To the roots

(A non-native English version of my Finnish-language blog post Juu juu juuri niinThe quotations from the Hungarian-language interview are also in my doubly non-native translation.)

Actually, this is not a language blog. But this story pertains not only to linguistics but also, to a great extent, to Hungary and Hungarian politics.

I don’t really follow the newspaper Magyar Idők (‘Hungarian Times’), the newest faithful mouthpiece of the Hungarian government. The paper was founded in 2015 by Gábor Liszkay, former editor of the newspaper Magyar Nemzet, on the basis of Napi Gazdaság (‘Daily Economics’), following the conflict between the owner of Magyar Nemzet, the business oligarch Lajos Simicska, and his old friend, Prime Minister Orbán; this conflict, a.k.a. the Gecigate, took various Simicska-owned conservative media away from the government’s control… But by way of the Facebook feed of a linguist colleague, I just found this piece of I’d rather not say what, from the said newspaper, in my news feed. Once again, an authoritative (?) source stating that the Finno-Ugric language relatedness is completely unfounded.

The so-called Anti-Finno-Ugricism looks back to a long tradition in Hungary (I have written about it in more detail here). To begin with, when the Finno-Ugric language relatedness was detected, the proud Central European warrior nation was reluctant to accept “Lapps stinking of fish fat” as their relatives, and in the course of the 20th century, this evolved into a conspiracy theory which after WWII became increasingly popular especially among Hungarian diasporas in the West. According to this theory, the idea of the Finno-Ugric relatedness was originally commissioned by the imperial court in Vienna in order to humiliate the proud and rebellious Hungarians, it had been developed by German or German-speaking henchmen of the Emperor, and in the 20th century the same idea had been adopted, with the same goal in mind, by the imperialists in Moscow and the Goulash Communists backed by them, people for whom the Finno-Ugric “standard science” guaranteed a comfortable living at state-funded research institutes…

This claim, of course, is complete nonsense. Neither Vienna nor Moscow was at any point particularly interested in promoting Finno-Ugric studies for some political goals. (In fact, at the time when Hungary was absorbed into the power sphere of Stalinist Soviet Union, linguistic studies there were still dominated by the pseudo-scientific Marrist paradigm, according to which language relatedness in its traditional sense, including Finno-Ugric relatedness, didn’t even exist. Horthy’s Hungary, in contrast, had enthusiastically supported cooperations and relations with the “kindred nations” in Finland and Estonia.)  However, there was a political demand for this idea, and after the collapse of the Socialist system, it seems that more and more people in Hungary are buying it. Hungarian Finno-Ugricists are busy – or should be, if they still had the energy – debunking completely unfounded claims in the style of “not even in Finland do they believe in Finno-Ugric language relatedness”, “these ideas have been removed from school textbooks”, or  ”The Finnish Academy of Sciences has closed down its Finno-Ugric department”.

[As for the ”Finnish Academy of Sciences”: this urban legend is allegedly based on an Internet video presentation by a Hungarian historian (?). In fact, there is no institution comparable to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Finland, with authoritative bodies of very well-paid and very senior scholars and with subordinated research institutes. There is the Academy of Finland, which is a state agency for research funding, comparable with the OTKA/NKFIH in Hungary or the DFG in Germany – it only has four major research councils, one of which, the Council for Culture and Society, is constantly funding Finno-Ugristic research among others. And there is the Finnish Academy of Sciences and Letters, which is an interdisciplinary learned society. Its members are organized into work groups, one of them is called the Work group for Finno-Ugric studies, and to the best of my knowledge – I’m a member – nobody has ever planned abolishing it.]

Despite the popularity of these ideas in Hungary, they still lack the final official endorsement. In fact, a few years ago, while visiting Finland, Viktor Orbán stated that language relatedness is a fact, not a matter of opinion. However, the political demand is still there, and it seems to me that a kind of a respectable version of national historical pseudolinguistics is emerging: just let the language relatedness exist somewhere in the background, it’s no use arguing against the whole international community of linguists, but it’s more important to emphasize the unique and special character of the Hungarian language and its connections to the uniquely Hungarian way of thinking.

