Bulletin n° 15 - mars 2017


Strict Translation: Its Harmful and Useful Aspects (A Debate of the Enlightenment Period on the Cultivation of Hungarian)

László Gyapay


By the first decades of the nineteenth century language was thought to be the most important constituent of Hungarian national identity. With the stakes being high, in a country where the official language was Latin until 1848 and where the majority of the population was not of Hungarian mother tongue, it is not surprising that a sense of crisis arose in many Magyars in connection with their own language, which to a great extent motivated the drawing up of programmes of cultural reform. In this paper I shall attempt to compare two markedly different programmes of modernisation in which both sides attribute roles – significant but opposite in effect – to the influence exercised on Hungarian by foreign languages, and through this the question of translation acquires a defining role in their thinking. The Foreword of a Hungarian grammar published in 1795 (later known as Debreceni Grammatika) argues that owing to the extensive influence of foreign languages on Hungarian, it has deviated from its original nature. To amend this inadequacy the Magyars should turn to the speech of common Hungarian people, who have been least mixed with foreign ethnicities. Such speaking communities – the argument goes – have preserved pure Hungarian the best as they have hardly been exposed to foreign language influences via everyday interactions, education and translation. The most resolute opponent of these ideas was Ferenc Kazinczy (1759–1831), writer, poet, translator, critic and energetic organiser of literary life. His main concern was the language of literature. According to his basic thesis, a nation that is at the beginning of its literary development instinctively follows the model of more advanced nations, which is to its advantage. The best way to promote the development of language and literature is by means of translating classical masterpieces – antique and modern – into Hungarian. Kazinczy was convinced that the stricter the translation was, the more the target language got enriched. As a consequence, he was ready to challenge his readers by endowing translations with strange and foreign-sounding expressions his underlying premise being that if there was an aesthetic reason for breaking the rules of grammar the introduction of exotic phrases did no harm but benefit to the mother tongue. In contrast with the Debreceni Grammatika, his point of reference was the linguistic standard of the best pieces of European literature and not the everyday handling of a given Magyar speaking community.


Hungarian language reform – Debreceni Grammatika – Ferenc Kazinczy – cultural interference


As the eighteenth century became the nineteenth the language map of Hungary was a patchwork. From the administrative point of view, the country, as an inseparable part of the multiracial and multilingual Habsburg Empire, fell into three sections: the Kingdom of Hungary, the Principality of Transylvania, and the Military Frontier Region. According to an 1804 estimate the population of these three areas amounted to 9,583,000, of which 41.2% were Magyars, 17.1% Romanians, 15.5% Serbs and Croats, 11.7% Slovaks, 9.3% Germans, 2.9% Ruthenians and 2.3% other ethnic groups[1]. Although the Magyars were by far the largest nationality they did not constitute a majority in the country, and it must be remarked that mother tongue was not in all cases the decisive factor in establishing ethnicity. Furthermore, there was no standard use of language in the various spheres of social and cultural life. At the end of the eighteenth century the language of law, higher state administration, the higher courts and (higher) education was Latin. By 1848 the official language of the entire country, after a lengthy process, had become Hungarian.

The period in question brought about enormous changes in the connection between language and ethnicity. In his pamphlet Magyarság [On the Hungarian Language] (1778) György Bessenyei (1747–1811) regarded Hungarian as that which – among other indicators such as legal status, dress, music and dances – was one of the marks that rendered possible the naming and recognition of the community[2]. In contrast, a few decades later the concept of language as the most important constituent of ethnicity had come to dominate. The new situation is well demonstrated by the case of Gusztáv Szontagh (1793–1858). He had been an army officer during the Napoleonic wars, and after demobilisation became a member of the Hungarian Academy by virtue of his critical and philosophical work. He was the child of Magyar parents, born in Csetnek (now Štítnik, Slovakia), a town in northern Hungary, which had been settled by Germans in the Middle Ages and adopted Slovak ways in the sixteenth century. In 1829 Szontagh said of his life and himself: "In my childhood I had to learn Latin; then I left school and fate took me abroad; and when I came back to Buda, our capital city, I found almost no use of our national language among its citizens. [...] if I stop reading and writing in Hungarian I shall become thoroughly degenerate."[3] It is not surprising that when language plays so great a part in the definition of ethnicity, and the national community does not feel its position in its own country to be secure, a sense of crisis arises in many people in connection with their mother tongue and this to a great extent is what motivates the drawing up of programmes of cultural reform. From the last third of the eighteenth century onward a number of literati put on paper proposals for the development of Hungarian and the improvement of its official position. In what follows I shall attempt to compare two such markedly different programmes of modernisation in which both sides attribute roles – significant but opposite in effect – to the influence exercised on Hungarian by foreign languages, and through this the question of translation acquires a defining role in their thinking.

