Géza Balázs

Johanna Laakso: Brave new linguistics

Johanna Laakso is a professor in the Finno-Ugric Department of the Institut für Europäische und Vergleichende Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft at the University of Vienna. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Helsinki where she also taught until 2000 when she moved to the University of Vienna. Besides her native Finnish, she speaks English, German, Hungarian, Estonian, Swedish, Russian, and French. Professor Laakso is known to the readers of  Hungarian Spectrum under the pseudonym Sentrooppa-Santra; she is one of our frequent contributors on linguistic topics.  I’m very grateful that Professor Laakso agreed to write a post on the new  Magyar Nyelvstratégiai Intézet (Hungarian Language Strategy Institute), the brainchild of Viktor Orbán. It is time to learn something about this attack on yet another academic discipline. Surprisingly little can be read about the issues involved in the Hungarian press. Professor Laakso’s article makes it all clear. The current Hungarian government’s penchant for changing everything has even reached language. Hungary will soon be a paradise of self-proclaimed “experts” whose theories will be the laughing stock of academics all over the world.

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1. Linguistics and the history of the nation

Ever since the Romantic Nationalism at the turn of the 19th century, language has played an enormously important role for many European nation-states and national emancipation projects. Language is a central marker of ethnicity, or even a criterion of patriotism (“you are a good Hungarian/Pole/Frenchman etc. if and only if you speak good Hungarian/Polish/French etc.”). It is easy and attractive to imagine that language is something that you not only learned but inherited from your parents, and that language-based nations are distinct entities, with sharp and uncontestable borders. And for this reason, in many young or nascent European nation-states it became very popular to define nations as imaginary families united by their languages, and to identify the history of each nation with the history of its language.

Because of the legacy of Romantic Nationalism, many Hungarians still tend to see historical linguistics as simply a means of investigating the history of the nation – and making it as glorious as possible. This is probably why thousands of Hungarians are ready to believe in any alternative theory about the Hungarians as descendants of the Sumerians, the Etrusks, the ancient Egyptians or almost any major ancient civilization – or all of them. For these people, Finno-Ugric linguistics is an evil international conspiracy which was first supported by the Habsburgs and then by the Communists, merely in order to suppress the true history of the proud Magyars.

The “alternative” ideas about the history and relatedness of the Hungarian language, although scientifically unfounded, are popular especially with extreme right-wing political groups, and Jobbik has explicitly pleaded for the “reevaluation of the Finno-Ugric narrative”. Fidesz, in contrast, will not openly contest linguistic facts which are generally acknowledged in academic research worldwide. On his visit to Finland last year, Viktor Orbán explicitly took a stand for the Finno-Ugric language relatedness, calling it an “established fact and not just a matter of opinion”. However, as the holders of power are interested in the votes of those right-wing nationalists who would prefer Scythian or Sumerian origins to the “Bolshevist Finno-Ugric propaganda”, it seems that some kind of a more patriotic form of linguistic inquiry into Hungarian, emphasizing the unique character of the language, is in order. Time is ripe for brave new national linguistics, in the same way as history-writing is now being cultivated in a new, “national” form.

2. Telling the nation how to speak

But language and nation-building are not only connected by way of how the nation and its history are defined. European nationalism is also closely linked to language planning and language correctness. Unlike the English-speaking world, where traditionally dictionary-writers and grammarians, schools or influential media have shaped the ideas of what is good or correct language use, many European nation-states have created state organs for language planning, following the example of the famous Académie Française.

National language planning can have noble democratic motivations. Creating an instrument of communication which is equally accessible to everybody (and not just to those who have studied in the best schools) will serve the inclusion of all citizens into decision-making. This idea was part of the national emancipation process in 19th-century Hungary, and it is still the leading thought behind language planning in the Nordic countries, for example. However, language standardization can also be instrumentalized as part of the Romantic mother tongue mythology: defining the one and only True Language of the Nation, a language which is inherently better, more beautiful, more logical etc. than the other language forms. This idea seems to be popular in Hungarian linguistic culture, which in general is very prescriptivistic. Hungarians are raised in the firm conviction that there is a “pure” or “correct” form of the Hungarian language and that incorrect language use is bad for you and even bad for the whole nation.