And so this interview with László Marácz emerges on the pages of  Magyar Idők. Marácz is a linguist born in the Netherlands in a family of Hungarian 1956 refugees, and for many years, he has been openly attacking Finno-Ugric studies. He wrote his PhD on the generativist analysis of Hungarian syntax, which means that he represents a theoretical-speculative approach which is as far from historical linguistics as possible. His current academic activities are in the research of (minority) language policies, and he is employed at the Institute for European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. But, unfortunately, historical linguistics seems to be a sandbox which keeps attracting outsider kids who don’t care about the rules of the game…

In this interview Marácz tells us how he ended up realizing that the Earth is actually flat:

I passed an exam in Finno-Ugric studies [vizsgáztam finnugrisztikából] at the University of Groningen, so I know very well what I’m talking about. Already in my student years, I was interested in this subject, and already back then I couldn’t help noticing that certain so-called sound laws don’t work. There was too much additional explaining [belemagyarázás], and many additional rules were needed. A system in which new laws are constantly needed for explaining individual cases has a weak explanatory force.

This seems to echo the central message of Angela Marcantonio’s notorious book The Uralic language family: Facts, myths, and statistics from 2002: there is so little material which can be explained in terms of historical sound correspondences that these correspondences cannot statistically be distinguished from accidental similarities (!).  (Marcantonio and Marácz have cooperated and coorganized some conferences in recent years. Birds of a feather flock together.) Marcantonio ended up with her bizarre statement by analyzing Juha Janhunen’s list of Proto-Uralic lexemes (based on extremely strict criteria) and by misinterpreting the correspondences between certain combinations of sounds as sound laws pertaining to individual phonemes.

[If this sounds like harsh and unfounded criticism, read just one of the numerous reviews of Marcantonio’s books by Finno-Ugricists. You can start by this: .]

Marácz, in turn, is perhaps irritated (and, partly, completely rightfully) by the reluctance of traditional Finno-Ugricists to discard uncertain and weak etymologies. But it also seems to me that an old Generativist wants to see language as a shining clean precision machinery and is thus unable to understand the complicated and messy reality of historical processes.

Last year, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences was compelled to issue a statement that the Finno-Ugric language relatedness is generally accepted in linguistics and there is no serious debate on this issue. Why then, asks the interviewer, has Marácz taken up this topic again?

The Finno-Ugric theory [!!!] is not a Newtonian law of physics. The weak point of this theory is that it has no written sources. In Indo-European studies there are Gothic and Sanskrit texts, of course, there are many speculative elements there as well. But in Finno-Ugric studies, the oldest source is the Halotti beszéd [the Old Hungarian funeral sermon from the last years of the 12th century], there are no written sources prior to that, except the runic inscriptions to which there is little research.

Just a moment. First of all, there is no such thing as the “Finno-Ugric theory”. There are generally accepted methods of historical-comparative linguistics, by which we can also assume that the Finno-Ugric languages descend from a common ancestor. The presence of old texts is not essential; there is no documentation from Proto-Indo-European either, and Gothic and Sanskrit are roughly as far from each other as Finnish and Hungarian. It seems that Marácz has no idea how historical linguistics works and what its claims are based on. (BTW, most surviving Szekler (“Old Hungarian”) runic inscriptions are more recent than the Halotti beszéd. True, the fragment of Bodrog-Alsóbű might be from the 10th century, but it only comprises a few characters whose interpretation is still debated.)

The Hungarian language does not consist of roots reconstructed on a Finno-Ugric Vogul basis (finnugor vogul alapból) [??!!]. It has a system of roots which was charted by Gergely Czuczor and János Fogarasi in their extensive dictionary in the 19th century.

Exactly. The Benedictine monk Gergely Czuczor and the educated gentleman lawyer János Fogarasi were activists of the Hungarian national reform movement, and the participation in the national uprising of 1848–49 adds to their glory. (After the defeat in 1849, Czuczor was even imprisoned for some time at the notorious prison of the castle of Kufstein in Tyrol, Austria, and kept working on the dictionary throughout his imprisonment.) They had the general philological education of gentlemen of their times, but they were not really acquainted with the modern methods of linguistics which at those times was rapidly evolving and emerging as an independent discipline. For this reason, their ambitious great dictionary remained a curiosity in the history of research, and it is mostly celebrated in the alternative circles of Anti-Finno-Ugricists.