That a competition was announced in 1789 for the writing of a grammar of Hungarian for the purpose of nurturing the mother tongue may rightly be seen as one of the reactions to that sense of crisis. A learned society in Debrecen, charged with judging, was not satisfied with the outcome, and compiled a new grammar making use of the entries; this was published anonymously in 1795 with the title Magyar grammatika. In the course of time this became popularly known as Debreceni Grammatika.

The Foreword to the volume dealt in detail with the situation and condition of Hungarian, and what was to be done about it. From this historical situation report it emerges that the language was being marginalised in Hungary even by that time. Foreign languages had come into fashion and use, and "even if the Magyars were more in number than the foreigners, or if there were only Magyars, not a word of Hungarian was heard but German, Italian and French sounded on all sides"[4]. Although shortly before the publication of the Debreceni Grammatika interest was turning to the mother tongue, the efforts intended to promote its perfection "had served to the disfigurement and ruin of our language rather than its embellishment"[5]. Although the Foreword regarded the renewal of scientific technical terms as necessary, in its account of the practices leading to the ruin of the language prime of place was given to "the fabrication of inappropriate new Hungarian Words". The Foreword opposed mainly newly coined Hungarian words proposed and brought into fashion to replace well naturalised loan-words, but as a general rule recommended careful attention to the nature of the language: "Great care must be taken not to offend against the nature of the Language. For that reason few new Hungarian Words have yet been fabricated that might stand the test of the nature of the Language"[6]

The cause of deviation from the nature of Hungarian is attributed by the Debreceni Grammatika rather to the influence of foreign languages, and so translators are categorised as destroyers of the language if they are not Hungarians born and consequently "have brought into the Hungarian Language many forced, obscure turns of phrase, apt for the nature of foreign Languages, and have departed far from the natural beauty and simplicity" of Hungarian[7]. In fact, native Hungarian translators too are thus condemned if they try too hard to follow the vagaries of the foreign example by way of innovation, "thinking that what they write is thus rendered beautiful, and that there will be all manner of majesty and loftiness in it if they form it to Language which is not that of the common people: whereas nothing is more certain than that pure Hungarian is to be found among the Magyars, even more so the common people, such, that is to say, as have been from the beginning least mixed with those of foreign Ethnicity"[8]. This expression defines that register of the language from which the words and rules that serve as the point of reference may come. The Foreword differentiates this register in a way, stating that in the language of the common people too there are words of stylistic import which "cannot be used without impropriety in Sermons and writing Books"[9]. In judging common speech, as it says, consideration must be given to the facts that lack of refinement may come from pronunciation, and that because of their life-style the common people "always speak only of inferior and vulgar things. [...] But let the manner of the speech of the common people be shaped, fittingly ordered, for the expression of decent matters in such a way that no foreign and forced phrases are used; it will be seen by one and all what a fine, clear and pleasing pure Hungarian it will be". The editors emphasise "that any decent and lofty matters can be expressed in the Language of the Common People, and that which the Common People cannot easily understand is not good Hungarian"[10], because the common people too can understand religious matters. The authors consider it thus proven that their preferred language register can satisfy all requirements and is not restricted in its power of expression. Returning to translation, they point out that Hungarian is a language of Oriental origin, and so works translated from Western languages may taint its purity. Thus they come to the conclusion that "as a means for the enrichment and embellishment of the Hungarian Language it is not merely insufficient but even detrimental, that as many as possible should write and translate Hungarian Books"[11].

