Minorities Research 1.

János Péntek

Evaluation of the Hungarian Language by our Neighbours*

The most obvious and effective presentation of the theme to a neutral audience would be simply to cite from the recent press coverage of neighbouring countries, where the Hungarian language, its legal status, use, teaching, education in the vernacular, etc. are permanent topics. Even without being reminded of the known language political polemics, however, it is clear that the Hungarian population of peripheral regions do need the science of Hungarology, while our neighbours do not, and even reject it. The two should be cultivated in external workshops at the same time. The worse possibility is if Hungarian is only required as a foreign language, an alien culture.

This indicates that the evaluation of the Hungarian language by outsiders has deteriorated. There are direct political reasons behind it, but there is a more general background: the alteration of the geopolitical, geo-linguistic position of the Hungarian language and some negative tendencies in the linguistic trends in the 20th century. Earlier, for centuries this movement was convergent and rising (in inner variants, codification, intellectualisation, legal status etc.), while in our century it became divergent, territorially and functionally regressive, its prestige declining among the nations of the Carpathian Basin.

Obviously, speaking of the value or evaluation of a language, one cannot refer to objective value scales, or measures. We have a virtual measure which shows other values inwardly, to the native speakers than outwardly. The Carpathian basin became an icy area for the evaluation of the Hungarian language, negatively valued outside, often offensively stigmatised, while inside a defensive, feverish state prevails. As a sign of the nadir, article 6 of the Slovakian language act practically prohibits officials to learn the Hungarian language. Another case in point is the great uproar that followed the "leniency" of the Romanian education act seen by a sizeable part of the public as an ambush against the Romanian language that in certain situations Romanian students might also learn Hungarian.

This evaluation directly influences the position of Hungarology. "Hungarology is not what the metropolis offers but what the site requires", I quoted István Monok's statement made some years ago, noting that these sites were arranged concentrically around the metropolis, Budapest, more broadly about Hungary (cf. The dilemmas of Hungarology in minority. Magyar Szemle 1996, V/6, 630-639). Getting away from the centre, scientific interest, or sympathy and curiosity is increasingly predominant, while in close areas, practical interest, scientific appeal and prejudice delimit one another.

In the peripheries prejudices, the sense of the superiority of one's language, the official language, etc. are stronger at the moment, than the practical considerations, rejection, even prohibition are more powerful than demand. From this situation, I generalized the somewhat distorted and exaggerated paradoxon that in the external evaluation of a language, its prestige is in inverse proportion with the number of native speakers, size and weight of communities speaking the language. It is easy to notice at the Kolozsvár university that Judaistic and Germanistic studies are on the upswing and Hungarology on the downswing (meaning Hungarian studies for non-Hungarian natives). Nor is it difficult to notice in areas where the polemic about the language appears in a volume entitled: "What is our language worth if it is Hungarian?"

Before, however, my generalisation would seem itself biased, let me try to analyse the factors that may play a role in the approval or rejection of a language. It is still in anticipation that the rivalry of languages is the strongest in linguistically overlapping territories, peripheries. This is either reinforced or moderated by the historical endownment, that is, the position of state frontiers: whether they are far removed or close by. Inevitably, dominances and asymmetries evolve in the linguistic contacts and attitudes toward the languages.

Let us remain with attitudes, with the factors that turn the virtually equivalent languages so unequal in value in actual fact. The most important factor is use value, the practical value of the language: what it is good for. This is mainly determined by the number of native speakers and the geographical spread of the language. Naturally, the use value of the world-wide languages is the largest, followed by medium-size and small, local, regionally mediating etc. languages. In this regard, there is no major difference between east-central European languages. Our immediate neighbours ought to realise the advantages of the centrally located Hungarian language territory, the bi-lingual character of the peripheries, that "With this language, for historical reasons, one can get along in 8 or 9 countries" (Géza Balázs - László Marácz: Nyelvpolitika. Példák, tételek és feladatok. Magyar nyelvőr, 120. évf. 1996. 1:44.).

It is also to be remembered that the more general one-sided bi-linguality becomes in an area, the more reduced the usefulness of the subordinated language will be. In total bi-linguality, one of the languages practically becomes "redundant". Owing to differences in legal status, in the minority-majority relation, the dominant language is the prestigeous language, the other standing no chance.

