Category Archives: Hungarian

On the etymology of Hungarian srác

While brushing up on my Hungarian by reading through Routledge’s Colloquial Hungarian (the 2nd edition, which lives up to its title more than the 1st), I learned the previously unfamiliar word srác ‘guy’, the phonetic shape of which is somewhat unusual for Hungarian.

Searching through Google for an etymology took some work, but eventually I came across this article on the very subject at Magyar Narancs (a liberal weekly with a satiric touch roughly comparable to Private Eye):

In the 1950s srác was truly slang (just as csávó is now). The word is of Yiddish origin, that is, from the form of German spoken by Eastern European Jews, which is also the source of haver, szajré, a stikában and many other Hungarian words. The word derives ultimately from Hebrew sheretz (the plural form of which is shratzim), which refers to creeping, crawling creatures. This Hebrew word is found in the Bible at the very beginning, in Genesis 1:20, where it is used to describe the swarming of aquatic animals. Yiddish speakers, knowing Scripture, used this word in a comic metaphorical way, to describe groups of children (let’s not forget that in olden times there were many children playing together outside homes) as little swarms of creatures. Thus the word shratzim came to be used, later shortened to shratz. (The word entered German slang also as Schratz.) Today it is used only in Hungarian: in Yiddish the word did not put down strong roots, and Yiddish dictionaries published in the 20th century make no mention of it: it came to pass that in the 19th century it entered Hungarian slang (the first written attestation dates from 1888) and became entrenched there, while in the donor language Yiddish it was quickly forgotten.

As several sites I came across listed the word among Romani borrowings into Hungarian, I wanted to do some fact-checking, but indeed there is a German Schratz ‘child’ according to Heidi Stern’s Wörterbuch zum jiddischen Lehnwortschatz in den deutschen Dialekten with the same etymology (under the entry for Scheres), so it looks like the claim holds water.

The Volga Bulgarian inscription of Tatarskoe Shapkino

The palatalization of Proto-Turkic /č/ to /č́/ and then the weakening of the affricate’s initial stop to give /š́/ or /š/, is a notable areal feature extending from the Volga–Kama region into Kazakhstan. In the second volume of Róna-Tas and Berta’s Western Old Turkic (Harrassowitz, 2011), which reconstructs the ancestor of Volga Bulgarian and Chuvash on the basis of loanwords into Hungarian, the authors mention how the Tatars, whose own language would soon undergo the same evolution, were confronted by this change already almost complete in Volga Bulgarian:

Important is the bilingual inscription of Tatar Šapkino. In the Arabic inscription containing Volga Bulgarian words, the name of the deceased lady is written as J̌eker, and should be read as /č́eker/, while on the other side of the same stone, the same name is written as Šeker. What was perceived as /č/ by the Volga Bulgars was heard by the Kipchak Tatars as /š/.

Tatarskoe Shapkino is a village in south-central Tatarstan. A description of the Arabic portion of this inscription can be found in Khakimzjanov’s Язык эпитафий волжских булгар (Moscow: Nauka, 1978) on pages 158–159:

هو الحى الذى لا يموت
هذه روضة مستورة
المطهرة الصَّالحة الصائـنة الطيفة
شكر الجى بنت عثمان البلفارؾ
الهم ارحمها رحمة واسعة توفيت
الى رحمة الله تعالى فى اليوم الرابع و العشريں

Huwa-l-xäjji-l-läzi lä jämutu wä küllü häjjin säjämutu. Haẕihi rawḍatu-l-mästüräti-l-muṭahhiräti-ṣ-ṣalixäti-ṣ-ṣa’inäti-ṭ-tajfäti Šäkär-älči bint Gos̱man äl-Bolɣari. Äl-lähummä ärxämha räxmätän wäsigätän. Tuwufijjat ilä-r-räxmäti-l-lahi tägali fi-l-jawmi-r-rabigi wä-l-gišrinä

He lives who does not die, but every living thing dies. This is the plot of the chaste, devout, pious, caring, compassionate Šeker-elči, daughter of Osman the Bulgarian. God, have mercy on her with your great mercy. She was entrusted to the mercy of God the Most-High on the twenty-fourth day.

A photgraph of the Volga Bulgarian inscription of Tatarskoe Šapkino

The monument lies in the village cemetery and has dimensions of 160×60×23 cm. It has been inscribed in two languages: on the obverse there is an Arabic-language inscription written in relief in the Thuluth style of calligraphy, while on the reverse a Turkic text has been inscribed in the Bulgarian variant of the Kufic style. There is also relief writing on the sides of the monument.

