Background Information

Number of Speakers: 14.5 million

Key Dialects: See below

Geographical Center: Hungary


Hungarian, or Magyar, as it is called in Hungarian, is spoken by 10.5 million people in Hungary, or 98 percent of the population. Substantial populations of speakers are also in adjacent countries: Romania (2 million); the Czech and Slovak Republics (600,000); the former Yugoslavia (450,000); Ukraine (170,000); and Israel (150,000). A significant number of speakers live in the US (450,000) and smaller populations-under 20 thousand speakers-in Slovenia, Canada, and Austria.

Linguistic Affiliation

Hungarian is a member of the Ugric subfamily of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic (or Uralic-Yukaghir) family of languages. Its nearest group submembers, Khanty and Mansi (Vogul), are little known languages spoken just east of the Ural mountains in Russia in northwestern Siberia. Well known relatives of the Finnic branch are Finnish, Estonian, and Saami (Lapp). Hungarian is the most widely spoken language of its family.

Language Variation

Because of the development of a vigorous standardized language, dialectal variation in Hungary has been minimized. Variation, however, does exist and mainly involves a contrast between rural and urban standard varieties, with the latter more or less equivalent to the speech of Budapest.


Hungarian uses a Latin-based orthography with diacritics for marking special characteristics in Hungarian.

Linguistic Sketch

Hungarian is a richly inflected language with complex noun and verb forms. Nominals are formed by stems followed by inflectional suffixes: stem + number + person + case; depending on context some or all of these suffixes may be omitted. The case system, consisting of seventeen distinct cases, makes intricate distinctions. Seven of these distinctions are primarily grammatical (nominative, accusative, dative, etc.) and mark the relations of subject, direct object, indirect object, possessor, instrument, and so on; ten are locative and express various spatial (and temporal) distinctions such as movement into an interior, onto a surface, into an immediate proximity, up to a point and no further, and so forth. Nouns are not marked for gender.

Verbs are conjugated and consist of three parts: a stem followed by a tense/mood suffix (present, past and conditional, subjunctive) and then by a suffix which indicates person and number. The subjunctive suffix also can be used to mark imperatives. The suffixes that mark person are numerous; there are forms that agree with the subject in person and number, and also with objects only in person and definiteness (rather than number).

The order of sentence constituents is contextually and grammatically complex. It is partially determined by the role a constituent plays in projecting certain information. Thus word order is not a matter of stringing together parts of a sentence according to traditional categories of subject, object, and verb, but rather is a matter of “topic” and “focus.” A topic is information that is known or assumed and that sets the scene; in traditional terms the subject could be the topic, but it might also be the verb, or the object, or other grammatical category. Focus refers to the new key information being conveyed about the topic, that is, what it is that is being essentially said about the topic. In Hungarian, topics come first in a sentence and constituents in focus come immediately before the verb. High stress is associated with items in focus.

The phonological system consists of a rich inventory of fourteen to fifteen vowels and of twenty-five consonants, four of which are affricates. Stress is always on the first syllable.

Hungarian has borrowed prodigiously from other languages. There is an early loan set from Iranian and Turkic languages that were borrowed during the Hungarian migration. There are numerous loans from German, Italian, French, and English that entered the language after the arrival of Hungarians in Europe. Its basic stock of lexical material reflects its Finno-Ugric and Uralic origin and productive word-formation processes are based on these patterns. (For greater detail on Hungarian grammar see Abondolo 1987.)

Role in Society

Up to the end of the eighteenth century — when a standardized literary language was developed — Hungarian played a secondary role to Latin and German, the principle languages of education, administration, the judiciary and literature.

Today, Hungary is a relatively homogeneous country linguistically speaking. National minorities include Germans, Romanians, Croats, Slovaks, Serbs, Slovenes, and some Gypsies, but none of their languages plays a significant role in Hungarian society. Seventy-five percent of the minorities lives in scattered village communities. Hungarian is the only officially sanctioned language for education and government administration; the languages of the various minority groups are restricted to use at home and among co-speakers.


Hungarian is a linguistic island, a European Uralic language surrounded by Indo-European languages. The original Hungarians moved westward into Europe from their homeland east of the Ural Mountains and reached their present settlement area in the Danube basin west of the Carpathian Mountains in the ninth century. It is estimated that it has been separated from its nearest linguistic relatives, Mansi and Khanty, for about 2,500, possibly 3,000 years.

Given the separation of Hungarian from its Asian and other European relatives, the linguistic connections were not immediately obvious. However, towards the end of the fifteenth century, European scholars noted a resemblance between Hungarian and Yugria, a settlement area east of the Urals, but they never developed linguistic evidence for the connection. In the late seventeenth century, scholars were working on a body of evidence supporting the unity of the Hungarian and Finnic languages. Curiously enough, Hungarian intellectuals themselves resisted the notion that there could be any connection, and were hostile to Finno-Ugric comparative linguistics. But by the close of the nineteenth century, there were Hungarian linguists actively working in the field who recognized and supported the connections.

The first attestations of the language are place names in Arab, Persian, and Byzantine documents. Other elements of its history, especially the period which is unattested in literature, can be traced by studying loan word evidence, for example the very early Iranian and Turkic loanwords which date from the period of Hungarian migrations westward across southern Russia.

The earliest literary pieces, which were religious in nature, date from about 1200 and 1300. During the 1400s there was a literary renaissance, but it declined after the Hungarian defeat at the hands of the Turks. Following language standardization, a century long period of literary growth occured between 1780 and 1880.


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Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Kontra, M. 1994. “Hungary: Language Situation.” In R. E. Asher, ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 3:1620. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.

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Sherwood, P. 1994. “Magyar.” In R. E. Asher, ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 5:2344-2346. Oxford: Pergamon Press.