In the early 19th century, educated people interested in languages had already heard about the concept of the “root”. The idea probably originates from Semitic linguistics (which in Europe included the important studies into Biblical Hebrew), but it experienced its real triumph in Indo-European studies, in which the history of words could be described widely and in depth by way of monosyllabic roots and their systematic vowel alternations. There had already been attempts at a ”root-seeking” in Hungarian as well, and Czuczor and Fogarasi enthusiastically embraced this speculative approach. Without trying to really explain the alternations of consonants or vowels or their functions, they were just looking for similar monosyllabic elements in semantically similar words, allowing for fairly arbitrary consonant or vowel alternations. In this sense, words such as  rossz ‘bad’, rohad ‘rot’ and rozsda ‘rust’ of course contain the root element ro- (who cares if rozsda is an obvious loanword). Or many words denoting something round or curved have the consonant skeleton of the type k–r-, g–r-kör ‘circle’, kerek ‘round’, görbe ‘curved’, gurul ‘roll’…

This is how amateur etymologists have always worked: look for similar-looking words or elements and simply trust your gut feeling that their similarity “cannot be just a coincidence!” In Marácz’s ideas, this noble tradition of speculation undaunted by facts is combined with another typical characteristic of pseudolinguistics: nationalism. The root-based structure is a unique characteristic of the Hungarian language which, of course, expresses the Hungarians’ unique way of thinking. And if this unique character of Hungarian has been forgotten, it is, of course, due to the conspiracy of evil oppressors.

In India as well there is the same problem, the English colonial overlords distributed the theory of Indo-European language relatedness [!!!], but there were some who resisted and refused to accept Sanskrit as an Indo-European language. The Finno-Ugric theory [!!!] was written, formed and invented by people whose interests did not include discovering the original structure of the Hungarian language. Czuczor and his colleagues, for instance, were constantly observed by Ferenc Toldy, he as well as Hunfalvy and his colleagues were the local agents of the Habsburg empire, everything can be proven by spy acts. Their task was to manipulate, and their linguistic work also points in this direction. As for the more recent circumstances, we could say that the old imperialists have left but their spiritual legacy remains. For some reason, they don’t want to expose the collaborators, this means that we still haven’t worked out the legacy of 1848, the work is unfinished.

So this is what happened. (BTW, Angela Marcantonio has, after “debunking” the Finno-Ugric language relatedness, also “proven” that the Indo-European language relatedness is a mere illusion, and been credited by Hindu extremists who find it very important that the primeval home of their language be in India and nowhere else.) The Finno-Ugric language relatedness was invented by evil Germans, such as the poet Ferenc Toldy (Schedel) and the linguist Pál Hunfalvy (Hunsdorfer), both originally ethnic Germans of Hungary. (In fact, the European community of researchers was first convinced of the Finno-Ugric relatedness already by János Sajnovics in the late 18th century and, after him, Sámuel Gyarmathi, but these gentlemen were perhaps too ethnic Hungarians to be given the role of the Bad Guy.) And this political propaganda was spread as if by some subtle contagion and became so deeply rooted that never since has it occurred to any historical linguist – in Finland, Russia, Sweden, Norway, America… – to doubt the Finno-Ugric relatedness of Hungarian, nor even notice how cunningly they have been manipulated.

It gets even better:

Myself I have never said that there wouldn’t be a kind of a connection [egyfajta kapcsolat] between Hungarian and the Finno-Ugric languages, the question is just how strong the language relatedness is. Academics claim that there is a genetic connection, that is, Hungarian descends from Finnish and Vogul [sic: származik a finnből, vogulból]. Technically I don’t know how this can be derived [hogyan lehet ezt levezetni]. They cannot prove this genetic connection, and these connections are fairly superficial, as we have 20–30 certain Finno-Ugric etymologies. Budenz believed that there are 1000, the Finnish linguist Janhunen thinks there are 100 certain etymologies shared by the Uralic languages. These common phenomena can also be explained by language contact, why should one suspect a genetic connection in the first place? That was the fashion of the 19th century, it was started by German linguists, the Grimm brothers, who wanted to prove that German is connected to Sanskrit.

Once again, it is obvious that Marácz doesn’t understand or refuses to understand what he is talking about. The term “genetic” is intentionally misleading, as it may lead laymen to think of physical genetic relatedness between populations. Moreover, it is completely incomprehensible that Marácz has “passed an exam in Finno-Ugric studies” but believes that the Finno-Ugricists claim that “Hungarian descends from Finnish”. One of the basic tenets of historical-comparative linguistics – which was developed not only by the Grimm brothers but by many other 19th-century scholars in other countries as well – is precisely NOT to “derive” today’s languages from each other but to reconstruct their common proto-form which, in turn, doesn’t exist any more. (Just like humans do not “descend from apes” but share an ancestor with apes. This might seem trivial but, in fact, it makes an essential difference.)