Moreover, nationalist language planning can be motivated by linguistic relativism, a concept often connected with the names of the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf – the idea that the structure of each language dictates how its speakers perceive and conceptualize the world. As linguistics in the Western countries in the second half of the 20th century was dominated by the belief in a genetically conditioned universal grammar (“the language instinct”) underlying all human languages, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis was out of favour for some time, but now modified versions of it are making a comeback into mainstream linguistics. Outside academic linguistics, however, vulgar relativism has been part of educational and political practices all the time. Laymen just love the idea that different languages in some mysterious way reflect different cultures and world views, that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow (they don’t, in fact) because of the special sense of snow they have, or that it was the structure of the Hungarian language that helped Edward/Ede Teller develop the atomic bomb. Teachers and grammar nazis will tell you that correct language use is the product of logical thinking and makes you think more logically. And nationalist politicians know how to make use of the belief that the national language is organically connected to a specific way of understanding the world. A magyar észjárás, the Hungarian way of thinking, is one of Viktor Orbán’s favourite expressions.

In the same way as historical linguists have refused to contribute to the creation of a glorious national past, both theoretical linguists and sociolinguists in Hungary after WWII have shown little interest in national language planning. Following the models of the English-speaking academic world, they typically look down upon prescriptivism. In their view, language functions and develops according to its own universal laws and rules, and trying to interfere with them is unscientific, useless or even contraproductive. For this reason, especially after the collapse of the Socialist system and its diverse forms of censorship, the field of national language planning in Hungary has been left in the hands of a few activists, often amateurs (teachers, writers and the like) or professional linguists outside the theoretically most ambitious and internationally best networked circles. And even in Hungarian academia or at least on its fringes, a deep divide has come into being between “linguists” and “language cultivators” (nyelvművelők).

The “language cultivators” are the people who maintain the Museum of the Hungarian Language (!) in Széphalom near Sátoraljaújhely, or the Society of the Keepers of the Mother Tongue (Anyanyelvápolók Szövetsége); in the last few years, one of their central forums has been the website e-nyelv.hu. The language cultivators believe that centralized language planning is needed to stop the language from disintegrating and decaying. They think that somebody will have to tell the people which words to use for which concepts. They would like to create authentic Hungarian equivalents for international terms, in the same way as Kazinczy and other language activists did in the early 19th century – their website szomagyarito.hu offers lots of hilarious examples. And – not completely unjustly – they accuse academic linguists of arrogance and indifference towards the linguistic needs of the general public. Under the Orbán government, they have finally found their opportunity.

3. A new institute for linguistics?

For quite a few years already, a group of linguists and language cultivation activists led by Géza Balázs, professor of Hungarian language at the ELTE university, has been demanding a national strategy to support the cultivation of the Hungarian language. In March 2014, suddenly, a government decree was published declaring a Hungarian Language Strategy Institute (Magyar Nyelvstratégiai Intézet, MANYSI) to be founded, starting from the 1st of April. The new institute, analogously to the new history institutes founded by the Orbán government, is completely independent of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In fact, it is directly subordinate to the Prime Minister himself. The Academy and its Research Institute for Linguistics were not consulted, not even informed.

The founding decree (an English translation has been published on the website of the Research Institute for Linguistics) is vaguely formulated and gives the impression of being written by somebody who is not very well versed in linguistics. In particular, the term nyelvi értékvesztés (linguistic value loss/loss of language [or: linguistic] values?) remains completely obscure. Does it refer to the possible loss of values encoded in language (for instance: losing the richdom of vocabulary) or to “domain loss” or the risk that the Hungarian language will be used less and less in certain contexts such as business life or science? The functions of the new institute are defined very loosely and might, in principle, include not just language policies but almost any area of linguistic inquiry. Among the tasks, conducting “research into the internal structure, characteristics and functioning of the Hungarian language, into its connections to our culture as a whole” is explicitly mentioned.

