Linguistic misunderstandings in a Hungarian context

On a Sunday in the middle of the summer not much is going on, and therefore I’m free to move away from everyday politics and venture into something I find equally exciting. Some history and some linguistics. Well, it is not very high level linguistics I’m talking about but rather the difficulties of understanding the true meanings of words, especially in a foreign language.

By way of background I should mention that Rui Tavares is the latest target of the Orbán government and its satellite media. He is right up there near Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai. I happen to think that he’s in pretty good company since I view both Gyurcsány and Bajnai as among the best Hungarian politics has to offer today. Ignorance and bias are the charges most frequently leveled against Tavares. A reporter for HírTV thought that he could unequivocally prove in a single stroke that Tavares is both ignorant and biased.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel

Magyar Nemzet triumphantly announced that, interestingly enough, “the discriminatory” Dutch constitution doesn’t seem to bother Rui Tavares even as he tries to find fault with the Hungarian Basic Laws. It turned out that this information about the allegedly faulty Dutch constitution came from a HírTV  reporter. Armed with this “damaging” passage, the reporter went off to Brussels to confront Rui Tavares, who didn’t have a ready “yes or no” answer about the passage in question. The reporter was convinced that he now had proof positive that Tavares, in his zeal to condemn the Hungarian constitution, had turned a blind eye to the discriminatory Dutch constitution. Both Magyar Nemzet and HírTV were elated.

There was one very serious problem with this discovery. Our reporter’s English left something to be desired. The sentence in question in the Dutch constitution reads in English translation: “The right of every Dutch national to a free choice of work shall be recognized.” The Hungarian reporter thought that the word “national” here referred to “those of Dutch nationality” and after all, he argued, there are citizens of the Netherlands who are not of Dutch extraction. But “national” as a noun in English means “citizen” or “subject.”

By the way, the title of  this particular episode of  his TV show “Célpont” was “Tavaris és Tavares,” a stupid pun on “tovarish” or “comrade” in Russian. I don’t think that HírTV ever corrected the false statements about the Dutch constitution. Those who want to take the trouble to watch this episode will have a fair idea of the quality and tone of HírTV.

Well, this was an error committed by a Hungarian interpreting the meaning of a non-Hungarian word. But it can happen the other way around as well. Here is a good example from 1989.

This time we have to go back to the career of Zoltán Bíró, the anti-Semitic literary historian who was just named to head a new research institute that is supposed to rewrite the history of regime change in Hungary. A few days ago I mentioned him and dwelt briefly on his political career. At this point I quoted Zoltán Ripp who wrote an excellent book on the change of regime covering the years between 1987 and 1990. In it he mentions that Bïró had a significant role to play in reviving the old cleavage and enmity between the “népi-nemzeti” and “urbanista” traditions. As I’ve often said, rendering “népi-nemzeti” into English is well-nigh impossible. In any case, the New York Times article which I couldn’t find translated these two troublesome words as “populist-nationalist.” And with it came a huge misunderstanding.

János Avar, the well-known journalist and an expert on U.S. politics and history, e-mailed me right after the appearance of my post on Bíró. He called my attention to an article he wrote on this very subject in 2007. He did find The New York Times article, but because Bíró and others at the time gave the date as September 28 I never suspected that the article in question actually appeared only on October 25. Avar had more patience and was more thorough than yours truly.

The American reporter for the NYT in Budapest at the time gave a fair description of the by-now famous gathering in Lakitelek in September 1987 and mentioned that those who gathered there were “népiesek” and “nemzetiek,” which he rendered as “populists and nationalists.” The Hungarians on the spot had to be the ones who tried to explain to the American the correct meaning of these words.  According to Avar, “népies” is a mirror translation of the German “völkisch” which recently has taken on a fairly sinister meaning. My favorite German on-line dictionary says that “völkisch” means nationalist, nationalistic, ethnic, racist, voelkisch. However, it is certainly not “populist,” which we use to mean appealing to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people.