Cultural and scientific value can be separated from the immediate usefulness. Cultural value depends on the literature in the language, the culture it conveys, whether it has literacy, what its past is like, is it used as a language of institutional education, are its variants capable of cultivating science, does it meet the requirements of up-to-date communication, etc. The language itself, its type and character supplies its purely scientific value. Hungarian is in a distinguished place by its cultural and scientific value owing to its otherness and rich legacy, but its immediate environment - not even the  academic, university, literary environment - of the neighbouring countries appreciates it. With a few respectable exceptions, the International Hungarian Philological Society, for example, clearly shows the lack of interest in Hungarology in neighbouring countries. It has its distorting effect even on linguistic studies: it is not stressed how useful it is but - see the bias - how difficult it is. The only exceptions are archivists and students of history who are forced to learn a language by their interest in the sources. The advantage of the lack of prejudice is revealed by Finnish. When in 1992 we launched the Finnish course, there was far greater interest in it among Romanians than in Hungarian.

It is in the third sphere of values, symbolical value, that external evaluation and self-assessment deviate most widely. This consists of the interlacing of the given language and a religion, traditional value system, emotive elements, mentality, frame of mind. It becomes an important identifying factor of a language exactly because of its symbolical value. The different evaluation of identity and otherness is expressed by natural ethno-centricity and ideologically fuelled ethno-centricity blown up into aversion or even hatred.

In the reciprocity of two languages, even a language being difficult is biased judgement, since the difficulties of learning are mutual. General ignorance produces epithets like thieves' Latin, bird's language (for different cants known to insiders only), the loathing of the adherents of other religion calling their language the devil's tongue, etc.

Thus, in the neighbouring countries it all but "compromises" the Hungarian language that it is the tongue of an embarrassing minority, of believers in a different religion, it is used in a regional variant, but its standard language is alien, useless, small language. Aversion, rejection is caused by this multiple stigmatisation. And every neighbouring nation is disposed historically to this aversion. "This historical consciousness had another moment..." Emil Niederhauser states in his paper entitled Historical consciousness and national development in eastern Europe. "One could find everywhere and in nearly every period the 'arch enemy' who was set against the given nation, conquered, suppressed it. It often had historical justification. The Poles meant Germans and Russian, the Czechs the Germans, so did the Hungarians, and the latter had the Ottoman-Turks as well. For the non-Hungarian nationalities of historical Hungary the arch-enemy was clearly the Hungarian." (Korunk 1997/7).

It is well known how hostile the nationalities were in the middle of the last century when the Hungarian language was made official, practically after 1867. Actually, it was devoid of pressure so much that even at the census of 1910 in Transylvania, only 15 per cent of non-Hungarians spoke Hungarian, a great part of these must have been naturally bilingual. In this regard, there must have been no substantial difference between the later peripheries.

The obstacles must therefore be sought in the deep-lying strata of historical consciousness further enhanced by the nationalism, xenophobia of the modern age. Irrational factors are meant, which are hard or impossible to handle rationally. What can be done about stereotypes, prejudices, claims to predominance and power drives?

Yet things are brighter than they look. There are promising tries. In Slovenia,  bilingual education was reciprocal. In the '80s, Romanian children in Nagyvárad learnt Hungarian quickly to be able to see Hungarian cartoons, while adults wanted to watch sports events (in that locked-up world television was a tool and motivation of language learning). In private language schools successful Hungarian courses started for young people and specialists. There is sometimes a university student or two who wants to study Hungarian. Unfortunately, only the negative tendencies are registered, and we do not know how many actually learn our language. The studies of attitudes focus on the attitudes of Hungarians towards their own language and the official language of the state. The opposite should also be investigated: what is the attitude of Slovaks, Austrians, Slovenians, Romanians, etc. towards Hungarian, especially among young people. The excellent social psychological investigations also fail to be extended to language-related stereotypes (cf. György Hunyadi: Stereotypes in a changing public mind. Budapest, 1996).

Let me tell some examples instead of statistics to illustrate the wide spectrum of motivation to learn a language. An anecdotal extreme is the case of a Romanian in Mezõség who buys a horse that only understands Hungarian so he must also learn the language. The other extreme is communication with God: in a female nunnery administered by Slovakians, the language of sacred texts is Hungarian so even Romanian nuns must learn the language. A new demand: a Hungarian language teacher is sought by the military academy of Bucharest in preparation of the Romanian-Hungarian mixed corps to be set up.

However scattered and anecdotal the examples may be, they indicate that the evaluation of the Hungarian language is changing, despite the larger number of hair-raising examples to the contrary, to its advantage even in this critical second zone. The Hungarian language will hopefully have appeal. Not by its power dominance but by practical consideration and intellectual interest. Those who have tasted it will not abandon it.

*Paper read at the conference of the international Hungarological Centre (August 27, 1997).