A piece of pottery is lying nearby with writing on both sides (but it has not been successfully deciphered). This may give the date of the inscription in question.

Magyar is Turkic

The traditional etymology of the Hungarian self-appellation magyar derives the word from the same Proto-Ugric root as the ethnonym Mańsi, perhaps as a compound with a second word *er of uncertain meaning. However, it is recognized that some of the other Hungarian tribal names during the period of migration into the Carpathian Basin are of Turkic origin, and Árpád Berta shows evidence that magyar is Turkic as well. In a 1998 paper ultimately collected in the memorial volume Studies in Turkic Etymology ed. Lars Johanson and András Róna-Tas (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010), Berta suggests that it is a compound of West Old Turkic *ban ‘big’ (cf. Chuvash măn(ă)) and *ǰer ‘place’.

Such an original meaning for this ethnonym acts neatly as the keystone for a series of relationships built up by the other tribal names with Turkic etymologies:

Lastly, let us consider the pattern of meanings that will emerge on the assumption that all Hungarian tribal names are of Turkic origin: ‘Hedge’ (Nyék) – a tribe of guardsmen who, in earlier times, patrolled the borders of the tribal confederation; ‘Chief Place’ (Megyer) – the Chief Tribe after the change of dynasties; ‘Abreast–Behind’ (Kürtgyarmat) – formerly the vanguard and rear guard of the Megyer tribe, merged to protect the new Chief Tribe after the change of dynasties; ‘Tarxan’ (Tarján) – the new Chief Tribe; ‘Little Flank/Face’ (Jenő) – the flank or vanguard of the new Chief Tribe; ‘Back; the Last’ (Kér) – the rear guard of the new Chief Tribe; ‘Fragment’ (Keszi) – the remnant of a former major tribe. (p. 184)

That bit is somewhat speculative. However, the evidence for a Turkic origin of the name that Berta presents is strong and I’d like to see this paper get more attention.

The twists and turns of Chuvash etymology

The Chuvash branch of Turkic actually preserved some lexical items common to the whole Turkic family, but you’d never guess it from looking at modern Chuvash. Here the early Chuvash loans into Hungarian prove essential for knowing the whole history of r-type Turkic.

The first example is Proto-Turkic *teŋiz ‘sea’. Chuvash must have inherited this, because it was borrowed into Hungarian as tenger. In modern Chuvash, we do not find this word, however, but tinĕs, clearly a loan from a z-type Turkic language, presumably Tatar tiŋez (Fedotov 1996: 232).

The other example is also maritime. Proto-Turkic *yinčü ‘pearl’ must have survived into the Chuvash branch long enough to be borrowed by Hungarian as gyöngy and even Russian as žemčhug. The distinct Proto-Chuvash form must have been something like *ǯinǯü (Fedotov 1996: 155). At some point, however, Chuvash must have lost it. Modern Chuvash ĕnče would seem to be a borrowing of Tatar enče, as the Proto-Chuvash form would have developed to something like ˣśĕnśĕ.

(Róna-Tas 1982 also has much discussion of using Chuvash loans into other languages to peer into the history of Chuvash itself.)

I’m curious about the dating of these loans into Chuvash, as they were evidentally borrowed after Volga Tatar’s switch of mid vowels with high vowels, a change I’ve always thought was quite late. Tatar loans in Mari, such as Mari osal ‘bad, evil’ ~ modern Tatar usal, seem to preserve the original vocalism. Did the Mari have heavy Tatar influence so much earlier than the Chuvash?


  1. Fedotov, M. R. (1996). Etimologičeskij slovar’ čuvašskogo jazyka. Čeboksary: Čuvašskij gosudarstvennij institut gumanitarnyx nauk.
  2. Róna-Tas, András (1982). “The periodization and sources of Chuvash linguistic history”. In: Chuvash Studies, ed. András Róna-Tas. Asiatische Forschungen 79. Wiesbaden: Otto Harassowitz, 113–170.

More weird sound changes in Romanian borrowings

The Crestomație de literatură română veche edited by I. C. Chițimia and Stela Toma (Cluj-Napoca: Editura Dacia, 1984) that I picked up for cheap last year in a Cluj antiquary has so much trivia on Slavonic hangers-on in the early modern Romanian lexicon that I could do an endless series of posts here. Less visible but often even more intriguing are the signs of contact with Hungarian. A liturgy book produced in Brașov in Transylvania in 1570 features the following lines of translation of Psalm 50: Ție unuia greșiiu și hiclenșug înaintea ta feciu, ca să dereptezi-te întru cuvintele tale și pîrî-veri cînd veri judeca ‘Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.’