The völkisch/narodnik/népies Hungarians were up in arms and immediately suspected that the article was the result of some kind of Jewish conspiracy of the urbanists who were trying to blacken their names in the West. They suspected that the article was not really written by the reporter for The New York Times but was “dictated” by one of the Jewish members of the Democratic Opposition. They were convinced that the words “populist” and “nationalist” were code words for anti-Semites.

As János Avar rightly points out in his 2007 article,  neither “Jewish” nor “anti-Semitism” was, as in Hungary, a taboo word in the United States. If the reporter had been told that there was an anti-Semitic tinge to the gathering, he would not have hesitated to say so.

Don’t think that this was just a fleeting episode that is not worth bothering about today. Bíró as well as other right-wing and anti-Semitic nationalists continue to bring up the allegedly unpatriotic and antagonistic behavior of the Democratic Opposition toward themselves, the true patriots. In their eyes the urbanists were not true Hungarians. They wanted to imitate the West instead of returning to true Hungarian roots. Since there were a fair number of urbanists who were of Jewish extraction, the völkisch crowd found its domestic enemies. It was perhaps Bíró’s and some of his cohorts’ bad conscience that assigned unintended meanings to the words “populist” and “nationalist.”


  1. “Völkisch” is a German term nowadays used only by neonazis. It never had the meaning of populist (contrary to what you can read in Wikipedia). But it always had a connotation of marginalising people who didn’t fulfill a fictional canon of a certain pure-bred ethnicity such as blond, blue-eyed and white skinned, for example. The term includes a tendency to condemn everything as foreign, not belonging and threating that didn’t seem völkisch for whatever reason: religion, skin colour, education, political orientation, etc.

    It is no coincidence that the main nazi newspaper was the “Völkische Beobachter”, a hate-preaching weekly, then daily publication.

    On the word “völkisch” a whole edifice of myth-building was created about the Germanic race and its supposed superiority. It assumed an impossible purity of “breed”. As far as I know, only Iceland has a genetic pool that seems to be above-average homogeneous. But that never applied to Germany.

    So “völkisch” was and remains an unfortunate myth created by blockheads.

  2. @Minusio “Populist” was certainly a mistranslation of “népi” or “népies” but it isn’t “völkisch” either. I like narodnik the best although I notice that it is normally rendered in English as “populist.” I think that is wrong. The “people” (narod) in those days in Russia meant the peasantry. And so did in Hungary.

  3. There is another term that is used by tye same people that use “völkisch”: Blood and Soil (“Blut und Boden”). The Wikipedia entry does a good job at explaining it. Here is the beginning:

    “Blood and Soil (German: Blut und Boden) refers to an ideology that focuses on ethnicity based on two factors, descent blood (of a folk) and homeland/Heimat (soil). It celebrates the relationship of a people to the land they occupy and cultivate, and it places a high value on the virtues of rural living.”

    Methinks this applies to the Orbánites as well, because everybody knows that Orbán hates Budapest or urban life. Why else would he want to expand his latifundia?

  4. As Gati described, there have been many malignant tumors in the Hungarian past and present.
    Many decent Hungarians are rejecting this diagnosis out of false pride.
    Not our sacred nation!
    Who is not afraid of the correct diagnosis, will be a hero of tomorrow.
    How much more will we have to wait for the tomorrow?

  5. HiHiTV

    “Those who want to take the trouble to watch this episode will have a fair idea of the quality and tone of HírTV.”

    Truly astonishing — and profoundly embarassing: Is this puerile pap — hardly at the level of a Pioneers’ camper skit — really what Hungarians are devoutly consuming in their state-controlled media?

    I hope someone is reliably archiving all this for posterity. (I certainly wouldn’t trust Fidesz to faithfully preserve the database. The Fidesz years will be a laughing stock across the ages — as it already is in Brussels and Strasbourg.)

  6. Btw, Article 19.3 of the Dutch Constitution is not about the right to work, it’s about free choice… Meaning it’s against forced labour, and limiting the extent of various dispositions such as abusive non-competition clauses in labour contracts, employment transfers etc.