The authors hope that a dedicated society will be founded and a normative grammar produced, by which the purity of the mother tongue will be established and preserved. The society must consist of "such learned persons as are not only Hungarians born, but in addition have been brought up and reached man's estate in such parts of our Fatherland as have been inhabited from the earliest times by the fewest foreign Ethnic groups". The society's task and duty, however, would be to examine from the point of view of correctness of language "one after another the Books which have been and shall be published in Hungarian", to indicate mistakes "and through the Hungarian Journalists or by such other means as may be designated" to make them public. It was not, of course, to be expected that "the whole country should be obliged in all respects to accept the verdict of this body as perfect and infallible and to submit to it", but it was to be hoped that under the influence of these criticisms those intent on using the language would endeavour to rid themselves of turns of speech that had been judged erroneous "for fundamental reasons"[12]. The grammar that was felt necessary would reveal the nature of the mother tongue and fix its rules "so that the whole Fatherland would accept them and pronounce it good to use Hungarian both written and spoken in accordance with them". The spread of the norm thus laid down would encounter numerous difficulties, but in the authors' view, nevertheless, "it might perhaps be hoped that the widespread love of our Language and desire for its development would slowly overcome these obstacles"[13].

The authors also touch on phenomena not discussed by their grammar. Here they speak of the problem of the various dialects. In explanation they offer that they have, for the most part, lived in the Debrecen region and are ignorant of other dialects, but they stress the importance of the study of dialects because "it would be both fine and profitable to see at a glance the various fashions and ramifications of our Language, and thereby to discover our many ancient words"[14]. They do not, however, tackle the problem of the proportion in which the various dialects would influence the definition of the elements and rules of language, which the learned society and the normative grammar would wish to raise to the status of national language. Also excluded from the phenomena discussed is "Hungarian Poesy . . . as it does not strictly belong in the Grammatika"[15]. From this curt observation it is unclear what the authors understand by poesy: whether prosody in the strict sense of the word, or the broader problem of poetic language. As the Debreceni Grammatika at no time makes any distinction between the artistic and everyday uses of the language, the authors probably use the word poesy in its usual contemporary meaning of writing poetry, that is, metrics[16].

The compilers of the grammar did not intend their book for foreign students of Hungarian, but endeavoured "to reveal to Hungarians themselves the secrets of the nature of our mother tongue", to seek out "the hidden reasons for its variations, the Regulations latent therein" and to bring them to light[17]. They specified the main aim of their work as "to reveal those special and unique features of our Language in which it differs from the nature of other Languages"[18].

We can say of the method with which the Debreceni Grammatika deals with linguistic phenomena what István Margócsy says about another contemporary debate on language, the Révai–Verseghy debate: it avoids "the analysis of higher-level linguistic manifestations" and refrains from "the posing of questions of a rhetorical nature", and so "goes around the purely grammatically conceived basic structure of the language": that is, "it wishes to define the grammatical ideal of the linguistic competence of the community that speaks it"[19]. The Debreceni Grammatika draws the linguistic norm thus formulated from an existing dialect and attaches it to that. It defines correctness of linguistic variations and varying practice by means of etymology and analogy, and sets the result before the public as an example to be followed, suggesting that it can display a unified norm that holds good for the various regions where the language is used. It does not, therefore, distinguish between everyday and poetic language, and therefore considers the latter susceptible of thorough description by grammatical means. We agree with Vilmos Tolnai that "it regards language as seen by the grammarian as finished and complete, not as a constantly changing, developing function"[20]. All this gives rise to a definitive language-model, emphasising the specifics of Hungarian[21], which dismisses extreme purism and exotic locutions alike while not excluding the acceptance of loan-words but allowing hardly any possibility for departure from colloquial usage and the shaping of language to the demands of art[22]. Thus, as Lajos Csetri puts it, "not only does it repudiate the right of authors to create language at will, but it also takes a poor view of innovation at a stylistic level in higher literature"[23].

The most determined opponent of the Debreceni Grammatika was Ferenc Kazinczy (1759–1831), writer, poet, translator, critic and energetic organiser of literary life. The value of the twenty-five volumes of his correspondence cannot be overestimated from the point of view of literary history. In his autobiography, speaking of the translation of Marmontel by Sándor Báróczi (1735–1809), he recalls the reading experience of his youth, which makes his opposition to the principles of Debreceni Grammatika easy to understand. He tells how scornfully the librarian of his school spoke of the stylish language of the book, but young Kazinczy opposed him vigorously: "I liked what the librarian was reviling and was horrified at what he praised so highly. [...] He (Báróczi) was from then on my permanent reading material, and I decided there and then that I would strive for his crown with all my strength"[24]. The Sándor Báróczi in question is he who, in the afterword to his 1794 Hungarian version of La Calprenède's novel Kassandra, quotes the opinions of a number of his friends, who "found fault with [...] a certain contriving of words". The translator acknowledged that he had sinned against the "rules of speech (Syntax)", but as he says, he gave his critics to understand that his text was "in accordance with eloquence (Rhetoric)". In explanation, however, he said that the Greeks and Romans too had refreshed their linguistic stock by borrowing, and the French "to this very day have plucked the pearls with which they have enriched their language from Greek and Latin". This procedure now lay open to the Magyars likewise, simply because their ancestors too had constantly renewed the language in this way[25]. János Horváth says of this principle that the one, who formulated it, “made feel for language and the rules of grammar of secondary importance in order that his writing could be »in accordance with eloquence«. Beauty is the main thing. Báróczi was the first to assert that beauty was the main essential in reshaping the language."[26]

