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'Language Proves More Than The Chronicles': Constructing Comparative Linguistics as National Endeavor in Nineteenth-Century Hungary

Thu, November 9, 3:00 to 4:45pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, Floor: 2nd, Streeterville


During the 1880s, a debate broke out in the Hungarian Academy between those who proposed Hungarian membership in the Finno–Ugric language family and those who proposed a Hungarian–Turkic linguistic relationship. The ensuing debates became known as the "Turkic–Ugric War," in which both sides saw their ideas of the Hungarian nation shaped by their proposed relationships, whether they reacted by emphasizing the glorious Turkic origin or—while acknowledging the allegedly low cultural status of many Finno–Ugric peoples—encouraging the nation to transcend its origin through modern accomplishments.

This paper examines how the Finno-Ugric linguists Pál Hunfalvy (1810–91), József Budenz (1836–92), and Bernát Munkácsi (1860–1937) proposed and defended the use of language to investigate the prehistoric past, especially as other disciplines including archaeology and physical anthropology asserted their equal or superior status. Arguing that language was a historical repository of defining significance for the nation, the linguists presented their research as a service to the nation in its search for self–understanding, refuting their opponents' charges of insufficient patriotism. Indeed, during the First World War Munkácsi successfully argued for the removal of prisoners of war from camps into Budapest in order to facilitate research that might clarify otherwise-murky questions of national prehistory. Hunfalvy and Budenz began by appealing to international standards of modern science. By Munkácsi's generation, comparative linguistics had found a national(izing) language to describe its work, challenging the Turkicists' claim to preeminent patriotism in their approach to the uncertainties of Hungarian origins.