    Incidentally, does anybody know what happened to the “közmunkaprogram”, the mandatory public works projects?

  7. Marcel De: The Dutch Constitution is actually a Basic Law (Grondwet) and there ends to comparison with the Hungarian Basic Law. The Dutch Basic Law describes more than it actually sets the norm. It gives the framework of the Dutch Law system, but does not tell them how to do it. In Dutch there is a good website, unfortunate, I do not know how you can translate this via goggle translation into English or other languages.

    As to the közmunkaprogram I believe it is in full swing, and in some instances elected polgarmesters use these people to protest against something or somebody, for example,

  8. @Ron : surely there are several legal traditions in Europe, and that of the Netherlands isn’t the same as Hungary’s. Yet I would not say that the text ‘describes’, but rather than the text sets general directions – as opposed to being an ensemble of norms of positive law. However, it is still the highest text by which the compatibility of treaties is judged.

    Thanks for the link about the demonstration in Szigetvár. I would laugh if it wasn’t so pitiful.

  9. Within the realm of linguistic usage /misusage /abusage /and the willful and intentional abuse of language to suit a purported need lies the gamut of the evil human attitude of provocation and then laying low to jump at the slightest opportunity for the creation of mayhem and further disinformation,. From that point on excalation is the most likely option.

    In Hungarian the notion of right and wrong, that is, of the stark contrast between black and white and nothing in-between is a legendary extension of hungarian logic.

    It is embedded in the most simple and most often used phrase in the language: “Én nekem igazam van” which translates in essence “I am right”. HOWEVER the phrase in hungarian cloaks itself into legalese: Word for word it would be translated as “I hold the truth”.

    The above is indicative of the concept that in all arguments only one person can be the holder of “the truth”.

    This Hungarian notion does not belong in the enlightened world of today. It harks back to the middle ages where it was narrowly believed that there was only one right religion to uphold, one truth, one right and everything else was heaped together as the wrong, the bad and the rotten. And at least each individual who belonged to one group though his thinking was the only right one.

    We have over the years moved into understanding a higher level of consciousness, a many-dimensional world of many perspectives.

    The Zen thinkers with whom I identify tend to think that every issue has more than two options, and those are all dependent on your individual perspective.

    If you’ve been up into the highest peaks of the Alps, or the Himalayas you definitely will know what I am talking about. Its all a question of perspective.

    Well, liiitle Hungary has limited perpectives (in terms of height) and the paradigm of conceptional latitude is also known in very limited circles.

    Lets just put it simply: Concepts, panoramas of possibilities, flexibility of thought and interpretation are limited by both language, historical patterns of thought, and a give-and take and of understanding of one-another’s relative position.

    The Hungarian indiscrimitate use accusatory modes of hazaáruló, (traitor), of “rablo” (robber) and other negative patterns tend to finish up in bar-brawl type “fisticuffs” or worse. Often littering the media with unseemly and stinking verbiage.

    We currently have beings in power whose use of language is unlimited by conventions, rules of behavior and a disregard for the notion of an attempt at the search for truth whaich could bring about win-win situations that are the conceptual norm of “Western” society.

    We have a war for what little wealth is to be had between those that had it before and the “nouveau up-and-comning” riche of today. The latter in its warfare is making very effective use of language and the basic Hungarian notions of right and wrong that have been handed down throguh former feudal generations.

    Its a revolution to the dark ages just when we are at the brink of finally accessing Hungary’s long-held dream of becoming a solid part and parcel of the West.

    Trianon was dashed hopes. Now that Hungary is finally becoming re-wedded to the old pre Trianon portions of Hungary, BRAVO! our leaders are excluding us again of our rightful goodies.

    All of this couched in ancient linguistic and old historic logic that not effective any more.

    Let me know if you agree or not in the overall notion of my argument.

    With best regards to any and all spectrum readers,

    Andy S.

