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Hungarians originate from Central Asia

 László Marácz

Textbooks usually indicate that the Hungarians originate from somewhere in the Uralic mountains and that their language is related to Finnish. This is a remarkable statement for if we look at the map of Europe and Asia we will find the Ural mountains far from the present-day settlement of the Hungarians, i.e. the Carpathian mountains in the heart of Central Europe. The Finns who live in the north of Europe have settled also far away from the Carpathian Basin where the Hungarians live. The question arises what the evidence is that connects the Hungarians to these remote areas in the northern parts of Europe and Asia. The hypothesis relating the Hungarians and the Finns is called the Finno-Ugric hypothesis claiming that not only these languages but also the peoples belonging to this group of which Hungarian and Finnish are the best known representatives are related and have originated from a common homeland somewhere in the region of the Ural mountains and that the ancestors of these peoples have spoken the same common language, the so-called Finno-Ugric proto-language, the Finno-Ugric ‘Ursprache’. Other ethnic groups and languages that are classified as Finno-Ugric include among others Sami, Estonian, Mordvin, Cheremis, Zyrian, Votyak, Ostyak and Vogul. It is further hypothesized that together with the Samoyed languages spoken in northern Asia the Finno-Ugric languages combine into a super-category,  the so-called Uralic languages. In this chapter, I will argue however that this theory is fundamentally mistaken. There is nothing like a Uralic or Finno-Ugric language family. This theory is an artifact of misguided scientific research and has been pursued in the last 150 years for political reasons mainly. It is better to set aside this theory and let the Hungarian chronicles, culture and language guide the research into the origin of the Hungarians and their language. The empirical data point not into the direction of northern Europe or Asia but rather into the direction of Central Asia for searching the ancestral homeland of the Hungarians.


Only a theory


It should be stressed that the grouping of these languages into a Uralic/Finno-Ugric language family is only a scientific construction that has never been proved. Proponents of the Uralic/Finno-Ugric theory regularly claim however that this theory has already been proven by the end of the 18th century and needs no further arguments. This is quite remarkable for there is not a single word or basic root that is phonetically precisely the same in Finnish and Hungarian, although both languages have superficially common structural features, like agglutination that is a morphological, derivative process to form larger words and structures of basic roots with the help of suffixes. Agglutination can be found however all-across-the board in Eurasia. It is a very common feature in the linguistic landscape of Eurasia. Hence, there is no reason to assume that this is an exclusive feature of the so-called Uralic/Finno-Ugric languages. True some of the so-called Balto-Finnic languages, like Estonian and Karelian are quite similar to Finnish. It seems we have to do here with an independent grouping. Hungarian has some words in common with Vogul and Ostyak. But the status and form of these similarities are unclear. There is a priori no reason to exclude the possibility that the ancestors of Hungarians and these people in the northern parts of Europe and Asia might have had contact in an earlier stage of history. Below I will return to this question.       


But let us have a closer look at some of the claims the Uralic/Finno-Ugric hypothesis makes. The hypothesis makes a number of strong claims, including that all these languages are related to each other in a binary branching manner with intermediate stages forming a sort of derivative language tree that connects earlier stages of these languages to much more recent forms. Furthermore the proponents of the Uralic/Finno-Ugric theory claim that all these languages are connected to each other by a common vocabulary and that these languages have similar structural markers. It has been adopted without argumentation that the Finnish branch of the language family is closer to the so-called Finno-Ugric/Uralic proto-language than Hungarian. There does not seem to be a linguistic argument for this. The reason for this claim is not convincing at all. The Hungarians should have wandered across the Russian steppes in order to reach their present-day homeland, the Carpathian Basin and the Finns have stayed closer to the ancient homeland. Hence, they speak a variant closer to the proto-language. However, it is a fact that Hungarian has structurally much simpler roots than Finnish, i.e. Hungarian displays monosyllabic roots, whereas Finnish has bisyllabic roots. If Hungarian is derived from the proto-language that is closer to Finnish than Hungarian Hungarian should have evolved from a language with bisyllabic roots to a language with monosyllabic roots. The question arises where did Hungarian basic roots lost their second syllable and why did this happen? In agglutinative languages we do not expect the basic structures to become shorter but rather forming longer structures because of agglutination. These are fundamental questions that are never put forward by the proponents of the Uralic/Finno-Ugric theory. The theory does not have to account for this sort of anomalies. But the problem is of course more dramatic for there has not survived a single piece of document written in the proto-language, neither in the intermediate stages of the hypothesized languages. This means that all the  postulations made cannot be proven and the hypothesis is awaiting further confirmation.


