for example, certain conjugated verb forms can express time, mood, and aspect, and can also point out the person of the subject and the designated {423.} object. Along with its brevity and conciseness it remains clear and unambiguous. More recently, the analytical view of language, which favours subordinate clauses, has been showing up in Hungarian. So much for the language in a nutshell.

Besides the phonetic, inflectional, and syntactical peculiarities, the language and dialect of certain regions are differentiated by characteristic words, or by their characteristic meanings. Although certain elements of the dialects are usually clearly divided, a characteristic “transitional zone” generally exists among the individual dialects in which elements of two neighbouring dialects are mixed.

The Hungarian language belongs to the Finno-Ugric language family (cf. p. 26), but it could not have been uniform even at the time of its separation from it. Since at that period the way of life of the ancient Magyars involved dispersion over a large area, this separation would have led as a matter of course to the development of linguistic differences. Naturally, this is extremely hard to ascertain at a distance of many thousands of years, but numerous data testify to it.

Linguistic science has taken only the first steps in this area, but we can already refer to several basic observations. It is common knowledge that the Finno-Ugric consonant k generally becomes h in the Hungarian if followed by a velar vowel: an example is Ostyak kul, Cheremiss kol, Finnish kala, Hungarian hal (fish). However, this phonetic law, though widely proven, does not apply in every instance. For example, the Hungarian verb huny (close the eyes) also has a dialectical version, kum, with identical meaning. Its Vogul equivalent is kőń, Zynan kúnni, Votyak kiń, Finnish kyyny. The earlier sound, therefore, was preserved in some of the Hungarian dialects, at least in a few words, most likely because even at that time there may have been certain dialectical differences in the ancient Magyar language.

Another phonetic phenomenon points to the groups of Finno-Ugric peoples the Magyars came into contact with even after separation. In the Hungarian as well as in the Permian languages, in the case of the Finno-Ugric m, n, nj, (Magyar ny – ń) + consonant, the m, n, nj, that is, the nasal consonants, largely disappear, for example, the Hungarian ág (branch), Votyak vug, Finnish onke. This indicates that some of the ancient Magyars who separated from the Finno-Ugric peoples must have been in some loose contact with certain Permian peoples.

The dual form of certain words suggests that among the ancient Magyars a dialect using s must have existed along with the prevailing dialect that used sz, and that generally the former succumbed in the struggle for survival between the two. Here are a few examples: szőni (to weave): sövény (hedge), szem (eye): sömör (ringworm), szenved (suffer): senyved (languish), szőr (hair): sörény (mane), ország (country): uraság (noble), etc.

We know considerably more of the Hungarian dialects from the time following the Conquest, especially from the 11th century. In fact, with the development of settlements, we can even relate them to specific places. Thus the use of í is a characteristic feature of some of the Hungarian dialects. It is possible to show the appearance of the sound é along with í in certain words and affixes very early: néz (look), természet {424.} (nature), versus níz, termíszet. The first Hungarian Bible translation in print, János Sylvester: Újtestamentum magyar nyelven (The New Testament in the Hungarian Language), Újsziget 1541, already reflects this dialectal peculiarity in a developed form.

By the end of the Middle Ages the characteristic phonetic phenomenon of the southern dialects, the use of the ö, had also begun to solidify. In certain areas the change e → ö took place in a great part of the words containing the sound ö, e.g. kërëszt (cross), szëdër (mulberry), gërëndë (beam) versus köröszt, szödör, göröndö. This change can be demonstrated primarily in the southern part of the dialectical region. However, its expansion toward the north must have been greater at one time, before it was limited by the depopulation caused by the Turkish occupation (16th and 17th centuries) and the resettlement that followed it. Perhaps the existence of distant linguistic islands using ö is also an outcome of this history.

We can find links between certain dialectical phenomena and localities as early as the Middle Ages. Such is the -nott, -nól, -ni triple suffix. This can be added to proper names and names of occupations. Its relations can be traced all the way to the Ugric period. Their meaning is as follows: bírónott: bírónál, bíróéknél (at the judge’s, at the judge’s family’s); bírónól: bírótól, bíróéktől (from the judge, from the judge’s family); bíróni: bíróhoz, bíróékhoz (to the judge, to the judge’s family). In the past, as now, this pertained primarily to the north-eastern dialectical region.

Historical dialectal research is demonstrating and outlining more and more completely the characteristics of the predecessors of today’s Hungarian dialects. It has also concluded that among the dialects of the more recent and remoter past, as well as in the present, the peoples of the two most distant parts of the Hungarian linguistic region, e.g. the Csángós of Moldavia and the Hungarians around Felsőőr, can understand each other, so that conversation does not pose any particular difficulty–apart from the use of a few unusual words, although the context can often facilitate comprehension. This uniformity of the Hungarian language permitting intelligibility through the entire linguistic region had already attracted the notice of Italian travellers of the 16th century. It contrasts with German, French, Spanish and Italian dialects, in which deviations are so great that they can practically be counted as separate languages, a state of affairs that in many cases made comprehension wellnigh impossible.