  10. @andyomos: I think you are carrying these linguistic arguments a bit too far… how about Hungarians being the champions of gender equality as the language does not differentiate between he and she in the third person? (and other languages that do have the distinction manifest deep-seated sexism?) Now, we know that Hungarian society is pretty sexist, actually, only this particular feature of the language doesn’t reflect that…

  11. @andysomos: Also, as a Hungarian speaker, the English phrase “I am right” sounds a lot more unquestionable to my ears than “I have the truth” (Nekem igazam van). if you “have” something, that is not a permanent condition (it can be taken away), but if you “are” something, that sounds pretty unquestionable to me.

  12. @An To my American ears, it sounds different: “I am right”( about this particular thing.) “I have the truth” (“truth” being an enormous global and eternal quality). In the first instance, a lower case ‘r’ and in the second, a capital ‘T’.

  13. @Gretchen: I think it depends what you are grow up with…. “I have the truth” sounds a lot stronger in English than in Hungarian. You see, in Hungarian we have a different word for “Truth”, which is “Igazsag” . So “I have the Truth” would be “Nalam van az Igazsag” (this also means “I Have the Truth”, but using a different grammatical structure than ” Nekem igazam van”)

  14. Well, if you want to go on …

    In German we say: Ich habe Recht!

    Many people though make the mistake of writing : ich habe recht – which is not correct …
    But “Groß/Klein-Schreibung” in German is a topic for itself …


    And we Schwabs also have a famous saying:

    “Du hast Recht und ich habe meine Ruhe” – just to end a fruitless discussion …

  15. andysomos:
    “Trianon was dashed hopes. Now that Hungary is finally becoming re-wedded to the old pre Trianon portions of Hungary, BRAVO! our leaders are excluding us again.”

    This is an important message to all Hungarians. (I have made a small abbreviation).

  16. OT Some news I missed recently, which I noticed on a PDF file I received from the Dutch Embassy.

    Waste handling firm leaving Hungary

    Austrian waste management company AVE sold its Hungarian and other East European units to Czech concern EP Industries for EUR 108mn, Napi Gazdaság reports. EP Industries acquires AVE’s operations in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. AVE had to write off EUR 39mn as a result of the transaction.

    Only majority state or local government owned companies can provide waste management services to households in Hungary from January 1, 2014. AVE Magyarország employs 1,700 workers, servicing 21,000 industrial and institutional clients.

    Another nationalization that is going on.

  17. The Hungarian “igazam van” is in no way different from the English “I am right” or the German “I habe recht.” But if in a heated discussion between two persons one says “Nekem van igazam” the meaning of the sentence changes. In this case it means “it is I who is right and not you.” Word order in Hungarian is not as fixed as in English or especially German but by changing the word order Hungarians can subtly change the meaning of sentences.

  18. An :
    @Gretchen: I think it depends what you are grow up with…. “I have the truth” sounds a lot stronger in English than in Hungarian. You see, in Hungarian we have a different word for “Truth”, which is “Igazsag” . So “I have the Truth” would be “Nalam van az Igazsag” (this also means “I Have the Truth”, but using a different grammatical structure than ” Nekem igazam van”)

    Just to stretch a bit more:
    Since most cases the Hungarian allows to change the order of words within a sentence, it provides much more flexibility to express nuances, emphasise certain words, etc.

    Nekem igazam van – I have (the) truth – I am right
    Nekem van igazam – I am (who) have (the) truth – Its me who’s right

    – and so on.

    By the way, being gender-neutral in a conversation using other European languages quite a challenge. Not to mention such transitional practices such as in Sweden recently: in the name of political correctness they invented a new (well, new in this relation anyway) word, in order to use in reference to persons with transgender or uncertain sexual identities.
    So, since there was the “hon” – “she”, “han” – “he”, now there is “hen” – to all the rest…
    I’m really curious, how it will develop later, when the others going to gain more political weight and start more formally differentiate themselves based on further preference-differences, a tendency started to show already.

  19. Well, I should have reloaded the page!

    Thank you Eva, for the correct version!