Wrong assumption and predictions


Nineteenth century Finno-Ugric scholarship postulated a fantastic high number of common basic words. In the second half of the nineteenth century the Hungarian Academy of Sciences started to speak about ‘1000’ common Finno-Ugric words. Nowadays even the proponents of the Finno-Ugric theory calculate this number to be much lower. The Finnish scholar Janhunen claims that there are 100 words in common at most. So if the theory stands steady from a methodological point of view why is it that the number of postulated common basic words is changing all the time and how come that Finnish and Hungarian academic scholars are ending up with a different number of common words. As I pointed out above none of the postulated words have precisely the same phonetic form in Hungarian and Finnish and a number of these words have a different meaning in both languages. But in order to make these postulated words related to each other one has to introduce the notion of sound laws, an artificial linguistic technique adopted from Indo-Germanic linguistic studies. The problem with the Finno-Ugric sound ‘laws’ is that they are not laws and target a very narrow scope which means that they are over-generating. There are less words than the ‘laws’ predict to be. But how many words do Hungarian and Finnish have actually in common? According to recent investigations of the Italian linguist Angela Marcantonio only a few dozens. These include the well-known examples that you can find in the textbooks, like Finnish ‘vesi’ and Hungarian ‘víz’ for ‘water’ and Finnish ‘kesi’ and Hungarian ‘kéz’ for ‘hand’. According to her, most of these words are international wandering words that have travelled across the Eurasian languages or these words are simply look-a-likes. They happen to look similar in Hungarian and Finnish but are really different at a closer inspection. Hence, they are similar by linguistic accident. Another remarkable feature of these languages which is indicated in Finno-Ugric textbooks is that there are enormous differences in the morphological and syntactic fields between these languages. Again one expects that languages that are genetically related should display more similarities in deep morphology and syntactic. Just observing and categorizing the differences is not enough. This should be explained as well. The interested reader will search for an answer in Finno-Ugric textbooks in vain. 


Sciences and politics


The question arises if there is so little evidence for postulating a Uralic/Finno-Ugric proto-language why do we have such a hypothesis at all. In any case, one might wonder why in the recent 150 years this and other fundamental questions raised in this chapter have never been put forward. It is hard to understand why such a one-sided research has been pursued a priori. When scientific research is one-sided there is always the suspect of political interferences. But before going into this matter more explicitly let us first investigate in more detail whether there is evidence for the so-called Finno-Ugric hypothesis from other scientific disciplines. At this point we have no evidence to present at all. During 150 years of research apart from a few linguistic similarities no other discipline has contributed any convincing evidence supporting the Uralic/Finno-Ugric hypothesis. Historical studies have not found any written evidence referring to the existence of a Uralic or Finno-Ugric ethnic or linguistic group. If this language family would have existed 5000 years ago in the neighborhood of the Ural mountains than there should have been be a historical reference or a document quite clearly pointing at the languages and ethnic group hypothesized to form the linguistic family of Finno-Ugric group. But so far no historic evidence has been found. From an archaeological point of view there is no positive evidence either. The excellent Hungarian scholar Gyula László has already argued that 5000 years ago in the neighborhood of the Ural mountains the climate surroundings did not allow the postulation of a group as big as the Uralic/Finno-Ugric language family. The climate and the terrain did not accommodate the survival of such a large group.  Anthropological studies have demonstrated quite convincingly that from an anthropological point of view the so-called Uralic/Finno-Ugric peoples are quite different. The ethnic groups belong to quite different anthropological and racial groups. It is interesting that the studies of the mythology of the so-called Uralic/Finno-Ugric peoples did not provide a common trace referring to a common period of living or common hero’s. In the cultural field, among ornaments and material culture there are no common traditions to find. But the most compelling evidence against the postulation of a common group of Uralic/Finno-Ugric peoples has to do with recent research that is based on population genetics. So far genetic studies have not been able to discover a common genetic feature that is characteristic for the Uralic/Finno-Ugric language group. This implies that it is extremely unlikely that there has ever existed something like a common a group of people speaking a Uralic/Finno-Ugric proto-language. It is safe to conclude that this has not been the case. Hence what remains of the so-called Finno-Ugric hypothesis is the hypothesized linguistic relation between the languages involved. Above I have argued however that with our present knowledge it is impossible to verify the claims that have been made. The Uralic/Finno-Ugric theory cannot be demonstrated to be correct but it can be shown that it makes the wrong predictions, that it displays deficiencies and that it runs into the trap of circular argumentation. The normal way scientific argumentation works cannot be satisfied by this theory. In the present stage of research this means that it is a dogma without any scientific foundation.


