Logotip de la revista Noves SL





Spring - Summer 2004

Language policy in Hungary, by Antal Paulik and Judit Solymosi

Neither the Constitution, nor any comprehensive language law stipulates in Hungary the official status of the Hungarian language. The linguistic rights of the 13 recognised minorities are regulated by the Act on the rights of national and ethnic minorities. The level of linguistic assimilation within these communities is rather high; the use of minority languages is almost non-existing in public life. Linguistic minorities have become more active since the change of the political system, and the setting-up of minority self-governments made things move back in gear. The Hungarian State seeks to promote the use of minority languages by developing cultural and educational autonomy and favourable legal conditions as well as by actively supporting minority activities.

Printing version. Language policy in Hungary, by Antal Paulik and Judit Solymosi PDF printing version. 36 KB
  en català    


1. Introduction

2. Historical background and current data

3. The situation of minority languages

4. Legal framework

5. Institutions and practice


1. Introduction

Differently from most states in the region, the official status of the dominant -Hungarian-language is not stipulated either by the Constitution or by any comprehensive language law in Hungary. Although Hungarian is used in state administration, no law in force prescribes this use. However, some specific provisions do regulate the use of Hungarian such as the 1997 Act on consumer protection and advertisements or the 2001 Act on the presentation in Hungarian of economic advertisements, shop trade-signs and communiqués of public interest.

The preamble of the latter act ascertains the particular importance of the national (Hungarian) language: "The Hungarian language is the most important manifestation of our national existence, it expresses our national affiliation and constitutes the most important vehicle of Hungarian culture, science and information. This is why its protection, its transmission to our descendants, the preservation of its adaptability and the maintenance of a sound linguistic environment constitute the common responsibility of the present generations."

One of the final clauses of this act states that its provisions do not affect commercial advertisements and inscriptions formulated in one of the minority languages in settlements where the given linguistic minority has established a minority self-government.

The linguistic rights of minorities are regulated by the Act on the rights of national and ethnic minorities in a comprehensive way. The provisions of this act will be detailed hereafter.

2. Historical background and current data

Before the peace treaties closing WWI, only less than half of the population living in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy spoke Hungarian as his/her native language. This is why the will of establishing a Hungarian-language administration was hindered not only by political but also by linguistic barriers. As a result of the peace treaties putting an end to the Monarchy, the still multilingual Hungarian Kingdom reorganised itself with an exclusive Hungarian-language dominance. The supplanting of minority languages from public life was raised to the level of conscious state policy. This was facilitated by the fact that the minority communities living now in Hungary had generally left their original home region before the development of a standard literary language, consequently the language they spoke in the 20th century were archaic dialectal versions hardly adapted to meet the communication needs of this modern era.

The forced or voluntary resettlement of populations after WWII still enhanced the "effectiveness" of the forced linguistic assimilation that went on between the two world wars. The resettlement fundamentally destroyed minority communities, weakened their identity and speeded up their assimilation. Although the minority policy carried out before 1990 recognised some minority communities and seemingly supported the transmission of minority cultures and the development of an educational basis, cultural assimilation and the diminution of the role of minority languages continued.

As a consequence of this, the majority of minorities living in Hungary today profess dual or multiple affiliation: their ties to the Hungarian culture and language are as strong as (or sometimes stronger than) their original nationality ties.

The last census took place in Hungary in 2001. Accordingly, the population of the country was 10,198,000 at the turn of the century. The proportion of people belonging to the 13 minorities within the whole population is rather low: in 1990 and in 2001 it only reached 2.5% and 3.2% respectively. When evaluating these data, we have to consider that answering affiliation-related questions was not compulsory, and the willingness to declare one’s identity is still influenced by negative historical experiences.

Results of the 2001 census Results of the 2001 census (45 KB)

Similarly to earlier census returns, the 2001 data also highlighted the fact that minorities live geographically scattered throughout the country and they generally constitute a minority within the settlements they inhabit. The former regional localisation of minority communities is no longer possible; the exodus towards urban centres has started also among them. This process has speeded up linguistic assimilation and makes the enforcement of linguistic –and more particularly, educational- rights rather difficult.

In spite of what has been said, minority linguistic communities have shown increased activity since the change of the political system. Minorities that had not been officially recognised earlier (Rom, Bulgarians, Greeks, Poles, Armenians, Ruthenes and Ukrainians) created their organisations and associations and took an active part in working out the principles of a democratic minority policy. The elaboration of the Minorities Act by 1993 was largely due to the active contribution of minorities. It is this Act that determines the minority policy of the Republic of Hungary. Considering the fact that this act puts a great emphasis on linguistic rights, we can regard it as the first systematic summary of minority language policy.