  20. Rather OT, but maybe interesting for those who can read Hungarian:

    The new Népszabadság magazine (someone in my wife’s family has a subscription …) contains an interview with John von Neumann’s daughter Marina and and Lovász Lászlo. Surely interesting.

  21. I always wanted to biring this up … Is it a good idea to use the term “democratic opposition”?

    Let’s start with the word “democratic”. Although it certainly seems that the Orban government’s policies go against the values and even the institutions of democracy, but is it a good idea to “hog” the word? One of the worst attributes of the Fidesz and his followers is this rude demeaning of everybody that they find “anti-Hungarian”. Smilarily calling ourselves “democratic” seems to me like we are shutting out everybody automatically on the “other side”.

    The other word, the “opposition” is unfortunate because it is temporary. It sounds a bit like we are identifying ourselves as somebody who likes to oppose.

    The present ruling party is calling itself “right” or “conservative” or “national conservative”. The opposing label should reflect the distance from these. Left, liberal, social democrat, christian democrat. You cannot be just “the good guys”. Nobody is.

    Again, I’m not arguing the anti-democratic nature of the Fidesz. But there is something off with this label. It’s an unfortunate reflection that the “good guys” stand for only the no-more-fidesz ideology.

  22. OT and sadly ironic, I just noticed that downtown one of the new Traffic shops has displaced a bike shop that had been there for years. Our favorite pizza joint (run by an Italian) lost 40% of his space to a new Traffic shop (just in sight of the bicycle shop) with no reduction in rent.

  23. @Mutt
    I guess, that they started to call themselves as “democratic opposition” because there is a definitive “antidemocratic opposition” as well, namely the Jobbik
    Besides, that I agree fully, that using words as labels means that pretty soon their true meaning become toned by the adhered connotations – like the word “nemzeti” just to mention the most obvious one.

  24. @LwiiH: I thank you for these very specific details–the dreadful trickle-down effect of the new law, after the initial consequences.

  25. spectator :
    I guess, that they started to call themselves as “democratic opposition” because there is a definitive “antidemocratic opposition” as well, namely the Jobbik

    Calling the JOBBIK anti-democratic just underscores my point. They are a racist, ant-Semitic, nationalistic, anti-Kapitalist, anti-EU party, just the worst that pops into my head, but the ant-Democratic label is based on comparison to other similar groups in history.

    We cannot define ourself as the negative of the other side. That’s not ideology.

  26. Mutt, I’d say that a far-right party calling for an official state register of people from one particular ethnic group is profoundly anti-democratic, as is having a paramilitary wing.

  27. Ivan :
    Mutt, I’d say that a far-right party calling for an official state register of people from one particular ethnic group is profoundly anti-democratic, as is having a paramilitary wing.

    No, the proposal is a despicable crime and warrants criminal investigation in a civilized country where the law and order is upheld but it’s not “anti-democratic”.

  28. Have to disagree, Mutt, I’m afraid. A basic principle of democracy, for most people, is equality before the law. To specifically target lawmakers on account of their alleged Jewishness, or to intimidate citizens with your paramilitary merely because they are of Roma origin, or to refer in your policies and literature to crime based on ethnicity (‘Gypsy Crime’) is therefore anti-democratic, in my opinion, and clearly so. There are many other examples. But I’ll stop there.

  29. @Ivan Democracy is the “rule of the people”. You should be able to represent any views as long as it is not a crime and you accept the will of the majority. Orban and gang is anti-democratic because they destroyed the institutions that guarantee democracy in a country for the long run, that is after their term expires.

    Ok, we seem to be on the same side, I’m sure of it. But is it the “democratic opposition” side? What are we representing actually?

  30. Dear Eva, you confused the meanings of Civic/liberal (western type) nationalism and the (Eastern Type) Ethnic nationalism.

    For better understanding:

    The ethnic nationalism did not exist in Hungary before the WW1,(or it was marginal) However ethnic nationalism was the base of the national identity Orthodox and Slavic countries (and romania) from the very beginnings of their “national awakening”. (“Slavic Race, Common slavic forefathers and other fantasy stories etc…)

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