Here the word hiclenșug ‘betrayal’ is clearly a borrowing of Hungarian hitlenség ‘infidelity’, a perfectly Magyar formation formed by hit ‘belief’ plus the caritive suffix lan/len and then the abstract formation ság/ség. I don’t know how to explain the final vowel in the Romanian form other then by wondering if the Hungarian ending, like many Hungarian endings, originally had an invariable back vowel before it was made to conform to vowel harmony.

The dissimilation before /l/ of /t/ to /k/ is a bit odd too, but things get stranger still when one considers that hiclenșug is archaic in Romanian, with not even an entry in the Dicționarul explicativ al limbii române, but the loan survives still today in the further altered form vicleșug. Now, I cannot help but wonder if that change of /h/ to /v/ is related to the word-final change of /h/ to /v/ in loanwords that I previously wrote about here.

The migration of the Hungarians

In Historical and Linguistic Interaction Between Inner-Asia and Europe ed. Árpád Berta (Szeged, 1997), the Proceedings of the 39th Permanent International Altaistic Conference (PIAC) in Szeged, Hungary June 16–21, 1996, András Róna-Tas contributes the paper ‘The migration of the Hungarians and their settlement in the Carpathian Basin’. It sketches the stages by which the Hungarians went from being a minor Finno-Ugrian people somewhere near the Permians to masters of modern-day Hungary, with a few interesting linguistic bits.

Róna-Tas gives the etymology of the Hungarian people’s self-appellation magyar as a compound of the ethnonym *manš (cognate with the self-appelation of the Vogul/Mansi people) plus the word *er ‘man, creature’. Indeed, the form magyer lacking vowel harmony was recorded until the 13th century.

The Hungarians switched to a nomadic way of life in the 5th of 6th centuries AD in the southern part of the Urals near the Rivers Yayik or Ural. This is when all the Chuvash-type Turkic words came in, such as Hu. ökör ‘ox’ ~ Chuv. *văgăr but Old Turkic öküz.

Along with a host of other Turkic peoples, the Hungarians reached southern Russian near the border with modern-day Ukraine, inhabiting the area between the Kuban, the Don and the Sea of Azov. This was just north of the Alans, whose presence in the region is well-documented. Alan contacts gave loanwords such as Hungarian asszony ‘noblewoman’ ~ Old Osetian axsin ‘princess’. Old Turkic loanwords also came into Hungarian at the time, such as Hu. kőris ‘ash tree’ ~ West Old Turkic keürič and Hu. gyümölcs ‘fruit’ ~ OT yemiš. Their vicinity to the Black Sea facilitated the borrowing of words such as Hu. homok ‘sand’ ~ OT kumaki and Hu. hajó ‘boat’ ~ OT. kayik.

The final stage before the occupation of the Hungarian basin is one that I didn’t know about earlier, but seems to have gone on for nearly two hundred years before they eventually reached their current home in AD 895. Towards the end of the 7th century, the Hungarians moved down into the territory between the Dnieper and the Lower Danube. The early Hungarians called this region Etelküzü, where Etel is from the generic West Turkic name for ‘river’ and küzü is the same as the root of modern Hungarian postposition között ‘between’ which has a locative ending tacked on. The name of the region is equivalent to Greek ‘Mesopotamia’. This is when loanwords such as Hu. szőlő ‘wine grape’ ~ Turkic yedlig were borrowed.

I also thought it neat to learn that the Hungarian-speaking inhabitants of ‘Magna Hungaria’, the area around the Kama River visited by the Hungarian friar Julian in 1235 who was amazed to meet long separated kinsmen, had not stayed in the area the entire time, but in fact moved there from Etelküzü with some Bulgar tribes.

Last year, this year, next year

It’s interesting to note that Hungarian and Chuvash both express the concepts ‘last year’, ‘this year’, and ‘next year’ with lexically very different words:

Hungarian Chuvash
‘last year’ tavaly пӗлтӗр
‘this year’ idén кӑҫал
‘next year’ jövőre, következő évben ҫул

Granted, I’ve only studied European languages and Mandarin Chinese, but this seems like a very unusual system.