The worst scenario which some Hungarian linguists feared was that the new institute might get more and more power in the distribution of research resources, in the same way as the government has systematically strengthened the position of the Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA). So far, this has not happened. The new institute has started with a very low profile. It doesn’t have a public website yet, and of the possibly up to 30 employees, only the name of the director has been made public. Contrary to what was expected, the director is not Géza Balázs but Lóránt Bencze, a 75-year-old (!) former Catholic friar and college professor, teacher at the Zsigmond Király Főiskola. Bencze is fairly unknown in Hungarian linguistics; he has a few publications on the areas of semiotics, communication and cultural studies but hardly anything about language policy or language planning, and his homepage does not tell where, when and on which topic he earned his PhD and Dr.hab. degrees.

A week ago, Bencze gave a detailed interview to the news portal 444.hu, defining the language strategy and its goals on the basis of linguistic relativism, which seems to be his personal hobby-horse. According to Bencze, the Hungarian language dictates how Hungarians see the world, and the “devalorization” mentioned in the founding decree means the loss of mutual understanding between Hungarians. If people do not understand each other properly, their communication will fail and the whole Hungarian language will disintegrate and die out. Proper understanding, in Bencze’s terms, requires common concepts. To put it bluntly, somebody will have to tell the Hungarians which words they should use and what these words should mean. And of course the “appropriate” concepts and categories already exist somewhere. As Bencze puts it (my translation):

“We haven’t been able to work out the rapid political changes of the 20th century, and this shows in our thinking. Our concepts are not clear, we cannot name properly what exists and why, we don’t know who directs the world and how, and this makes us anxious. Anxiety, in turn, breeds violence. This can only be avoided if we think in as clear categories as possible.”

4. National linguistics, just for ourselves?

Bencze’s ideas seem to be very far away from concrete language policies – he doesn’t bother to explain how and by whom the “clear categories” will be defined and taught to the general public. One gets the impression that his main goal is to produce patriotic rhetorics, arousing positive feelings and, above all, the belief that the Hungarian language is something unique and special. This becomes even more obvious if we take a look at his relativist ideas in the publication of the Second Czuczor-Fogarasi Conference. Actually, the whole publication helps us understand what is happening on these borderline areas between Hungarian linguistics and nationalism. And this brings us back to the history of Hungarian linguistics.

The Czuczor-Fogarasi dictionary, published between the years 1862 and 1874, was the first attempt of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to produce an extensive standard lexicon of the national language. However, already at the time of its publication it was considered theoretically outdated. (Among the harshest critics were Hunfalvy and Budenz, the pioneers of modern comparative linguistics in Hungary – and the chief “bad guys” of today’s anti-Finno-Ugric conspiracy theories.) The authors of the dictionary, friar, teacher and poet Gergely Czuczor and lawyer and polyhistor János Fogarasi, were committed Hungarian patriots and diligent philologists but no linguists in the emerging modern sense of the word. They had received a traditional philological education in classical and modern European languages, and their view on the history and relatedness of languages was pre-scientific: they compared words and bundled them together on the basis of superficial similarities. These similarities were described in terms of abstract “roots”: monosyllabic elements which could be subject to vowel or consonant alternations. So, for instance, abr in abrosz ‘tablecloth’ is related to bor in borít ‘to cover’, and kor in korong ‘disk’ is related to kör ‘circle’, ker in kerít ‘to encircle’ and further to gör in görbe ‘curved’ etc.

As modern linguists could immediately point out, the root method had nothing to do with real historical processes and etymological connections. For instance, there is no reason to postulate a root abr, as the whole word abrosz is a loanword from Slavic. In mainstream linguistics, the Czuczor–Fogarasi dictionary was soon forgotten, despite its true merits in presenting authentic language material. “Alternative” amateur linguists, however, have begun to actively celebrate the dictionary and use it as a point of departure for their, to put it mildly, non-mainstream views about the Hungarian root system and Hungarian as the ancestral language of the whole mankind.