Leaving aside the sentimentalism of plots, as József Szauder says "the beautiful new style", the "rhythmical and finely ordered sentence-structure, precision and purity of language, together with dramatic intensity, and, I suppose, a touch of the exotic after the French" are what captivated young Kazinczy[27]. To that we can add that the deliberate assumption of the exotic also influenced him: "I know that I am taken to task by many who call my work an affected translation, but I venture to call to witness those who have read it in French: could it have been rendered into Hungarian in any other way, bearing in mind the restricted nature of the language?"[28] Kazinczy did likewise when publishing his own translations in the second half of the 1780s, citing the example of Báróczi in the introductions: "Happy he that dares to keep pace with Bárótzy, the beautifier, Bárótzy the Magyar turned Frenchman! It is my lot to kiss the ground He treads, to follow Him from afar, lightly to call Him my friend – this is a goal attained! – a glory won!"[29] Báróczi became for him number one writer of the contemporary Hungarian literary canon, his role-model. He saw in him an example of the artistic use of language that did not bind the language of the writer's envisaged purpose to a dialect that was actually in use and could be fully defined, thereby clearing the way for both the writer's personal shaping of language and for the use in translation of expressions and structures which, insofar as they were modelled on the original text, appeared foreign but were judged to be beautiful. Consequently he turned sharply against the language-model of Debreceni Grammatika from the moment of its publication. In his first comment he acknowledged that, on the one hand, the book "contained much sound material", but on the other hand he made rather too much, in disdainful aristocratic fashion, of the book's "folksiness", saying that it turned butchers, soap-makers and greengrocers "into the Polycletus' Rule of our language". He further observed, somewhat offended, that such an audience would find his translations, in the lofty style based on Báróczi's principles, to be un-Hungarian[30]. It is evident that Kazinczy attacked and condemned Debreceni Grammatika not primarily because of statements that he considered erroneous from the linguist's point of view, but because he could see in it a threat to the literary ideal that he intended to naturalise[31].

Kazinczy's enthusiasm for Báróczi was closely connected to the way in which he sat in judgement on west European – especially contemporary German – literature and its development. In 1793 he writes of the work of contemporary German writers that "it is futile for one to endeavour to enliven our domestic Literature" without knowledge of them, and at the start of his friendship with Mihály Csokonai Vitéz (1773–1805), one of the most significant poets of the time, he sends his friend, in addition to his own works, a volume of Ewald Kleist and Bürger to promote his poetic development[32]. Years later he retains this opinion, as in 1815 he addresses the youthful Sándor Bölöni Farkas in the same spirit: "Get to know Goethe and Goethe, and Goethe again and again. He is in every respect my idol. And Lessing, Klopstock, Schiller, Herder and Wieland. Take them with a pinch of salt, but believe blindly in Goethe – in him there lives a Greek soul."[33] After his imprisonment (1801) he often expressed the sure belief that the great men of German literature of the day were capable of rising to the heights that he so admired mainly because they handled the language like innovators, that is, they tried to transplant into their own works the solutions of classical and other foreign literatures – exotic, but considered beautiful – and make them accepted in German literature, thus enhancing the expressive capacity of the artistic language. He frequently countered the arguments of his opponents by saying that "the German language, although it is a mother tongue and as alien to French as Hungarian is to German, has bestowed on us many Gallicism by naturalisation [...] and had thereby achieved that the German language of today is a thousand times more beautiful, more expressive and nobler than that of Canitz and Opitz"[34]. On the subject of the literary motivations of the endeavours of Kazinczy and his circle, therefore, we agree with István Margóczy: "neologism [...] was scarcely more than innovative enterprise aimed at literary-stylistic transformation, produced by nostalgia for modern Western literature"[35]. We can add to that merely that Kazinczy attempted to shape his own method too on the teachings of the history of literatures, which were held to be developed. "I declare – he writes in 1806, on the subject of loans from foreign sources – that if we do with Hungarian what Klopstock, Goethe, Wieland and Schiller are doing to German, in fifty years' time Hungarian literature will be as like and as unlike that of the days of Sebestyén Tinódi and Ilosvai as the works of the German writers of the time of Klopstock etc. are like and unlike those of Hans-Sachs etc."[36]

