Hungarian Literature and Language

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HUNGARIAN LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE. Hungarian, or Magyar, spoken by some 14 to 15 million Hungarians in Hungary and elsewhere by the beginning of the twenty-first century, is a Finno-Ugric language. Together with the Vogul-Ostiak, Finnish, and other Finno-Ugric tongues, Hungarian belongs to the Uralic linguistic family, which, according to certain scholars, had close contacts with the Altaic languages (Turkic, Mongolian, and Manchu-Tungus). It is an agglutinative tongue, and its richness in vowel sounds renders it especially suitable for poetry. Apart from major early modern European political and cultural trends, the evolution of Hungarian and its literature was significantly influenced by the division of the country and its relationship to the Austrian empire. Between 1541 and 1699 Hungary was divided into three parts, ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs, the Ottomans, and the Ottomans' vassal Hungarian princes in Transylvania; from 1684 to 1699 the Habsburgs "reconquered" Hungary, and throughout the eighteenth century they attempted to subjugate Hungary and integrate it into the Habsburg Monarchy.


Although Latin was the official language of legislation in Hungary until 1844, from the 1540s onward Hungarian spread rapidly in all three parts of the country as a language of both administration and literature. By 1565 it had become the language of legislation and administration in the Principality of Transylvania. Around the same time, with the help of their Hungarian notaries, Ottoman governors residing in Buda started to use Hungarian in their dealings with the Viennese authorities, the princes of Transylvania, and local Hungarian officials. Latin served as the language of education until 1792, when Hungarian became an obligatory subject in secondary schools. Despite the influence of Latin, Turkish, German, and various Slavic languages, this period witnessed the homogenization of the vernacular and the appearance of two main regional dialects. It also marked the beginning of the formation of a Hungarian literary language that stood above regional dialects.

Apart from translations of the Bible (the New Testament in 1541; the first complete Protestant and Catholic translations in 1589 and 1626), the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw thepublication of the first Hungarian-language studies of Magyar orthography (1535 and 1655) and grammar (1610 and 1682) and the first Hungarian dictionary (1604). There was also an attempt to create a new vocabulary that would render Hungarian suitable for scientific literature. To that end, books were published in the vernacular on logic, medicine, arithmetic, physics, geography, and mineralogy. The first general encyclopedia in Hungarian was published in 1653 by János Apáczai Csere (16251659), the principal representative of Hungarian Puritanism, while the first lexicon of Hungarian writers, Péter Bod's Magyar Athénas (Hungarian Athenaeum), appeared in 1766. Yet some of the most important works were still published in Latin. Of these, the most notable were MátyásBél's (16841749) multivolume historical-geographical description of Hungary and the monumental histories of the Magyars by two Jesuit professors at the University of Pest, György Pray (17231801) and István Katona (17321811), the latter's in forty-two volumes.


The first continuous Hungarian text is the Halotti beszéd (Funeral oration) from around 1200, while the oldest known Hungarian poem, the Ómagyar Mária-siralom (Old hymn to the Virgin Mary), is known from a Latin codex dated about 1300. Until the early sixteenth century Hungarian literature, mainly religious, was cherished in the monasteries and recorded in codices. The representatives of Renaissance literatureArchbishop János Vitéz (de Zredna), Bishop Janus Pannonius, and othersworked in the court of King Matthias I Corvinus (ruled 14581490). His court also housed the famous Bibliotheca Corviniana, one of the richest manuscript libraries of fifteenth-century Europe.

Along with the typical genres of Protestant literature, the first exemplars of popular and court poetry also appeared in the sixteenth century. Sebestyén Tinódi Lantos (1510?1556) recorded the struggle of the Hungarians against the Ottoman conquerors in a series of rhymed chronicles. The greatest lyric poet of the century was Bálint Balassi (15541594). By combining the motifs of Hungarian and east-central European love songs with the European tradition of Petrarchan love poetry, Balassi elevated Hungarian love poetry to a much higher standard than it had previously reached. He also penned the first Hungarian play about love, and he wrote heroic and religious poetry as well.

The two towering figures of baroque literature in seventeenth-century Hungary were Archbishop Péter Pázmány (15701637), the leader of the Hungarian Catholic renewal, and Count Miklós Zrínyi (1620664), a military commander, statesman, and writer. Pázmány's theological synthesis Isteni igazságra vezérlo kalauz (1613; Guide to divine truth) represents Hungarian baroque prose at its best. Zrínyi's Szigeti veszedelem (1651; Siege of Sziget), which chronicles the heroic and ultimately unsuccessful defense of Szigetvár by Zrínyi's great-grandfather and namesake against Sultan Suleiman's army in 1566, is the most polished epic in Old Hungarian. Memoirs (by Miklós Bethlen, János Kemény, Péter Apor, and Mihály Cserei) are perhaps the strongest genre of Transylvanian literature of the period. Dramas, in both Hungarian and Latin, were performed mainly in the schools of the religious orders.

In the late baroque period (16901772), literature was often used by members of the Magyar nobility to express their criticism of Vienna's absolutist policies. While these works were usually of modest literary value, the Törökországi levelek (Letters from Turkey) by Kelemen Mikes (16901761) represents the finest example of this genre. Mikes, Ferenc Rákóczi II's faithful companion during his exile in Turkey, addressed his letters to a fictitious female relative who symbolizes his longing for the motherland as well as unfulfilled love.

The first notable representative of the Hungarian Enlightenment was György Bessenyei (17471811). As a member of Maria Theresa's (ruled 17401780) Hungarian Guard in Vienna, Bessenyei mastered French and German and introduced new ideas into Hungarian literature, using familiar literary genres (poetry, drama) along with new ones (the travel novel, the enlightened epos, etc.). Another "bodyguard writer," János Batsányi (17631845), promptly greeted the French Revolution, realizing its significance. Aside from these two writers, the Jesuits Dávid Baróti Szabó (17391819) and József Rájnis (17411812) and the Piarist friar Miklós Révai (17501807) played major roles in polishing the Hungarian literary language through their classical metric poems, translations (from Virgil), and passionate literary debates. Their efforts were facilitated by the newly established literary journals of the late eighteenth century as well as by the expanding book industry. Between 1712 and 1790 some fifteen thousand works appeared in the country. Under Austrian Emperor Joseph II (ruled 17801790) the percentage of books printed in Hungarian and German had risen from 27 to 34 percent and from 17 to 23 percent, respectively, whereas the percentage of books in Latin decreased from 50 to 36 percent. This was the beginning of a new era. The works of a younger generation of poets and writers of the Hungarian Enlightenment, including Mihály Csokonai-Vitéz (17731805) and Ferenc Kazinczy (17591831), among others, ushered in a revival of Hungarian language and literature.

See also Budapest ; Habsburg Territories ; Hungary ; Ottoman Empire .


Czigány, Lóránt. The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature from the Earliest Times to the Present. Oxford and New York, 1984.

Kósa, László, ed. A Companion to Hungarian Studies. Budapest, 1999.

. A Cultural History of Hungary: From the Beginnings to the Eighteenth Century. Budapest, 1999.

Kosáry, Domokos. Culture and Society in Eighteenth-Century Hungary. Budapest, 1987

Szentpéteri, József. Magyar kódex. Vol. 3, Magyarország muvelodéstörténete, 15261790. Budapest, 2000.

GÁbor Ágoston

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