Now in the last few years, some academic linguists as well have begun to cautiously rehabilitate the Czuczor-Fogarasi dictionary, promoting something that could be called a “respectable” version of the root theory. The above-mentioned conference, notably not hosted by the Academy of Sciences but by the Academy of Arts (!), an institution enjoying the Orbán government’s special protection, managed to gather a group of professional linguists and established scholars, some of them representing the “language cultivators”. The conference publication refrains from overt flim-flam and attempts to give a serious impression. It does not contain any statements about the Sumerian descent of the Hungarians nor rabid hate tirades against the Finno-Ugric relatedness – in fact, one contribution is authored by Péter Pomozi, docent of Finno-Ugric languages at ELTE. Géza Balázs himself, the leading figure of the language cultivation movement, writes about the root models as a precedent of the fashionable network theory, while Lóránt Bencze harps on about his relativist argument, with lots of references to linguistic and philosophical literature.

It seems that by dropping names of authoritative sources or fashionable theories and gradually stretching the definitions of concepts and categories, the authors try to smuggle outdated and pre-scientific ideas back into academic linguistics. “Relativizing” or “questioning” received wisdoms can be done by referring to “interdisciplinary” approaches (in historical linguistics, typically an excuse for ignoring everything we know about how languages change), or by moving the whole discussion on to a higher meta-level and quoting Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm changes in science. The message which an uninformed reader will get is roughly as follows: Czuczor and Fogarasi were right after all and ahead of their time, but the arrogant academic establishment has slavishly followed foreign models and forgotten how special the Hungarian language is. Fortunately, our government now supports these good guys who will purify our language and restore its glory and prestige. (And even those who would like to go even farther and believe that Hungarian was the first language of all mankind will enjoy hearing that the Finno-Ugric bad guys were at least not completely right – in the same way as those who believe that there never was any Holocaust enjoy hearing that the deportation of thousands of Jews to certain death in Kamenets-Podolski in 1941 was a “simple police procedure”.)

To sum up: What we see now on the fringes of Hungarian linguistics resembles what is happening on the fringes of Hungarian history-writing. Alongside the established and internationally connected institutions of science and learning, a parallel national research is being built up. So far, these parallel institutions have been playing their own games and haven’t even tried to compete with serious academic research on its own field. Instead of aspiring to real academic merits, the people active in these parallel scholarly enterprises contribute a pseudo-academic glaze to the government’s nationalist rhetorics. In return, they receive pseudo-academic merits and nice-looking additions to their CVs, and some of them can even get a nice pseudo-academic position at a new “research” institute. Win-win.

Let’s purify the language: Orbán’s new institute

I’m not sure that I will be able to come up with a complete list of new institutes the Orbán government has established in four years, but to the best of my recollection there were at least six. The most notorious is the Veritas Historical Institute headed by Sándor Szakály, whose name became known even abroad in the last few months in connection with his opinions on the Holocaust. But the institution that is supposed to study the change of regime of 1989-1990 is just as outrageous because Viktor Orbán named Zoltán Bíró, a right-winger active on Echo TV, as its head. I can well imagine what kinds of publications Bíró’s crew will come out with. Then there is a new institute studying the national strategy of the country. It is headed by Jenő Szász, the favorite Szekler politician of  János Kövér. After Szász became a burden for Orbán and László Tőkés, he was compensated with a research institute of his own in Budapest. What he and his colleagues are doing besides receiving handsome salaries, no one knows. And we mustn’t forget about the Committee on National Remembrance whose job, as far as I can see, will be to mete out punishments for sins committed during the Kádár period.

There are also institutions set up as parallel organizations to already existing ones but designed to represent the political right and to reward pro-government members of the intellectual elite. New organizations represent right-leaning actors, writers, and artists.

