Speaking In Tongues: Sátoraljaújhely & The (Un)Pronounceable Hungarian Language

By the time a traveler makes it to Sátoraljaújhely in northeastern Hungary they have probably had their fill of wine. Anyone visiting the area almost certainly travels through the nearby Tokaj wine region. Even though they might be nursing a bit of a headache, most will gladly spare some time to visit the Bortemplom, otherwise known as the Wine Church located in Sátoraljaújhely. Built in the early 20th century there is nothing quite like it. The cellars can hold up to 12,000 hectoliters of wine. As unique as the cellars are, the church atop them is just as fascinating. It is the only church in Hungary that is not affiliated with a specific denomination. The Bortemplom is one a handful of attractions in the town. Foreign visitors might need at least a liter of one of the Bortemplom’s recent vintages to cope with the impossibility of pronouncing the town in which they have arrived.

Satoraljaujhely - with a name like this...

Satoraljaujhely – with a name like this… (Credit: Krzysztof Dudzik)

The Finno Ugrics: Keep Quiet & Speak Out
In the Bradt Guide to Hungary, Sátoraljaújhely is described as, “a one-street town bereft of decent restaurants, dead as a doornail by mid-evening, and blighted by surrounding residential blocks.” Notwithstanding the Bortemplom, this less than warm introduction would be enough to put most tourists off. Sátoraljaújhely also has a more noticeable problem, namely its name. It is one of many places in Hungary with a name that is only memorable because of its strange look and sound. This is a negative connotation because to non-native speakers it looks literally impossible to pronounce. That’s what happens when a Finno-Ugric language such as Hungarian (Magyar to Hungarians) is converted into Latin script. Of course it could be worse, early Hungarian was written in a runic script. It would take quite a leap of the imagination to envision what Sátoraljaújhely might look like if written in an archaic format. The correct pronunciation is literally a mouthful of syllables, shah-toor-all-ya-oy-hay. It takes a while to get it right. Time and patience is required, but that is nothing new for anyone who tries to learn Hungarian.

The ancient Hungarian alphabet - as if Hungarian was not difficult enough

The ancient Hungarian alphabet – as if it was not already difficult enough

The difficulty of the Hungarian language is legendary. There is nothing like it, at least in Europe. In the European family of languages it is an outlier. Hungarian is not part of the Latin, Germanic or Slavic speaking worlds, though it is surrounded by millions who speak languages from these groupings. The roots of Hungarian are as little understood as the actual language itself, though it is known to be Asiatic in origin. Hungarian is part of the Finno-Ugric language family. These speakers originated in a vast region on the steppes and around the Ural Mountains in what is today central Russia. Hungarian has been proven as a distant relative of both Finnish and Estonian. The operative word is “distant” because Finns and Estonians split off from Hungarians well before early medieval times.

Current distribution of Finno-Ugric languages

Current distribution of Finno-Ugric languages (Credit: Fobos92)

Each of these peoples eventually migrated westward over many centuries. Though they have long been distant geographically from one another, linguistic experts have found approximately two hundred words with common roots among all Finno-Ugric languages spoken today. The most common of these include fifty-five about fishing and fifteen concerning reindeer. The latter animals have probably not been seen in the Carpathian Basin since the last Ice Age  -about 9,000 years before Hungarians arrived there – so not too much should be made of these distant links. According to an article entitled “The Finno-Ugrics” that appeared in The Economist magazine in 2005, “An Estonian philogist, Mall Hellam, came up with just one mutually comprehensible sentence: ‘the living fish swims in water.’  Certainly this is a start, but not much of one for those who speak Finno-Ugric tongues to unite around. Possibly the most astonishing fact is that Hungarian still has any common root words with other Finno-Ugric languages and vice versa. East-Central Europe is geographically, historically and culturally remote in both time and space from the farther reaches of northern Europe. Nonetheless, Hungarians must be heartened by the fact that they can lay claim to linguistic kin.

Denunciations and Pronunciations – Making Hungarian Official
Somehow Hungarian has managed to survive up to the present day despite being considered one of the five toughest languages in the world to learn. Then again if you happen to be Hungarian it is the easiest and for many the only language they will ever need to learn. Though nearly all Hungarians lament the fact that their mother tongue is spoken by “only” fifteen million (three times more than those who speak Finnish and fifteen times more than those who speak Estonian), the fact that Hungarians have survived numerous attempts by foreigners to convert them to their own languages is really saying something. Hungarian is considered as difficult to learn as Mandarin. This may have contributed to efforts by their neighbors to convert Hungarians to an easier and more commonly spoken language.  The Austrian Habsburgs, for instance, thought it would be easier to get Hungarians to speak German rather than learn Hungarian themselves. This ended up stimulating resistance, the upshot of which turned into linguistic nationalism. Patriotic Hungarian nobles felt threatened, especially in the period from the mid-18th to the late 19th centuries.

It only seems fitting that the ever difficult to pronounce Satoraljaujhely was the adopted home for Ferenc Kazinczy, a man who helped codify and promote Hungarian as a literary language. Kazinczy along with many Hungarians was outraged when Habsburg Emperor Joseph II (1780 – 1790) decided to make German the official language of public and official actions in 1784. A few years later, Kazinczy was convicted as part of a dubious conspiracy to overthrow Habsburg rule in Hungary. He was narrowly avoided executed and instead spent seven years in prison. After being freed, Kazinczy moved to Szephalom (Beautiful Hill) an estate on the edge of Satoraljaujhely. It was here where he accomplished some of his greatest work on the Hungarian language. This included the translations of classics as well as native poets and writers. He worked on standardized spelling and vocabulary that met literary standards. Unfortunately Kazinczy died of cholera at his estate in 1831, thirteen years before Hungarian became the official language of his beloved homeland in 1844. No single individual ever did more to help create a dynamic Hungarian language.

Ferenc Kazinczy

Ferenc Kazinczy – He could certainly pronounce Sátoraljaújhely

To Speak Clearly With Complexity
An unintended consequence of the efforts of Kazinczy and his fellow Hungarian language patriots has ensured that visitors to northeastern Hungary will tie their tongues into knots trying to pronounce Sátoraljaújhely, along with hundreds of other Hungarian place names and words that defy pronunciation. A good glass of Tokaj or a liter from the Bortemplom might help loosen a few tongues, but more than likely visitors to Sátoraljaújhely will have long since said goodbye to this sleepy town before they come close to speaking its name correctly.

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