Thus Kazinczy is clear that the practice based on such principles is contrary to the workings of language, essentially based on custom. As early as at the start of his debate on the renewal of the language, when he is still for the most part expounding only in his letters the concept formulated in his practical translating, he is critical of József Szentgyörgyi of Debrecen, who takes exception to his seemingly foreign innovations, while at the same time himself admitting that "in a certain sense and up to a point it is every Writer's duty to speak as custom requires", but he immediately adds that he yearns rather for that praise "which Goethe and Klopstock won by innovations to German". On the subject of the use of innovations, however, he on the one hand proudly quotes Klopstock, saying that the audience will have to learn to understand him, and on the other hand makes caution his guiding principle: the "distaste" caused by unfamiliarity must be balanced by the foreign-sounding expression being "sweet" to the reader, who must at the same time be made to feel that it is necessary[37]. This last remark, accordingly, embraces the conviction, not here explicit, that in the given condition of the language literary Hungarian is incapable of satisfying artistic demands. In his letter to János Kis on a similar subject, written some days later, Kazinczy asks, referring to his experience as a translator: "Who cannot feel how poor our language is if ever he wants to translate some Classic of a foreign nation?"[38] A glimpse of this poverty is necessary, therefore, for the reader to accept the exoticisms that are emerging in new Hungarian works, and to regard them as an indispensable appurtenance of the enrichment of the language. In debating with his friends in Debrecen in 1802 Kazinczy poses the rhetorical question: "Is our language in a condition in which it has to remain? Is it sufficient to squeeze out of every idea, every nuance?"[39]

The reason why Kazinczy was so critical of the attitude of Debreceni Grammatika plays an important role in the problem of the assessment of the current state of the Hungarian language. As we have intimated above, the Foreword attacks the use of foreign words, and does that by the good Hungarian yard-stick that what is to be said should be understanded of the people, for as religious matters show – goes the argument – any "decent and lofty" matter may be expressed in the language of the common people[40]. From this Kazinczy infers that Debreceni Grammatika does not regard the enrichment of the language as necessary, and that "Debrecen wants always to remain where it was"[41]. In exasperation he explains to his partners in the debate: "It only holds good for the dead languages that we may not say anything for the first time", and he scornfully dismisses the notion of universal comprehensibility as the linguistic standard for literature: "It would be a strange lucid exposition if Writers in the New taste were to write their works in the way that our preachers impart their teachings to the uneducated congregation"[42]. Assessment of the situation and the setting of goals are coherently linked within their own way of thinking of both parties in the debate, but their views differ and result in quite opposite ideas and arguments. The aim of Debreceni Grammatika is to preserve the characteristic linguistic features of Hungarian, which it sees as endangered but not yet beyond saving. The central problem of the Foreword is that the Hungarian literature of the day – in particular through translations – is ruining and spoiling the language because it frequently makes use of locutions out of keeping with its nature. The authors' task is therefore to restore to its rightful place the undamaged Hungarian to be found in places where the common people have been least mixed with foreigners, that is, to disseminate it and make it the norm throughout the language community. In opposition to this essentially conservative standpoint, Kazinczy represents the realisation of potential values. He regards contemporary Hungarian literary language as a field not of realised values but of potential ones. "To write marvellous original works has not been granted to us, but will be granted to our grandsons", he explains in defence of his translating plans[43]. He regards aesthetically polished language as a necessary but insufficient factor for bringing into being in future works that will prove durable by European standards. In his view, as Ferenc Bíró puts it, "It is not the work accomplished in Hungarian that is of primary and direct value, but the language that is fit for creating great works."[44]