Historical past and lengthy historical co-existence constitute an important criterion in the definition of minorities given in the Act on the rights of national and ethnic minorities. According to this definition, "All groups of people who have lived in the territory of the Republic of Hungary for at least one century, who represent a numerical minority in the country's population, whose members are Hungarian citizens, who are distinguished from the rest of the population by their own languages, cultures, and traditions, who demonstrate a sense of belonging together that is aimed at preserving all of these and at expressing and protecting the interests of their historical communities" are national and ethnic minorities recognised as constituent components of the state.

This act defines 13 communities –the Bulgarian, Rom (Romany), Greek, Croatian, Polish, German, Armenian, Romanian, Ruthenian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian and Ukrainian ethnic groups– as national or ethnic minorities native to Hungary. In conformity with of Article 51 of the act, "In the Republic of Hungary everybody may freely use his/her mother tongue wherever and whenever s/he wishes to do so. The conditions of the language use of minorities -in cases provided for by a separate law- must be guaranteed by the state."

3. The situation of minority languages

Due partly to the lack of minority self-organisation over almost 50 years, the use of minority languages in public life has practically disappeared, and their use has gradually become restricted to the family sphere. Parallel with the modernisation of society and the dissolution of big families, the transmission of the minority language is not now ensured even within the family. During the past decades, the members of the middle generations did not participate in mother tongue education, therefore they do not know the erudite or literary version of their language, and thus they are unable to transmit it. It is increasingly typical that the educational system is taking over the task of the transmission instead of the family. As a result, the dialect – that the members of the given minority are familiar with– is disappearing and is being replaced by the standard literary language spoken in the kin state.

For objective reasons, the process of the headway of the literary languages has become irreversible by now. What the State and the minority communities can do is to promote the documentation of the still existing linguistic monuments and to ensure that pupils wanting to participate in minority mother tongue education are given the opportunity to learn the literary version of the language.

As regards language use, the 13 minorities can be divided into three bigger groups. In the first group we find the Rom, the majority of whom –an estimated 80%– speak Hungarian as their mother tongue. (The smaller part of this population –a minority within the minority– has a different mother tongue and belongs to the second group explained below. The use of the Romany and the Beash differs from the use of other languages within that group only in that respect that the Rom communities are less integrated in their social environment.)

The second group is composed of smaller minorities (Ukrainians, Ruthenes, Poles, Greeks, Bulgarians, Armenians). In the past decades a proportionally great number of newly arriving members joined these communities without any, or any substantial knowledge of the Hungarian language, and they immediately started taking an active part in the life of the community. It is typical for these minorities that the minority language is actively used both in family and in public life. However, we can expect that language transmission between the generations will become problematic in the future, and the use of the language by the next generations will differ from the present use. The so-called Sunday schools can only contribute to improve the language knowledge acquired in the family, and so far we have had no experiences as for the teaching of the language at school.

The third group is composed of the bigger communities (Germans, Croats, Slovaks, Romanians, Slovenians, and Serbians) that arrived in the country before the emergence of the neologist movement in their homeland and that therefore typically speak an archaic version of the language. These communities have reached a high level of linguistic assimilation and they hardly use the minority language even within the family.

In the case of these minorities, the establishment of minority self-governments made things move back into gear, although this development has had only limited results so far. The efforts of minority self-governments to "rehabilitate" the mother tongue and to bring it back to public life have had a certain effect.

The ongoing educational reform might bring about wider opportunities to re-learn and use the languages. The consultative and veto rights legally guaranteed to local minority self-governments can ensure the protection of minority language education. The detailed elaboration of minority language and literature requirements and the introduction of compulsory further training for teachers make the improvement of school instruction possible.

4. Legal framework

The Constitution of the Republic of Hungary (Act No 49 of year 1949) stipulates that national and ethnic minorities living in Hungary are constituent components of the state. The Constitution guarantees the minorities the right to collective participation in public life, the nurturing of their own culture, the widespread use of their native languages, education in their native languages, and the right to use their names in their own languages.

The Act No 77 of year 1993 on the rights of national and ethnic minorities provides the thirteen historical minorities individual and collective minority rights including the right to non-territorial (personal) autonomy and the establishment of self-governments.

1 de 2