Monday, 1 April 2013

Goodbye, linguistic cousins?

Helsingin sanomat, the main newspaper in Finland, published an interesting article about linguistics getting political in Hungary: The right wing Hungarians deny that Finnish and Hungarian are language relatives, since it doesn't fit their political agenda.

Since there is no English translation, I'll provide a pirate translation below. The original article is here (published 30.3.2013, written by Maria Manner).

Finnish is no longer a good language relative to Hungarian

Many Hungarians don't want to believe any more, that Finnish and Hungarian are language relatives. The right wing parties are writing a new, glorious history for Hungary, and the Finnish nation is considered too backwards to fit it.

"The claims about Finnish and Hungarian being language relatives are nonsense. It's just communist propaganda! In Finland, the school books have been revised and the old theory removed."

These claims surface frequently in today's Hungary. Online discussion boards and bookstores offer lot of information about Hungarian not being a Finno-Ugric language after all.

Finns, who take the relationship between Finnish and Hungarian as granted, are confused. What is happening to our language cousin?

After the fall of communism, the alternative theory has stricken through in Hungary, explains Johanna Laakso, a Finnish professor of Finno-Ugric studies from the university of Vienna.

"The Finno-Ugric heritage is seen as a plot of Vienna and then Moscow, an attempt to humiliate the Hungarians.", she says.

According to a popular view, Hungarians descend from glorious eastern warrior nations, Scythians or Hunns, and ancient high cultures, for example Sumerians. Even Hungarian students who have just enrolled into university to study Finno-Ugric studies might believe this.

"Even in universities, we need to put a lot of effort to get rid of these false views. My Hungarian colleagues say that many people believe in these alternative theories.", explains Laakso.

The relationship between Finnish and Hungarian was discovered in the late 17th century. A German doctor, Martin Fogel, found similarities in vocabulary and structures of the two languages. Hungarian János Sajnovics established a foundation to Finno-Ugric linguistics hundred years later.

According to modern linguistics, Finno-Ugric languages derive from the same base language which was spoken 4000 - 6000 years ago near the river Ural. Since then, the languages have diverged so much, that the similarities can usually be observed only by trained linguists.

In the beginning, Hungarians didn't think highly of their northern relatives. Since the Middle Ages, they have regarded themselves as descendants of Hunns. The northern nations were seen as "wildlings stinking of fish" who didn't have a glorious history of warfare, says Laakso. The Finnish nation was seen as too backwards.

During the socialist era, Hungarian being a Finno-Ugric language was not questioned, and the alternative views were kept alive only by immigrant Hungarians.

When the communism and its truths fell, the linguistic relationship started to look like communist propaganda, too.

The alternative science is not only alive in Hungary. In Finland, Kalevi Wiik has developed a theory that the ancient Finns were the main nation of northern Europe and their language was the bridge language, lingua franca, of the ancient nations. According to Laakso, the position of pseudo science is particularly strong in Hungary, though.

Hungarians are now rewriting the history, not only based on science, but also on patriotic emotions.

The right wing extremist party, Jobbik, has demanded that the origins of the Hungarian language need to be re-evaluated. The popular right wing nationalist party, Fidesz, is sitting between two stools: Part of the politicians flirt with the alternative history. Two weeks ago, a Fidesz politican said in the parliament that there is no commonly accepted theory supporting the relation between Finnish and Hungarian.

"The real Hungarian linguists don't question the Finno-Ugric origin. But politicians, artists, and many others don't want to believe in it, but instead they support a new, more romantic version of the Hungarian history", says Marianne Bakró-Nagy, a professor from Szeged, Hungary.

The people longing for a glorious history try to get support from genetics.

For example, the Finns are genetically closer to people in the Netherlands than in Hungary.

But the language and the genes don't follow the same routes.

"These people are not interested in the fact that being genetic relatives has nothing to do with being language relatives", says Bakró-Nagy.

Hungarian doesn't have close language relatives. Maybe that's why Hungarians have difficulties to understand, what being language relatives means.