One of the most important elements of the proposed goal of his efforts is the language-ideal. This concept took shape in the course of his debates, and may be seen to have crystallised out in the above-mentioned letter of 1802, in which he offers the requirements set out by art as a viewpoint. He interprets the continuing debate on literary language in a statement sent to Farkas Cserey in 1805. He sums up the essential problem: "Must we, may we, model our Language on the genius of Western languages, so that we may take their works as our examples?" When making his personal views known, he states that the nation whose literature is only taking shape, while its neighbours are more advanced, will imperceptibly become a follower of the more developed. He considers the Debrecen people to be harmful: they wish to obstruct this process, whereas he opines that the influence of developed foreign literature can have much beneficial effect. Thus he argues that "the Aesthetic Writer should not ask: Is this how they speak, and has anyone else spoken like this in the past (this question can only be applied to the dead Languages), but is it possible for me to speak in such a way that what I say may be elegant, lively speech with a novel tone?"[45] He makes his own stance unambiguous with a reference to painters and architects: they too may train themselves fruitfully by studying western European masterpieces. In his essay of 1814, entitled The Life of Sándor Báróczy, he argues against the use of universal comprehension as an artistic norm, stating that in the case of (literary) language what matters most is not alignment with vernacular usage in the interests of comprehensibility "but the ideal of language, that language should be at its best: a faithful, ready and pleasing interpreter of everything that the soul thinks and feels."[46] This definition shows clearly that the concept of the language-ideal embraces both the functional and the aesthetic components of artistic communication. By validating the aesthetic viewpoint, Kazinczy discriminates between himself and those who judge literary language solely on the basis of vernacular usage as defined in terms of grammar and vocabulary. This is why he writes to Gábor Nagy that "the task of the Aesthetic writer is one thing, that of the Lexicographer or Grammarian another"[47]. The language-ideal plays a role of unchanging importance in what is perhaps the subtlest definition of the norm of literary language, which appears in his essay of 1819. According to this, in elevated style the writer is permitted everything "that the ideal of all languages requires, that the nature (the eternal usage and law) of Hungarian does not explicitly forbid, that taste educated on the classics ancient and modern actually advises, and that necessity inescapably commands. In a context where the writer addresses everyone, anything that every reader surely will applaud is permitted."[48] This passage takes the content of the language-ideal for granted, and clarifies the previously quoted wording in that it emphasises the universal nature of the concept ("the ideal of all languages"). The text is substantially more precise, however, in the sense that it explicitly emphasises the mutual relationship of the factors influencing the norm of the writings of elevated style (texts created by artistic demand). In many cases Kazinczy did not make sufficiently subtle observations on the role of colloquial usage[49], but this he is now careful to make clear. The definition has one prohibiting and three prescriptive elements. These last are language-ideal, classically educated taste and necessity. As the spheres of interpretation of all three of these expectations do not always coincide fully, and their combined realisation is set as a goal, they are presented as mutually restrictive factors. In all three cases, however, a very general concept defines the prescription, and so in practice they do not tie writers' hands but rather guarantee them liberty. Kazinczy's notion of the role of grammatical rules is radically different from that of Debreceni Grammatika. From the point of view of the latter, linguistic rules derived from actual language acts (sentences) formulate the pattern to be followed in the form of rules, while Kazinczy wishes to guarantee writers significantly greater liberty, as he only prescribes that the fundamental laws of the language may not be infringed. In this, he represents the principle that "what the law does not forbid is permitted", which on the whole (always?) makes for greater liberty than the principle that "what the law permits may be done", which characterises the position of his fellow debaters. The concept of the nature of the language embraces the said usage[50] and defines only a standard-check from a given point of view, but is not itself a factor, which, beyond its occasional corrective role, would have the force of setting a pattern for the linguistic practice to be introduced. Throughout his career as an innovator Kazinczy reckoned on usage as a factor to be taken into consideration, although in certain of his statements, depending on the state of the debate, he emphasised its importance in various ways. From the point of view of the debate with Debrecen, what has been said is significant because while the Debreceni Grammatika "endeavoured to fight for a self-righteous national linguistic norm"[51], insisted that following usage was the most important element, and so formulated a principle that made it impossible for neologism to exist. For Kazinczy too, the preservation of the specific features of Hungarian was a vital task[52], but he clearly believed that he satisfied that demand by the fact that the requirement of adhering to the nature of Hungarian was established in his system of standards.