The statement about 20–30 certain etymologies is really bizarre. Today’s mainstream linguists reckon with at least some 200 reconstructible Proto-Uralic word stems (Hungarian Finno-Ugricists are much more optimistic, but Finnish colleagues tend to adopt a more critical approach). And technically it is completely possible to derive the words of today’s langauges from those protoforms. (The most comprehensive and concise description of this so far can be found in the chapter written by Pekka Sammallahti in The Uralic Languages edited by Denis Sinor, from 1988, an edited volume with articles of otherwise very varying quality. But then Sammallahti, a retired professor from the University of Oulu, was also a henchman of the Post-Communists or a brain-washed victim of Anti-Hungarian propaganda?) Above all: language relatedness either exists (that is: the languages at issue descend from a common proto-language) or not, and it is not a matter of taste whether similarities should be explained with internal inheritance or borrowing. Loanwords and inherited words can often be distinguished from each other by way of systematic criteria, and the fact that the Finno-Ugric languages share numerous items of basic vocabulary (small numerals, a number of body part nouns, terms pertaining to the natural environment such as ‘tree’, ‘stone’, ‘fish’, ‘night’, ‘winter’, or basic verbs such as ‘give’, ‘live’, ‘die’, ‘go’, ‘eat’…) is difficult to explain by superficial language contacts.

This, of course, is like an ABC to anybody who has the slightest knowledge of historical linguistics. Regrettably, not everybody has – sadly enough, it is not at all unusual that a person with some education in linguistics or even an otherwise highly accomplished linguist with a prestigious university position gets carried away with “thinking outside the box” and produces complete BS about the history of languages. (And an outsider will not necessarily recognize it as flim-flam, just like not everybody will question the expertise of an orthopaedist playing the role of a diet guru.) Instead of analysing this flim-flam in itself, one should ask why this is again being offered on the pages of the most trustworthy media mouthpiece of the Hungarian government.

Of course, it’s all about raising nationalist feelings. In the interview, Marácz tells about his new ideas on the history of Hungarian: he believes that the Hungarian language was formed in cultural contacts between the peoples of the Central Asian steppe. And not just as also acknowledged in mainstream research, that the ancestors of the Hungarians lived in close contacts with the Turkic-speaking steppe peoples, but more particularly, Hungarian played a leading role in this process. For instance, corresponding to the Hungarian word szekér ‘carriage’ there is a word like ”sakar” in Sanskrit, which according to Indian scholars comes from Central Asia (says Marácz, I would like to hear an expert opinion on this), and – says Marácz – “it’s not the Hungarian language which borrowed this word and changed it into szekér but the other way round”. (BTW, the hallmarks of linguistic flim-flam also include setting values on language contact: as if it were important and valuable to be the donor of loanwords and humiliating to receive them.)

So we have come to the political agenda. Marácz hopes and believes that Hungarian could become an international lingua franca in Eastern Central Europe, a link language, given that it is historically deeply rooted in many states.

Who speaks Hungarian has first-hand access to information from 6–7 countries. The Hungarian language plays a central role in this region, and if Hungary evolves in the political and financial sense, then this process will strengthen. Today’s macroindices [???] are pointing in this direction, the political prestige of the country is increasing, no matter how Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is being attacked and criticized, the criticism must also be understood as an acknowledgement, because the continuous presence in European publicity is important. In this region, Hungary is again a pilot country [kalauzország] – our policies, one after another, are being adopted by the neighbouring countries – and our dispersion can also turn into an asset in today’s virtual world. Many people in the post-Trianon states have a passive knowledge of Hungarian, and if the country maintains this political and financial pace, then many people can realize that they are Hungarians as well, or have been. We have many potential speakers.

This is what we keep hearing from state-governed media. While the opposition media tell about poverty, corruption or a continuous brain drain growing into a mass escape, or convey critical articles about Hungarian politics from the German-, French- or English-language press, government media keep assuring the people that in fact, everybody is just envying, admiring and imitating Hungary. However, I wouldn’t bet on the prospect of Austrians, Slovaks and Romanians in the future enthusiastically studying Hungarian in order to use it as a lingua franca. And I don’t like the way in which this bizarre caricature of historical linguistics is instrumentalized to support this strange propaganda.

(For those able to read Hungarian, I recommend the response to the interview with Marácz, published by the Research Institute for Linguistics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. It is a very informative and expert text. It is also very detailed and dry, and will probably neither reach nor convince those people who would be willing to read or believe anything like this interview.)

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