Magyar Nyelvstratégiai Intézet

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 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 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, 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.