Reviewed by Gergely Tóth University of Utah, Salt Lake City: Review: 21st Century Hungarian Language Survival in Transylvania.

Gergely Tóth 

21st Century Hungarian Language Survival in Transylvania

This volume offers a fresh, comprehensive description of the current state of affairs of Hungarian as an endangered minority language in the Transylvania region, also making the reader aware of the struggles minority language speakers face. Seven scholars, linguists and sociologists based in the Carpathian Basin, and showing keen interest in and concern for their native tongue, set out to analyze the language’s position in six chapters, under the guidance of Prof. Kesserű Némethy. To be sure, the book’s first two contributions set a wider scope and provide parallels and comparisons to other countries of the region. After all, each of Hungary’s neighbors harbor a more or less sizeable native Hungarian minority, and all minority languages of the globe have to cope with many of the same challenges and obstacles. 

Following a Foreword which concisely announces the main chapters’ content, Prof. Kesserű Némethy sets the stage and identifies the basic problems in the Introduction, by delivering a brief yet thorough overview of the region’s history, political background, waves of foreign occupation, and ethnic relations from the Hungarian state founding in 1001 through our present day, including the pivotal 1920 Peace Dictate of Trianon, which has determined the life of all Hungarians, many of whom suddenly ended up as one of the largest minority groups in Europe. She also notes that the fall of Communism did not significantly improve the status of local minority languages. 

The first chapter, Traditions Shaping Language and Language Instruction Policies in East-Central Europe, written by Orsolya Nádor, approaches the question from a historical perspective. It is centered around the evolution and the status of Hungarian since the Middle Ages and collates the language with Latin and German, for a long time dominant in Central Europe. It takes a closer look at the role of linguistic ideologies leading to linguistic and social conflicts, and reviews international language laws and agreements affecting minority and majority languages. Debates surrounding minority policy are also discussed, along with the troubled fate of the Hungarian minority population whose status switched between majority and minority at least three times within just a couple of decades. The chances of linguistic and cultural survival are touched upon as well. 

Chapter 2, authored by Attila Z. Papp and titled Educational Policy Concepts in the Carpathian Basin, skillfully delineates the evolution of Hungarian minority education and the challenges that accompany it in Romania, Slovakia, the Ukraine, and Serbia, the four countries containing the largest Hungarian minorities. The article also illustrates in detail and compares the relevant programs of the leading Hungarian political minority parties of these countries, complemented by the agenda of organizations involved in the education of Hungarians outside of Hungary, offering a much needed and up-to-date overview. Minority education policies are contextualized in conjunction with demographics, educational statistics and development processes in the institutional framework. 

Chapter 3, Hungarian Public Education in Romania, with Particular Attention to the Language(s) of Instruction, composed by Rita Fóris-Ferenczi and János Péntek, focuses on the Hungarian sub-system of Romanian public education by interpreting the school as a unit of public administration, and also treating related legislation. It describes the system’s school types, teaching materials, and the development of curricula, and contrasts Hungarian with other minority languages as well as with foreign language instruction. It points out the particular situation of the Hungarian minority within the Romanian educational system, due to its size and deep historic traditions, considering Hungarian being by far the largest, historically long established minority (formerly majority) here. The authors also note that the system generally fails to aid the development of advanced bilingualism, by principally disregarding the students’ native language. 

The fourth chapter, featuring Noémi Fazakas’ The Hungarian Language in Transylvania: Its Existence in the Diaspora and the Possibilities of Revitalization, views the matter from a sociolinguistic angle and takes a look at the present state of the Hungarian language in Transylvania. It identifies the three main types of Hungarian’’s demographic and linguistic condition in the region (the fairly compact Székely territory, the numerous speech islands, and a scattered diaspora indeed at high risk of disappearance/dissolution). Drawing on essential sociolinguistic theories, including language endangerment, it deals with aspects of language maintenance and shift, linguistic rights and language policies (with reference to other languages of the world), the chances of revitalization, and it also contemplates the degree at which Hungarian should be considered an endangered language. 