On February 28 the government announced the creation of a Hungarian Language Strategical Institute. The new institute will open its doors on April Fool’s Day, a fact that was not missed by the great majority of linguists who are baffled by the whole idea. I might add that the new institute, just like Veritas, will be supervised by Viktor Orbán’s right-hand man János Lázár. Lázár is the government’s jack of all trades: he supervises historical studies and linguistics, and he is rapidly becoming an expert on the Holocaust.

I have always been interested in language. At one point I was even toying with the idea of becoming a linguist–at least until I encountered some members of ELTE’s Department of the Hungarian Language. In any case, I usually pay attention to what’s going on in the field and know that there is a huge divide between those who consider themselves “real” linguists and those who are called “language cultivators” (nyelvművelők). The former consider language a living organ that changes constantly over time and that needs no conscious cultivation. The cultivators are enemies of foreign words and their adoption; they are convinced that the language is under siege by modern technology; they are certain that the Hungarian vocabulary is shrinking; they want to change speaking habits to conform to the “right rules” even if the majority of the population uses a different set of rules.

Language cultivation was a favorite pastime during the Kádár regime. Lajos Lőrincze was the high priest of the series “Édes anyanyelvünk” (Our sweet mother tongue). In the last twenty-five years, however, the cultivator linguists had to take a back seat to those who are convinced that the best thing is to leave language alone.

Naturally Viktor Orbán sympathizes with the language cultivators and bemoans foreign influences on our sweet mother tongue. In fact, already during his first term as prime minister he declared war on foreign words on store fronts. A decree was enacted that would have required store owners to change certain words in their stores’ names. But Orbán left and with him the idea, and the decree, died a quiet death. Now he is reviving an old idea on an even grander scale.


Reactions to the establishment of the Hungarian Language Strategical Institute are almost uniformly negative, with the notable exception of Géza Balázs, a professor of linguistics at ELTE who seems to be an ardent “language cultivator.” Even the usually servile József Pálinkás, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is no fan of the idea. Margit Fehér, a journalist working for The Wall Street Journal who wrote an article about this latest brain child of Viktor Orbán, asked Pálinkás for his opinion on the institute. To my great surprise he sent the following answer back to Fehér: “To me, the government decree means that the 20-strong institute will operate not as a home for scientific research but as a central bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office which coordinates the preparation of materials to be written at the government’s order for its decision on the language policy and language cultivation.” Pálinkás went even further when he stated that “It’s hard to draw a parallel between an institute that functions as a state office and an institute that conducts scientific research.” It seems as if Pálinkás is getting fed up with Orbán’s government taking over more and more functions that were previously under the jurisdiction of the Academy.

I managed to find an old article by Géza Balázs from 2011 entitled “A sketch of a possible language strategy” which may be the rationale for this institute. He talks at length about “the erosion of the language,” especially in the field of science where access to all material is a fundamental human right. I’m pretty sure that the use of English terms, especially in computer science, irritates Balázs and his fellow language cultivators. In the past, he argues, it was all right to let the language develop organically, but in our fast-moving world with all these rapid changes we cannot be lackadaisical about the state of our language.

Although Margit Fehér quotes only Ádám Nádasdy’s opinions in her English-language article, she notes that “most linguists received news of the government decree with raised eyebrows and disapproval.” Even the official Institute of Linguistics of the Hungarian Academy immediately launched a website where they collected opinions on the new institute and newspaper articles dealing with the subject. They all seem to be negative. Of course, this latest Orbán move reminds everybody of Stalin and his dabbling in linguistics in the 1950s. As Nádasdy said, “the government may decide what it is willing to dish money out for, but that doesn’t make it linguistics. We are not the Soviet Union of the 1930s, where Stalin decided what makes science and what not.”

Finally, let me do a little advertisement for Ádám Nádasdy. A few years ago he delivered a lecture on how language changes at the Mindentudás Egyeteme (university of all knowledge). It is a pleasure to listen to him because he is an excellent lecturer. After his lecture you will understand his strong opinions on “language cultivation.”