Hungarian-Old Chuvash contacts

In the collection Chuvash Studies ed. András Róna-tas (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1982) there’s a fascinating paper by Margaret Palló entitled “The Bulgar-Turkish Loanwords of the Hungarian Language as Sources of Chuvash Prehistory”. The earliest terminology of animal husbandry in Hungarian is of a distinctly Proto-Chuvash type, and Pallo shows why:

One group of the Old Turkish loanwords of the Hungarian language suggests that the Magyars of the Ural region had got into closer contact with a Turkish people engaged in animal husbandry, and subsequently, changed their mainly predatory way of life to the more highly developed one of livestock breeding. This is proved by the large number of names of domestic animals: Hung. bika ‘bull’ < *bïqa, ökör ‘ox’ < *ökür, tinó ‘steer’ < *tïnaɣ, ünő ‘heifer’ < *inäɣ, borjú ‘calf’ < *buraɣu, kos ‘ram’ < *qoš, ürü ‘sheep’ < *iriɣ, toklyó ‘yearling’ < *toqlïɣ, kecske ‘goat’ < *käčkä, olló ‘kid of goat’ < *oɣlaɣ, kölyök ‘whelp, young of an animal’ < *köläk. Presumably the word iker ‘twins’ also belongs to this group as it may have meant twin broods. If we consider the most prominent phonetic characteristics of these animal names — r stands for ST z, as in öküzökör, buzaɣuborjú, ikiziker, and l stands for the ST š, as in *köšäkkölyök — then it seems obvious that it is BT and not some other Turkish languages whence the Hungarians borrowed them. No doubt, the other animal names without the characteristic OB phonetic features were also borrowed from the same source.

Hungarian regionalisms

No teacher would deny that German, Italian, or French differ region by region from the standard language. Nonetheless, several prominent learning materials for speakers of English claim that Hungarian has no significant regional variation. As a beginner I believed that, but then one day when I couldn’t find a word in my dictionary, a native speaker alerted me to one of the major regionalisms in Hungarian. The writer had used ö in the word in question, but to get the standard form I had to look under e in the dictionary.

Another major regionalism is [a] for standard [ɛ] among the Székely (Szekler) Hungarians in Romania. A Transylvanian friend wrote me the following joke on the subject:

A székely városbeli vasútállomáson megszólal a hangosbeszélő:

― Figyelem, figyelem! Vonat erkezik az Á vágányra. Kérem vigyazzanak.

Vonat megjön, elmegy, ujra megszólal a hangosbeszelő:

― Mennyi halott, mennyi sebesült… pedig világosan megmondtam: Á mint Elemér!

At the train station in a Székely town the loudspeaker announces:

‘Attention, attention! A train is arriving on track A. Please be careful.’

The train comes and goes, and the loudspeaker again announces:

‘So many dead, so many injured… but I clearly said A as in Echo!’

The Department of Phonetics of the Research Institute for Linguistics at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has a map of dialects where one can find the major traits of each region.

Hungarian and Mansi connections

In the Introduction to the Study of the Finno-Ugrian Languages course that I’m sitting in on again this year, the lecturer handed out a nice concise listing of similarities between Hungarian and Mansi—and differences between these two and Finnish—that show why traditionally Hungarian is grouped closely with the Ob-Ugrian languages.

Hungarian Mansi Finnish
hal xuul kala ‘fish’ *k before a back vowel
kéz kit käsi ‘hand’ *k before a front vowel
egér tänkør hiiri ‘mouse’ intervocalic *-ŋ-
harom xuurøm kolme ‘three’ *-rm- in this word.
kétkettő kitkitøg kaksi ‘two’ 2 variants
alól joløl alta ‘below’ ablative ending
ház-am-ban kol-øm-t talo-ssa-ni house-1sg-inessive possessive suffix before case suffix
magyar mansyi endonyms
nyolc nyollow kahdeksan ‘eight’ same root and construction
luw hevonen ‘horse’ common vocabulary (around 150 total items)
nyereg nagør satula ‘saddle’
ostor osytør piiska ‘whip’

One of my favourite Uralic etyma is here: *šiŋere/*šiŋiri ‘mouse’. Here one can see the vastly different paths the word has taken in the various Uralic languages. In Finnish, initial *š- becomes /h/ and intervocalic *-ŋ- is lost. In Mansi, initial *š- merges with *s- and becomes first *θ- and ultimately /t-/, while intervocalic *-ŋ- becomes the cluster /-nk-/. Finally, in Hungarian initial *θ- (< *š-) is lost, and intervocalic *-ŋ- becomes first *-ng- and then is denazalized to intervocalic /-g-/. Cognates in other Uralic languages can be seen at a Uralic database entry.