Latin in Hungary

October 12 2006

In the Western world in the Middle Ages, students used to move around from one university to another; they all felt at home in each university. This was easy because, in the Middle Ages, Latin was the common language of Western higher education. Everybody who had any education could speak some kind of Latin. It might have been a Latin that would have set on edge the teeth of a classical Latin writer, but it was a means of communication, and a very effective one. As a matter of fact, colloquial Latin went on being spoken in Eastern Europe, in Poland and Hungary, right into the nineteenth century. I once met an old Polish nobleman who could still speak colloquial Latin. I met a Hungarian cardinal who could do the same. I think 1846 was the year in which Latin ceased to be the language spoken in the Hungarian Parliament. Latin was a neutral language which belonged to everybody, but, when it was given up, a question arose: which of the many languages of Hungary should be the parliamentary language? It was a great misfortune for the unity of the Western world that Latin ceased to be a Western international language.

Did Toynbee remember that date correctly?

Hungary was in personal union with Austria from 1526, a union which evolved in disfavour of Hungary until Hungary had become a mere Austrian province. 1848 released national feeling under the leadership of Kossuth.

The April 1848 laws, quoting a University of Michigan site, were “the culmination of a popular nationalist trend embraced by ethnic Hungarians, but one that ignored or offended the non-Magyar ethnic minorities. The extension of use of the Magyar language (generally supplanting Latin) was a gauge of national chauvinism in Hungary. In 1831 mastery of Hungarian became a requirement to pass the legal bar; in 1838 it became the official language of laws passed in the Diet; in 1839 it became the language of internal administrative memos, and was required of all priests; in 1844 it became the official language of secondary education; and now in 1848 it became a test for voters. Jews remained second-class citizens, barred from holding office. The language laws discriminated against Slovak, Romanian and South Slav minorities in the northern, eastern and southern regions. While Magyars pursued autonomy for themselves, they ignored the same desires among these groups.”

Toynbee’s date may or may not be strictly compatible with this chronology, but it must be close.

After the defeat of 1849, Hungarian autonomy was abolished. And German replaced Latin or Hungarian as the language of official business.

And with the Ausgleich of 1867 and the establishment of the Dual Monarchy or Austria-Hungary – Austria’s compromise with the Hungarian Magyar majority at the expense of Hungarian minorities after its defeat by Prussia – Hungarian was restored. Definitive end of Latin.

Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971

2 Responses to “Latin in Hungary”


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