This fact also played an important role in the development of the literary language. No single dialect became the Hungarian literary language, as for example did Castilian in Spanish, or Tuscan in Italian, or the language around Paris in French. At the most we can say today that one or another of the Hungarian dialects stands closer to or farther from the literary language. Undoubtedly, the regional language of the Abaúj-Zemplén area is most in accord with the literary language, but perhaps this is because it occupies something of a central position among Hungarian dialects. Its dispersion was also aided by the fact that the first complete Protestant translation of the Bible (Gáspár Károlyi, 1590), and the life work of the great literary figure of the early 19th century, Ferenc Kazinczy (1759–1831), both reflected this dialect.

{425.} The beginnings of the formation of the Hungarian literary language can be traced back to the 16th century, when the writers, poets, and even the scribes of official documents and private letters began to use Hungarian instead of Latin. Naturally, at the beginning, the linguistic norm, an important part of which, spelling, was more or less a matter of habit, but especially from the 17th century, spelling gradually began to take on a definite form by separating more and more from the dialects and even by attempting to avoid certain of their characteristics (the latter’s frequent use of í, ö, etc.). The wider proliferation of printing played a very great part in the development of the literary language, which also affected the dialects primarily through religious literature.

Literature gained a new momentum in the second half of the 18th century, the period of European Enlightenment. At this time it became apparent that no matter how melodious and flexible the Hungarian language might be, it had no words for the expression of numerous, especially new, concepts, objects, activities, so that as a consequence it had to borrow these from foreign languages. This was the time when the language reform movement, initiated by writers and poets, which enriched the Hungarian language with a great many new words, began. It is true that among these novel words many were rejected by common usage, while errors crept into the formation of others. By the end of the language reform movement in the first half of the 19th century, the literary language had reached maturity. This constantly growing and changing version of the tongue with its working vocabulary and grammatical structure is generally used today throughout the entire Hungarian linguistic region.

However, we must point out that the literary language in its growth and present form did not develop independently from the dialects. The greatest Hungarian writers and poets such as Ferenc Kazinczy, Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, Mihály Vörösmarty, János Arany, Sándor Petőfi, Mór Jókai, Kálmán Mikszáth and many others incorporated their own dialectal peculiarities in their works, and many of these found their way into the literary language. One of the sources of renewal of the literary language even today is the language spoken by the people. Thus from the 1930s the so-called populist writers have contributed many dialectal elements to the literary language.

Today the literary language, fixed in dictionaries and in its fundamental rules of grammar, is the standard against which we can measure the dialects. We shall use it in trying to define several characteristic large area groups on the basis of grammar and vocabulary.

Among the phonetic characteristics of the western Transdanubian dialects, instead of the vernacular ú, ű, í, short u, ü, i are generally used; and l is prominent–that is, it is pronounced instead of ly. The l that closes the syllable is often dropped. As regards vocabulary, Transdanubia is one of the most colourful large dialectal areas, where, in addition to the internal development, words of south Slav and German origin also appear.

The northern (Palots) dialectal region encompasses the greater part of the Hungarian linguistic region in the north. Its most characteristic phonic feature, unique in the area, is the å sound, made without the {426.} rounding of the lip, and the closely associated labial ã. Here, however, the use of the l is rather rare. From the standpoint of vocabulary, they generally keep contact with the northern part of the Great Plain. This has historical reasons. Mainly words of Slovak origin appear here, especially more recently, among their regional words.

The most characteristic peculiarity of the central part of the eastern dialectal region is the use of í. The lengthening of the syllable-closing l, r, j prevails, as it does over a much larger area. The pronunciation of ly as j is general, and other pronunciations are extremely rare. Closed and open e are not differentiated. This dialectal region, especially on the north-eastern areas, is closely connected to the Hungarian dialects of Transylvania, as can be easily seen in its vocabulary.

The most important phonic characteristic of the southern dialectal region is the profuse use of ö, which runs through the larger part of the southern linguistic region. The use of the l has become rare in this area. It also shows the least independence in its vocabulary. We can find here the characteristic regional words of south Transdanubia, or of the north, or of some parts of the eastern dialectal regions. The settlement history of the area explains this phenomenon. This area suffered most during the Turkish occupation, and afterwards a large part of it was resettled by people from different parts of the Hungarian linguistic territory.

