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The Hungarians, or Magyars, come originally from Asia, though precisely where has never been established. They appeared in the area north of the Black Sea around the 8th/9th century at which time they were nomadic tribal horsemen. At the request of the Byzantine emperor, they entered Europe in 896 under the united leadership of Árpád. They settled in the Carpathian Basin along the Danube, where the nation of Hungary continues to this day. For the next 100 years, they terrorized the kingdoms of Europe on horseback, sometimes making two raids in the same year. Their raids extended from Greece and Poland to as far west as Naples, Rome, Germany, France, and Flanders. A decisive defeat at the hands of the Germans restricted their further activities.
In the year 997, King Stephen was crowned. Under his leadership, Hungary became a feudal kingdom modeled on the nations of western and central Europe. Stephen forcibly converted his family and the tribal leaders to Christianity, and the religion soon spread throughout the populace. For this, Stephen was recognized as king by the Byzantine crown and by the Pope. Stephen took advantage of this sudden interest in his affairs by playing the two religious leaders against each other to gain concessions for his kingdom. Stephen was later canonized, and his name has been popular in Hungary ever since. Stephen is also important for introducing literacy and record-keeping to Hungary. Many Latin documents survive from his time, and by 1055 we find records in Hungarian.
In 1241, Hungary was overrun by the Mongolian Tartars. Though they did not advance further west, their presence in Hungary set back development for the next 100 years, and left an important cultural impression. Some of them stayed and intermarried with the Magyars.
With the end of the 13th century, so came the end of the House of Árpád, which had ruled Hungary for more than 400 years. The Hungarian crown passed by marriage to the Neapolitan branch of the House of Anjou, which strengthened relations between Hungary and its Italian neighbors. Additional marriages tied the royal line to the Bohemians, Poles, and Habsburgs, resulting in a messy series of successions in the mid-15th century.
In 1458, King Matthias Hunyadi, called Corvinus, brought Hungary into a Golden Age. Culture and living standards reached levels comparable to those in western Europe, even if only for a few decades. It was about this time that increasing contact with western Europe made an impression on the Hungarian nobility. After the fashion of European nobles, they took on inherited surnames and heraldry, though heraldic design was far different from the rest of Europe.
Shortly before Matthias became king, in the year 1453, one of the most important events in the history of eastern Europe occurred. That year, Constantinople fell to the Turks, an event that ended the era of Byzantium and heralded the coming of Islam. For the next 100 years, the Hungarians, Austrians, and Italians fought to keep the Turks from advancing further north until, in 1526, the Turks defeated the Hungarian armies at Mohacs, bringing 150 years of Turkish rule. The northernmost and westernmost remnants of the nation became united with Habsburg Austria under Ferdinand to form a new nation that would shape the course of European history over the next 400 years.
Because the Magyars are not originally from Europe, it should come as no surprise that their language is quite unlike European languages. While the French, German, and Polish languages all have close relatives nearby, Hungarian does not. Geographically, the closest related languages are Finnish and Estonian, while the most structurally similar languages are spoken in the Ural Mountains. None of these related languages is particularly like modern Hungarian. The Finns have adopted much vocabulary and grammar form their Scandinavian neighbors, and the Magyars have borrowed many words from the Slavs.
Two of the most important features of the Hungarian language are noun suffixes and the use of postpositions. Like other European languages, Hungarian nouns may be expressed in several cases, depending upon how the noun is used in the sentence, whether subject, object, etc. Unlike western European languages, most of which have reduced or eliminated the use of cases, Hungarian retains them. This is particularly important to remember when dealing with names recorded in a Hungarian text, since names are nouns too. Often a bizarre suffix that seems out-of-place is actually a case ending for a noun. The most commonly encountered case endings are: -hoz, -nak, -t, and -val.
The other important feature of Magyar is that of postpositions. These are much like prepositions in English, but occur after their object nouns or related verbs rather than before, and hence the difference in name. Sometimes, a postposition is attached to the end of a word as a suffix. This should be kept in mind when looking for a word in the dictionary. A familiarity with the most common postpositions will save on much lexical anguish.
Magyar is the native name of both the Hungarian people and their language.
Most of the letters used in Hungarian will look familiar to an English speaker, and many of them are pronounced the same as in most European languages. However, Hungarian includes several additional vowels, and has a number of "letters" that are represented by two or three characters. There are also several consonants that are not pronounced the same as in most other languages.