The next chapter, The Official Register of the Hungarian Language Used in Transylvania, submitted by Krisztina Sárosi-Márdirosz and consisting of two parts, stems from a database on spoken audiovisual media. It takes an inventory of the most characteristic features of the local Hungarian language used in the administrative and political domains. Part I, The Theoretical Framework, gives in-depth definitions on various linguistic varieties such as ‘minority vs. majority language’ or ‘national language’, and also scrutinizes the embedding post-war and present-day legal context. It talks about the particular difficulties the Hungarian minority language is confronted with: although its use is legally permitted above a certain minority population ratio, its official register in Romania is underdeveloped, lexical gaps exist, and, owing to the lack of full-fledged and efficient bilingualism, referred to above, complex translations often display errors or inaccuracies. Part II, Monitoring the Hungarian Audiovisual Media in Romania, outlines the project and the methodology, describes the examined media outlets, and summarizes the investigated linguistic phenomena, ranging from phonological to syntactic and semantic issues. The article also touches upon the notion of ‘Translationese’, i.e., flaws and misunderstandings in connection with inaccurate or inadequate translation. 

In the final, sixth chapter, Language Use in the Electronic Media in Romania, Borbála Zsemlyei explores the same database utilized in the previous chapter. This unit too is greatly instrumental in the volume’s overall data timeliness, as it inspects current tendencies and patterns in 21st century communication, and text-linguistically analyzes the use of the Hungarian language in electronic media. Based on certain speech patterns, the piece discusses some typical occurrences on Hungarian radio and television, and emphasizes the importance of correct language, considering the great role the media plays as a model for speakers of the region in general and for targeted listeners in particular. A short, colorful history of the local Hungarian media and brief descriptions of the four monitored outlets are followed by a detailed analysis of observed linguistic problems in pronunciation, morphology (such as inconsistent suffix use), the lexicon, or in syntax (e.g., article use or subject-predicate agreement). 

The book is supplied with several very helpful, clear and well laid-out figures and tables, a comprehensive but not overwhelming Appendix listing the linguistic concepts and notions featured in the contributions, and brief Author Biographies. Each chapter, including the Introduction, comes with an informative yet manageable bibliography. The handsome, high-quality volume is complemented by five fold-out color Ethnic Maps of the Carpatho-Pannonian Area, covering the time period between 1495 and 2001. The product is a clearly and carefully structured title, a convincing blend of first-hand expertise on a complicated and difficult topic. I unhesitatingly recommend it to everyone seeking a thought-provoking, diligently composed and easy-to-process depiction of the fragile Hungarian minority language in the heart of Europe.

21st Century Hungarian Language Survival in Transylvania

Judith Kesserű Némethy: New York University, Editor


  • Noémi Fazakas – Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania, Târgu-Mureș, Romania 
  • Rita Fóris-Ferenczi – Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
  • Orsolya Nádor – Károli Gáspár University, Budapest, Hungary
  • Attila Z. Papp – Institute for Minority Studies, Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
  • Janos Péntek – Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
  • Krisztina Sárosi Márdirosz – Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania, Târgu-Mureș, Romania 
  • Borbála Zsemlyei – Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania


21st Century Hungarian Language Survival in Transylvania

The book examines the present-day situation of Hungarian as minority language in Romania. It is an important addition to the study of the Hungarian language in the Diaspora that should be of interest not only to linguists and sociolinguists but to historians and political or social scientists, educators, and dialectologists as well. The problems presented, albeit referring specifically to the Hungarian language in Romania today, have parallels across borders and across all languages spoken by minorities. 

Survival of minority languages, be it Quechua in Peru, Irish in the United Kingdom, Spanish in the United States or Hungarian in the Carpathian Basin, depends on historical, geopolitical, and sociolinguistic factors. To a large degree it also depends on the politics of the governing majority country, whose regulations have repercussions on all aspects of education, work environment, and cultural and social life. In fact, in the course of the twentieth century, after Hungary was dismembered following the 1920 Treaty of Trianon and one third of its population became minorities of neighboring countries, their use of Hungarian has been greatly weakened by unrelenting restrictive or even punitive policies on the part of successive governments. Today, political and social pressure, coupled with the passage of time and globalization, threatens to endanger the very existence of the Hungarian language outside of Hungary, and with it the minority’s national identity as well. 

Multilingualism and cultural diversity are at the core of the European Union’s linguistic political discourse, and instruction in minority languages is an important part of it. Yet although the social and ideological environment has drastically changed since the fall of the Communist regimes, the goal of achieving multilingualism, and especially that of minorities reaching full bilingualism in both their mother tongue and the majority language, is facing nearly insurmountable obstacles. In fact, where nationalist linguistic ideology drives homogenization, the EU has been unable to implement its policy of protection of cultural diversity, with lethal consequences for the minorities’ survival, as citizens equal in rights and opportunities to the members of the majority.

