Hungarian Academy of Sciences

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.”


Looking backward: Historical complexity and political simplification

A couple of days ago I mentioned that three historians who are attached to the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Science were entrusted with deciding the fate of persons and concepts that can possibly be connected to dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century. The other day the long awaited list was made public and was met with a mix of fury and derision. By today well known historians, members of the Academy, are calling the list and its creators a disgrace to the historical profession.

Almost a month before the appearance of the infamous list András Gerő, whose specialty is the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, rang the alarm bell and predicted that nothing good would come from this enterprise because the text of the law is imprecise and because whoever wrote it has no clue about the complexity of life and thus of history.

I will summarize Gerő’s main objections. The full text of the the law can be read here, but the key sentence is that “the name of no person can be used anywhere (institutions, media organs, public places) who played a leading role in the establishment, formation, and maintenance of twentieth-century dictatorial regimes or such expression or name of an organ that can be directly related with such a regime.”

The first problem is that the law itself is sloppily formulated. On the one hand it talks about dictatorial regimes (rendszerek) in the plural when it comes to persons whereas, when talking about organizations and concepts, it uses the singular (rendszer). So, how many dictatorial regimes are we talking about? Gerő rightly states that there were three such regimes in Hungary in the twentieth century. The Soviet Republic of 1919, the 1944-45 Arrow Cross regime, and the communist regime between 1949 and 1989. The text of the preamble to the bill provides a clue to the lawmakers’ thinking. Here they talk about “dictatorships” but add that “first and foremost” they are thinking of  the communist dictatorship and the 1919 Soviet Republic lasting 133 days. Thus, the emphasis is on dictatorships of the left.

Why does any lawmaker think that such a piece of legislation is necessary in the first place? The reason is that “our streets and institutions should bear names that are worthy of the ideals of a democratic country.” However, Gerő points out, it is not only dictatorship that is opposed to the ideals of a democratic state. What if the equality of citizens is terminated in a perfectly legitimate and democratic manner? The reference here is to the Horthy regime’s anti-Jewish laws. “Without equality of citizens there is no rule of rule (jogállam).” Gerő comes to the conclusion that perhaps the lawmakers are not really familiar with the meaning of the rule of law.

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina / Flickr

But, Gerő says, ignorance has its consequences. On the preliminary list were such names as Béla Kun and Tibor Szamuely, who was personally responsible for political murders during the 1919 communist interlude. Their roles in the establishment and maintenance of a dictatorship are indisputable. But Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also appeared on the list. They were included because of their role in laying the foundation for the later Soviet regime. Since both died years before 1917, we have no idea what they would have thought of the kind of dictatorship that was established in Soviet Russia. And if Marx and Engels are blacklisted, why don’t we put Prime Minister Pál Teleki, who played a leading role in the enactment of Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws, on the same list? And if we can connect Marx and Engels with the Muscovite Mátyás Rákosi, we should certainly link the name of Bishop Ottokár Prohászka, who is considered to be the theoretician of Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarism, with the Holocaust.

One must also should keep in mind that people might change their views over their lifetimes. Either because they genuinely had a change of heart or because they responded to a changing situation. As an example Gerő brings up Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955), the historian. His extremely influential book written in 1920, Három nemzedék: Egy hanyatló kor története (Three generations: History of a declining age), blamed the liberals of the dual monarchy for the misfortunes that befell Hungary after World War I. This book played an important role in justifying István Bethlen’s counterrevolutionary regime. Later he moved farther to the left and after 1945 he even praised Stalin’s accomplishments and the Soviet regime. From 1953 he became a member of parliament and in the last two years of his life a member of the Presidium. There’s no question that he helped maintain the communist dictatorship. Right now a street bears his name in Budapest’s District IV. Should he be banned? According to the law, if we take it seriously, yes, he should be.

The other person Gerő mentions is János Szentágothai, the famous Hungarian medical researcher. He was also a member of parliament and later a member of the Presidium during the Kádár regime. Between 1977 and 1985 he was the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences which was a political post. After 1990 he was again a member of parliament as an MDF member. Again, he should be banned but naturally he won’t be.

The third person is Béla Kovács, secretary-general of the Smallholders party, whom the Soviets exiled to the Gulag on February 25, 1947. In 2000, during the first Orbán administration, the government made February 25 a day of remembrance for the victims of communism. In 2002 Kovács’s statue was unveiled on Kossuth Square. Kovács became a member of Imre Nagy’s cabinet, but in 1958 he became a member of the pseudo-parliament of the early Kádár regime. He should also be banned according to a strict interpretation of the law.

The drafters of the law added that if and when there is any question concerning eligibility the case must be referred to the historians of the Academy. But if one reads the law carefully, it doesn’t allow for any doubt. The choice is either black or white, yes or no. Historians should know full well that life and therefore history is not that simple, and therefore they should not have accepted the job. Unfortunately, they did. The historians “should have told the government that this task cannot be accomplished in the spirit of academic correctness.”

They accepted the job despite the fact that Attila Pók, one of the three historians who took part in this disgraceful exercise, admitted that the law doesn’t allow for any shading or for a scientific approach and that the law was not thought through.

The government passed the buck to the Academy and the historians passed it back to the government. They excused their own participation by emphasizing that theirs was not the final word. They acted only in an advisory capacity.

The concern is growing in historical circles that “by participating in this political game they risked their academic credibility.”  As historian Gábor Gyáni said, “the historians found themselves in such an absurd situation that they had to explain why concepts like “freedom” or “republic” are not directly related to dictatorships. But at the same time they fell into such traps as declaring Maxim Gorky or Vladimir Mayakovsky supporters of a dictatorship. The former, after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, was placed under “secret” house arrest. There were rumors that his sudden death wasn’t an accident. Mayakovsky by the late 1920s became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking and committed suicide.

Life is not as simple as Fidesz politicos imagine or as even well-known Hungarian historians think. And what if one day historians associate Viktor Orbán and the members of his government with the destruction of democracy in Hungary and with building an authoritarian regime with the assistance of a neo-Nazi party? It could easily happen.