Most consonants in Magyar are approximately the same as in English, but there are some notable exceptions, at least in the modern language. Most of these are forms of c, s, and z, and it will be difficult to keep these sounds straight unless you have a native speaker to constantly correct you. (See also cs, sz, and zs below). The following consonants are those which are pronounced significantly unlike their English counterparts:
c - pronounced like TS, as in
Modern Magyar also includes several digraphs, combinations of two characters that together represent a single spoken sound. These digraphs are treated by Hungarians as letters in their own right, and will be indexed as separate letters in dictionaries. Newcomers to the language are often frustrated by this, so it is worth your while to become familiar with them.
cs - pronounced like CH, as in
The modern digraphs were not common before the end of the 16th century, and some of them, such as zs, did not appear before the end of the 17th century. There are also some digraphs, such as ch, which disappeared when Hungarian replaced Latin as the language of choice for official documents. For this reason, it can sometimes be difficult to recognize an early Hungarian name unless you pronounce it out loud, and have some idea of the orthographic changes that have occurred in the intervening years.
Modern Hungarian uses 14 distinct vowels, each represented by a fixed character and pronounced with a precise sound. Unfortunately, web fonts do not yet support all of these characters, in particular the o and u with doubled accents. The characters ő and u" have been substituted here.
The accents and dots are not optional. There are many Hungarian words that are spelled exactly the same except for their diacritical marks. Fortunately for the student of the early language, these marks were uncommon before the end of the 16th century, and most names did not make use of them. However, there were a few additional vowels that have since disappeared from Magyar, among them ˙, sometimes written as ij, and also the single-dotted u. The dotted u does not seem to be significantly different from unmarked u, and ˙ is probably pronounced as a longer i.
Hungarian names consist of two elements, a given name and a byname. Note that this is different from the general practice in modern English and Spanish-speaking countries, where a person will usually have a name of three or more elements.
The given name is the single name by which a person would be known, such as Istvan (Stephen), Janos (John), Miklos (Nicholaus). Most given names in medieval and Renaissance Hungary are variants of Christian names common throughout Europe, though there are also many of Latin, German, and Slavic origin.
The byname developed as a phrase or description that helped to distinguish two people with the same given name. Thus, if there were several men named Miklos in a town, each might be distinguished from the others by some unique feature, such as "Miklos, son of Gyorgy" or "Miklos, the lame" or "Miklos, the carpenter". These descriptive phrases were not fixed for most people, and for example, a person who was known as "Miklos, son of Gyorgy" in his home town might be known as "Miklos from Kalocsa" while travelling. Neither were these bynames hereditary. If "Miklos, son of Gyorgy" had a son named Mihaly, then he might be called "Mihaly, son of Miklos", but he certainly wouldn't be known as "son of Gyorgy", since Gyorgy was not his father's name!
Despite the unusual spellings and unique vocabulary, the major classes of Hungarian bynames are much like those found across the rest of Europe. These are described below, with some examples. (Caution: these examples are not necessarily in a spelling attested before 1600.)
The first major class of byname is formed from the name of the person's father, and is called a patronymic. The most common form of this is the unmarked patronymic, in which the name of the father, or a pet form of his name, is used without any change in spelling.
Examples: Dionysius Peter (Dionysius, son of Peter) and Miklos Tamas (Nicholaus, son of Thomas).
A patronymic byname may also be formed by adding -fi to the father's name. This is an abbreviation of -fia, meaning "his son", and is also recorded as -fi, -fia, -fy, -f˙, and others. This kind of patronymic is similar to English Johnson (son of John), but in Hungarian they are not as common as unmarked ones.
Example: Istvan Laszlofi (Stephen, son of Laszlo).
A related, but much rarer, class of byname is the metronymic, these are formed from the name of the mother, rather than the father. They do not appear until the 15th century, and never became common.
The second major class of byname is the locative, and is formed from a person's place of birth, place of origin, or place of residence. Nearly all bynames of this type are formed by adding the suffix -i to the name of a village, province, or other geographic location. Locatives are most useful when the person bearing it is not currently in the location from which that byname derives. That is, Cseri Janos (John, from Cser) would not be known by that name while he was still in his home town of Cser; there would be many men named Janos there, and so such a name would not help to distinguish our Janos from anyone else. The major exception to this is in the case of noble families named for their estates.
A related group of bynames are those that identify the ethnic origin of a person. Examples: Tot (Slavic); Sido (Jewish); Olasz (Italian); Lengyel (Polish).
The third major class of bynames derive from the occupation or office held by an individual.
Examples: Kovacs (smith); Szabo (tailor); Molnar (miller); Vadas (hunter); Hegedus (fiddler); Szekeres (coachman); Vamos (customs officer); Pap (priest); Kiraly (king).