The six essays in this volume, written by Hungarian academics living in Transylvania and Hungary, deal with historical, political, educational, legal, social, and linguistic aspects of minority language survival in Transylvania. They also point to the tools that make possible the reversal of the trend toward linguistic and cultural assimilation, tools that could also open the path toward a healthy multicultural and multilingual coexistence. The essays are preceded by an introduction with an overview of majority-minority relations today and their governance through international covenants. It delves into the history of Transylvania within the history of Hungary, delineating the forces that contributed to the make-up of its population and shaped the interaction among its ethnicities. It finally expands on the situation of Transylvanian Hungarians as minority since the end of World War I to this day. Five maps illustrate the ethno-geographical changes of the Hungarian population in the Carpathian Basin since the fifteenth century to date.

Orsolya Nádor’s essay, “East Central European Traditions Shaping Language Policy and Language Instruction,” is a historical review of the evolution and status of the Hungarian language since the Middle Ages, both in majority and minority situation. The author analyzes the role of linguistic ideologies in shaping the attitude towards majority and minority policies leading to linguistic conflicts in East Central Europe. Through a review of international language laws, we come to the question of survival of the minorities in a homogenizing nation-state ideology. 

In “Educational Policy Concepts in the Carpathian Basin,” Attila Z. Papp outlines the main changes in Hungarian minority education in the four countries housing today the largest Hungarian minorities: Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and the Ukraine. The author contextualizes minority education policies by reflecting on challenges related to major demographics, educational statistics and institutional development processes.

Rita Fóris-Ferenczi and János Péntek aim to present the Hungarian sub-system of Romanian public education in their essay “Hungarian Public Education in Romania, with Particular Attention to the Language(s) of Instruction.” The authors make the case for the Hungarian minority’s specific situation within the Romanian educational system, in view of their sheer numbers and historic traditions. In Transylvania where they have lived as an indigenous community for 1,000 years, Hungarians constitute nearly 20% of the population. Therefore, they consider it their basic right to study in their native language, but are confronted by a system that does not support the development of high level bilingualism.

Noémi Fazakas’ paper “The Hungarian Language in Transylvania: Its Existence in the Diaspora and the Possibilities of Revitalization” portrays the complexities of bilingualism and of language shift and maintenance, as well as the possibilities of revitalization. She examines the level of endangerment in three distinct types of demographic and linguistic situations of Hungarians in Transylvania: the compact territory of the Székely lands, the island situation, and the diaspora of Northeastern and Southern Transylvania. Based on a thorough theoretical backdrop, Dr. Fazakas studies the possibilities of reversal of language shift and revitalization through the implementation of minority linguistic rights as part of the basic human rights.

Krisztina Sárosi-Márdirosz’s “The Official Register of the Hungarian Language Used in Transylvania” is a sociolinguistic study of the impact of Romanian upon the official register of the Hungarian language as it appears in the audiovisual media, specifically in official, administrative and political discourse. While current legislation allows the use of the minority language when its percentage is of at least 20% of the population, the official register of the Hungarian language is underdeveloped, and users encounter many problems while trying to translate laws, acts and documents from Romanian. Based on a two-year extensive monitoring of the Hungarian electronic media in Transylvania, during which specific errors, inconsistencies and problems of translation were analyzed, Dr. Sárosi-Márdirosz identifies the tasks related to problems of translation derived from an imbalanced bilingualism. Her conclusion is that these can be solved, provided that a conscious expansion of journalism instruction in Hungarian is implemented by Romanian universities and adopted by the media. 

In “Language Use in the Hungarian Electronic Media in Romania,” Borbála Zsemlyei follows up on Dr. Sárosi-Márdirosz’s theme by presenting the characteristics of the Hungarian language use of reporters and correspondents of the Hungarian electronic media in Romania. The goal was to determine the extent to which reporters and correspondents follow standard norms, the mistakes they tend to commit, and the most common language phenomena. The analysis covers all substructures of language: pronunciation, morphology, lexicology and semantics, syntax, and stress, even including pragmatics, and presenting, with numerous examples, the influence of Romanian over the Hungarian phrases. The paper concludes that mistakes are linked not only to foreign influence, but also to poor competence in Hungarian, denoting the strong influence of the bilingual context of which it is part. It is from this reality that a policy of language planning must be built in order to maintain and revitalize the Hungarian language in Romania.