Hence the Uralic/Finno-Ugric theory is not a scientific theory. The question arises why such a theory is pursued by the proponents of this theory. Of course, it can be the case that the arguments against this theory are not taken seriously and that they are put aside. It is however more likely that the Uralic/Finno-Ugric theory is kept alive for political reasons. It is quite clear that this theory could dominate the scientific scene after the defeat of the Hungarian Uprising and Freedom Fight in 1848/1849 when the Hungarian Academy of Sciences established in the beginning of the nineteenth century in order to study the Hungarian language appointed scholars in order to “prove” the Finno-Ugric theory. These scholars were however Germans, like Budenz and Hunsdorfer (who Magyarized his name into Hunfalvy) who did not even know the Hungarian language or learned it only at a later age. The tradition established by this scholars has been unchallenged during the last 150 years. In fact these scholars have applied the methods of the Indo-Germanic linguistic studies to an ad-hoc grouping of languages called ‘Finno-Ugric’ without taking into account that these languages are typologically completely different and have no matching vocabulary. To the proponents of the theory it does not even come to mind that there should be alternatives to research on. All evidence from other disciplines have been declared ‘useless’. Obviously, it has to be proven that “Finno-Ugric” speakers like Hungarians and Finns are related to peoples that are culturally on a low level such as Voguls and Ostyaks.


Hungarian ancestral homeland in Central Asia


The Hungarian chronicles written at the chancelleries of the Hungarian royal court in the Middle Ages provide a lot of information where to search for the Hungarian ancestral homeland and the origin of the Hungarian language. According to the chronicles, the Hungarians originate from the Western part of Scythia which coincides with the area from the Caucasus to Central Asia and the Caspian Sea area and they are related to nomadic peoples, like the Scythians, the Huns, Avars, Sabirs, Bulgars and the Khazars. We think that it is motivated to explore this line of research. Actually this has been attempted several times in the history of research into the Hungarian ancient history and the origins of the Hungarian language. The Central Asian origin of the Hungarians and Hungarian language would also explain a number of striking features of early Hungarian culture ands society. The Hungarians relied very much on the ‘horse’ and their technological improvements, like the composite reflex bow and stirrups that served also military purposes. This is typical for the nomadic heritage that can be found in Central Asia. In the Hungarian mythology a number of traces can be found that refer to the wanderings in the steppes and to nomadic peoples that the Hungarians have contacted. The Hungarian runic writing that is still being used by the so-called Szekler-Hungarians who live at the feet of the Carpathian mountains in Transylvania is of Central Asian origin. It is  instructive to study present-day nomadic cultures in Central Asia. This has led to the discoveries of the Madjar tribes. These tribes that are the closest relatives of the Hungarians according to DNA test live like nomads in present-day Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Mongolia. Insight into the nomadic way of life might be provided by these tribes. Note that according to the Uralic/Finno-Ugric theory the relatives of the Hungarians in present-day Kazakhstan should not be there. The Finno-Ugric theory predicts that all Hungarians should have left Central Asia in ancient times.


The many words Hungarian has in common with Turkish and Mongolian shows that the ancestors of the Hungarians must have lived in Central Asia with the ancestors of the Turks and Mongolians to the right of them. Actually the similarities between Vogul and Ostyak, and Hungarian can be explained in such a theory as instances of language contact between the ancestors of these peoples and the Hungarians. Hungarians being the masters of Central Asian steppes controlled the fur trade with the North European and Siberian peoples, like the Vogul and Ostyaks being located to the north of them. In fact, the Central Asian location of the Hungarians explains why the Hungarian language displays similarities with some so-called Finno-Ugric languages but not with the Western branches of the hypothesized grouping and why Hungarian displays massive linguistic similarities with Turkic and Mongolian, as the Hungarian scholar Arminius Vámbéry has convincingly argued for. Further it explains why Hungarian has a number of words in common with varieties of the ancient Iranian (Persian) languages that were located to the south of the Hungarians. These language similarities can only be explained if the ancestors of the Hungarians took a position in the centre between these languages and had contact with them. Of course we should be careful by postulating genetic relationships with these languages at present. At the moment it is sufficient to observe that especially with Turkic and Mongolian Hungarian has more striking similarities than with Finno-Ugric. These observations justify that research along these lines should be opened with more intensity and that also the languages to the south of the Caspian Sea should be taken into account. There are also similarities in the field of the Iranian material culture where Iranian is rather understood as a geographical term than an ethnic one. Hungarian ornamental patterns are quite similar to the ones of the ancient Iranian culture.  But not only are there similarities in material culture with Old Iran but also in spiritual and religious domain. The teaching of Zoroaster and the dual patterns in religious believes can be find among the Hungarian spiritual culture as well. For example in the old Hungarian churches in Szeklerland in Transylvania we find frescoes and images of the Hungarian king St. László (1046-1095) fighting the Cumans. The king and his horse defending the Hungarians against the Turkic intruders from the steppes are painted white, while his enemy the Cuman horseman and his horse are painted black. According to Gyula László, the most western location of this dualism is the Carpathian Basin with the Hungarians. The traces of this dualism are leading us to northern Iran in Central Asia.




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