Other kinds of Bynames:
While most Hungarian bynames belong to one of the previous three classes, there are many other kinds of byname. Most of these describe the physical or personality traits of an individual, such as hair, weight, height, age, intelligence, bravery, etc.
Examples: Feher (white-haired); Fodor (curly-haired); Hasas (pot-bellied); Melles (big-chested); Eltes (elderly); Eszes (wise, clever); Jo (good, honest); Fejes (stubborn); Hideg (cold, indifferent); Vak (blind).
In Hungary, it is common practice to write your family name first, followed by your given name (which for obvious reasons is not called a "first" name, as it is in America!). This practice is a result of Hungarian grammar and the way in which family names originated. Since family names were originally descriptive phrases used to identify people, these phrases functioned like adjectives. In Hungarian adjectives precede the noun, just as they do in English, so these descriptive phrases are placed before a person's name in speech and in writing.
However, at the time that Hungarians began using bynames, Latin was the language of choice for official records. When names are recorded in Latin, the byname follows the given name as is common in European cultures. Since most Hungarian official documents were written in Latin, records of the 14th to 17th century frequently include names written in standard European order, even when the name elements themselves were Hungarian. This is not unlike modern Hungarian practice; most modern Hungarians will write their given name first when visiting another country.
Since our only source of information about early Hungarian names is in the form of written records, we cannot say for certain whether a European order for names was used in everyday speech, though it is likely that the everyday order was byname-first. However, in medieval written records either element might be written first.
In fact, names written in reversed orders formed using locatives or unmarked patronyms are significantly rare before about 1550. This may be the result of European influence, or it may have been a scribal solution to the problem of deciphering names. If a text includes the name Iwan Ambrus, is this a man named Iwan, whose father was Ambrus, or is it a man named Ambrus, whose father was Iwan? By using the standard order used in Europe, scribes may have been working around this problem.
Below are documented examples of names from Kázmér illustrating the flexibility of name order through the 16th century. Each major category of byname is represented in the table. Pairs of names on the same line are of approxiamtely the same date; in each case, the name on the left is in European order while that on the right is in Hungarian order.
In the table below are given the frequencies of the most common masculine given names from several census records (as presented in Ádám Imre). Note that the name Janos is consistently at the of the list. In fact, it is so common that 1 in every 12 men bore this name.
The number following each name is a percent of the total names in the census. Spellings have been standardized to their modern forms in this table. For additional masculine names, see my related article: Hungarian Personal Names of the 16th Century.
To this point I have not said much about feminine names, and there are several reasons for this. The most important is that we don't have many records of women's names. To date, in fact, I have seen only a dozen Hungarian feminine given names dated prior to 1500. Why is this? Certainly there must have been women present in Hungary before this time, so why isn't there a record of them?
The answer lies partly in the nature of the source material in which we find early Hungarian names. Most of these are official documents or census reports, and so will mention the heads of households and estates. In most cases, these are men.
Additionally, a woman's official name is constructed from her husband's name by adding the suffix -ne to his given name. As an example, a woman named Anna who is married to Tar Jakab (bald Jacob), would be recorded in official documents and would introduce herself in polite company as Tar Jakabne (bald Jacob's wife). This is similar to the English practice of using Mrs..
This does not mean that women did not have and did not use their own given names, but because they were seldom written down, we have far less information about feminine names than masculine ones. Most of our records of Hungarian feminine given names come from the 16th century, and are combined with bynames in the same general patterns of construction as masculine names.
For an analysis and complete list, see my article: Hungarian Feminine Names.
Hungary included a large area from the 10th to 16th centuries. Much of this area was populated by peoples before it came under Hungarian control, and as a result, Hungary included a mix of many different cultures. Look at a map of Eastern Europe today, and what you find are many ethnic groups that once were included in Hungary: Slovakia, Czechia, Croatia, Yugoslavia, Slovenia, and parts of Romania and Bulgaria.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Hungary shared a considerable border with Poland, Lithuania, Russia, and Venice. Each of these was a powerful nation, and each influenced Hungarian culture. Hungary was also a major trade route, lying as it does along the Danube. We see this reflected in records that indicate the ethnicity of individuals.
The primary source of information for this project was the excellent dictionary of early Hungarian surnames by Kázmér Miklós and the survey of Hungarian naming practices by Kálmán.
In addition, the following books were useful for interpretation:
Sincere thanks go to the members of the Academy of Saint Gabriel for providing a nourishing environment for an amateur onomastic. Special thanks go also to Josh Mittleman (ska Arval Benicoeur), Julia Palotay, Márti Palotay, and Lewis Tanzos (ska Istvan) for proofreading this article and offering helpful suggestions; any remaining faults are my own.
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