The dialects of Transylvania can be divided into two large groups. One belongs to the Mezőség, to which can be related the dialect of Kalotaszeg. The Székely dialects are located in a homogeneous block at the lower slopes and valleys of the eastern Carpathians. It is difficult to summarize the extremely complicated and varied dialects of Transylvania according to homogeneous phonetic characteristic, because on this large territory the Hungarians live in numerous linguistic islands, restricted to small areas. This is why they have preserved many archaic features, while more recently Rumanian influence has appeared, especially in new cultural words.

There are transitional dialectal types among the large comprehensive dialectal groups, which have taken on many features from the regional dialect. Such are south Somogy, the area around Eger, around Hernád, along the northern part of the Danube, etc.

Fig. 195. Map of Hungarian dialects.

Fig. 195. Map of Hungarian dialects.
20th century

{427.} Linguistic islands are smaller units which have broken away from their mother language block and survive in a foreign language environment. Such is, for example, the linguistic island of Felsőőr, surrounded by Austrians, or the Csángós of Moldavia, who live among Rumanians. We can find many such linguistic islands in Transylvania, we can trace some in Slavonia, and in areas of Slovakia.

Dialectal islands came about through internal migration, primarily after the Turkish wars, when the resettled Hungarian population moved into an environment that spoke a different Hungarian dialect. Thus, among others, the Palots and Yazygians settled between the Danube and Tisza. Many people also came here from the southern part of Transdanubia. These people preserved part of their linguistic peculiarities even in the new environment, while at the same time they borrowed many characteristics from their neighbours. Such migration could also be witnessed during the Second World War, when smaller or larger groups settled into the south-eastern part of Transdanubia, from the southern part of Slovakia and from Bukovina of Rumania.

The question arises of just how closely the borders of ethnic groups (cf. pp. 34–47) coincide with those of dialect groups. We cannot answer this question unequivocally, since the separation of dialects takes place primarily from the phonetic point of view, and such separations do not necessarily coincide with the border lines of ethnic phenomena. In spite of this, we can find a good many smaller dialectal types which have also been identifed as ethnic groups. Such dialectical groups are in Hetés, Őrség, Kiskunság, Csallóköz, and Szigetköz. But we can to a certain degree look upon the Palotses as an example. Even ethnology draws the borderlines of this group in many cases on the basis of dialectal phonetic data. Although future research will have significant tasks in this area, it is already certain that among the characterizations of ethnic groups, dialects must also be taken into account.

Hungarian dialects, because they are bequeathed not in writing but by word of mouth, have preserved more archaisms than the standard language. This observation is especially true for folk poetry, which, because of the more or less fixed form, better preserved linguistic archaisms, the different idioms, and not infrequently extinct regional words. Furthermore, the language of folk poetry tends to carry some archaisms at the time of its inception. Especially verses of folk customs, idioms, proverbs and children’s verses and rhymes have preserved a great many early features.

Hungarian dialects are still alive today, with more or less intensity. If, for example, one walks along the streets of Szeged in south Hungary, one immediately hears the most characteristic phonetic phenomenon, the use of ö, which is proudly assumed even by the intellectuals who come from this region. In Debrecen, however, where we can hear the use of í and the diphthongs, intellectual circles try to keep free from this. Among the Palotses even town folk differentiate in their language the å sound we have spoken about above. On the basis of the language of people interviewed in the course of a television or radio report, it is possible to tell the region from which they come. Nevertheless, dialectal characteristics are fading out of the language. The main reason for this is {428.} the growing literacy, which naturally supports literary usage. The school, the film, and the theatre also have a similar effect, but primarily the role of radio and television is extraordinary in this respect. However, in spite of the levelling influence of the last decades, dialect will remain for a very long time to come as a characteristic trait of certain regions.

The vernacular provides for the wealth, beauty, and strength of Hungarian folk poetry. In the past and present, students of Hungarian folk poetry have esteemed the power and tenderness of the vernacular very highly. Oral tradition has preserved folk poetry through the centuries; the power of the word is inseparable from the poetry of the people. Folk poetry is indebted to the language not only for the words, and for the words of the dialects that provide new colours in an unending stock of words, but also for the fine tones of phonetics almost beyond analysis as well as for the flexibility of the language which makes it adaptable to any genre, any subject, as an evocative, enlivening force. The lamentations of the wife of Mason Kelemen of the ballad can be heard in the language just as much as the soothing quality of a love song, the dirge of a soldier, the defiant song meant for the death of the outlaw, and the fiery verve of a dancing song. Similarly, we can hear at times the leisurely measures of a joke. The serenity, the unruffled superiority characteristic of the peasant radiates from the sentences, and the enchanting wonders of the fairy tales are made homely, turned into acceptable reality by the Hungarian language. It is the language of the people, the basis of a national literary language, a secure and inexhaustible treasure house. It is also the mainstay of folk poetry.