A Finn can compare Finnish to Estonian, meänkieli dialects and the Karelian language, and that makes it easier to understand the different degrees of being language relatives.

The most vocal opponents of the Finno-Ugric heritage are sending hate mail to researchers. Laakso says that many Hungarian Finno-Ugric researchers are afraid of negative reactions, and try not to mention their field of study when meeting new people.

People have also called Laakso a racist and said she's just being envious.

"Many messages I get are clearly from people who feel hurt. It's the same thing with Creationists: if the science doesn't support their holy world view, it must be part of an evil conspiracy.", she says.

A Hungarian linguist, László Fejes, says he gets feedback from the opponents of the Finno-Ugric heritage all the time. He hosts Nyelv és Tudomány, a portal for linguistics and science and has tried to get rid of the false views. Some time ago, Fejes asked his colleague Laakso to send him a pile of Finnish school books, to show that the Finno-Ugric heritage has not been abandoned by Finns.

"It's an old and widely spread legend, but before us, nobody has shown school books to the public.", Fejes explains via e-mail.

There's no consensus on what's the origin of the Hungarian language, according to the new theory.

"The anti-Finno-Ugrics don't seem to be able to decide if they're from Egypt, Mesopotamia or the Philippines. Everything goes, as long as it's not Finno-Ugric", says Laakso.

Annele Apajakari, who worked for the Finnish Navy in Hungary, met the language relative problem often. She says it's mostly a difference between generations.

"Hungarians 35 years old or older who went to school in the old system, know Kalevala (the Finnish national epic) and Väinämöinen (its main hero).", she says.

The younger Hungarians have different views.

"Once I said that our languages are related, and people laughed at me. A good friend of mine, who is well educated and 26 years old said, that no, Hungarians descend from the Schythians, an Asian warrior nation."

Hungarians don't have anything against Finns, though - on the contrary. Apajakari says that Hungarians still think very positively of the Finns.

Our common linguistic roots just don't happen to fit the new patriotic history, since there are more glorious options on the table.


  1. A very subtle April Fool's joke?

    1. 2 days early? Very subtle indeed, I would say.

  2. I hope it's only the lack of proper information, and that this collective psychosis among Hungarians will end, when such information becomes available in the Internet:

    1. Your referred article was truly "enlightening". I especially enjoined the "scientific" references to the alternative theories, and their "in-depth analysis". Good luck with your "open minded" and "free of politics" researches in the future....

  3. Said raving lunatics are the (tiny) minority. I haven't met anyone reasonable who took said right-wing people seriously. They certainly have a predisposition for manufacturing theories about the Noble Origins of my folk just like all the proto-Nazi nutjobs have everywhere (of course, about their folk in turn : ). There are also raving lunatics who think that Hungarians came from Sirius (?) and this is proven by the fact that our DNA twists (?) seven times (?), which is just as many times as photons twist (?) on their way from Sirius to here (no, I am not making this up).

    As for the languages being related, I'd much rather defer that to people who are more knowledgeable and more interested than me. Since it does not have much practical use in my life, I tend not to dwell on it too much (there a numbers of similar words in Finnish and Hungarian, though, so the theory at least makes sense)

    The example sentences in the above paper were not that convincing to me, mainly because they say "well, this is how this sentence would look in Hungarian if only Hungarian was spoken in the Urals." Except that it's not. I am pretty sure I could twist, say, Somali (an agglutinative language) so that it has a similar structure. Furthermore, it may be that the list of suffixes at the beginning of page 3 is correct, but I could not really figure out which suffixes they actually are.

    1. On some level, I like the theory that Hungarians are from Sirius. It makes some weird sense, Hungarians being so unique, culturally and linguistically.

  4. The reason is that it is extremly hard to link let's say the Hungarian culture at the 9 century, to any finno-ugric cultures at a time even to khanty/mansy..., and it is way more easier to link to Turk, and this creates a strange contrast. Hungarian at the nine century were animal shepherd/warriors, even our oldest legends are diferent, only common thing I found is shamanism...