From what he knew of the history of Latin and contemporary Western literature Kazinczy had no fear that the national character of the language would be destroyed, and he was in no doubt about whether "by the alteration of this language and speech, literature and the national Genius" would win or lose[53]. He recognised his opponents' belief that his approved and practised way of using neologisms was an act of violence against the language, but he considered it inevitable in the interests of development. "Let us consider the German Writers who lived a hundred years ago" – he wrote to some of his correspondents in 1805 – "and those who lived fifty years ago, let us consider the violence that they committed on their language; how far did they go by that means? If the language can advance so far only by such violence, are we not to wish that our Language too should suffer violence?"[54] In answer to János Batsányi, who had compared Hungarian to a virgin that "would never submit to violation in any form" and who could only be wooed in fitting manner by a young man born under a fortunate constellation[55], Kazinczy further embroidered the image in psychological terms, saying that "there is a difference between violation and violation, and there are forms of violation so pleasant that, after the deed is done and we can see that things did not turn out badly, we are even glad that they have been committed." In what follows, however, he points out that in the final analysis it is the quality of the finished work that would decide who had chosen the right road in shaping the language: "Who shall say, until the work gains praise for the Artist, which of us it is that was born under a blessed star?"[56]

The participants in debates on the 'renewal' of Hungarian often resort to two lines of argument, which deserve attention from the point of view of the exchanges between Kazinczy and Debrecen. One is the question of the role of writers in shaping the language, the other that of the origin of Hungarian. We have seen that Debreceni Grammatika linked the proposed unified standard national language to the speech of common people who had been least exposed to foreign influence. From this there followed directly the expectation that writers would adjust themselves to this norm and that it would be disseminated by way of their various printed works. The goal that Kazinczy set, the transfer of the beauties of foreign literature to take root in Hungarian – though at the price of exotic innovations – proposed the use of foreign literatures, not a given vernacular usage, as the pattern to be followed. By virtue of the nature of the task, this endeavour seemed feasible exclusively by the dedicated work of cultured writers who were familiar with and understood foreign literature. The problem for the debating parties was, to what extent was a writer justified in abandoning the linguistic pattern of a given speech community. In Kazinczy's argument, the emphasis on the role of the writer and his right to shape the language was linked to questions of social prestige, but also was an indispensable requirement of his plans for language and literature. In his biography of Báróczi, Kazinczy states that while a new language "is the creation of the multitude: it is the better writers, not the common people, not usage, who will bear the one that exists towards that perfection to which it can ascend", and, he adds, the language community (the common people) will accept novelty if it is "unsurpassably beautiful and fine-sounding" and if "the writer does not make more use of it than is judicious and can enchant their ears with his style"[57]. The public must therefore be carefully trained to innovations, but this can only yield results if the text produced satisfies the requirements of beauty and alerts the reader that the writer is forced to employ alien turns of speech because of the deficiency of means of expression in (literary) Hungarian. The refinement of living languages is therefore in writers' hands, and this search for perfection must continue until "it is achieved by sufficiently numerous great Writers in all branches of the Arts and Sciences". Kazinczy, who treats the foregoing as an indisputable fact, complains that in Hungarian literary circles "the paradox still exists that the Writer of Literature, if such he is, is plenipotentiary Master and Lawgiver of the Language, as the Grammarian, if he is only a Grammarian, is merely its guardian, its prisoner". Then he adds: "Let us not fear lest the Writer of Literature abuse this power"[58]. Writers are, therefore, the indispensable validators of Kazinczy's use of neologisms. Failure to acknowledge their role in setting a standard may jeopardise the attainment of further goals. That is why Debreceni Grammatika, in seeking to place the verdict in questions of correctness of language in scientific hands, is in conflict with Kazinczy's ambitions on a cardinal point.

A question of very similar weight that played a decisive part in the drawing up of front lines was that of the position adopted by the parties in the debate over the origins of Hungarian and the conclusions that they therefore came to with regard to their practice in the cultivation of the language. We have seen that neither party was indifferent to the preservation of the national characteristics of the mother tongue, but its origins proved a stumbling-block when they came to explain how they would refine it. Those who stressed its Oriental origin considered the introduction of foreign words, displaying the influence of Western languages, to be unnatural. Debreceni Grammatika, for example, asserted that "if the Hungarian Language, which has the nature of the languages of the East, is poured into the mould of the Languages of the West, lost will be all its beauty, power and purity"[59]. Kazinczy is frequently dismissive of this argument. "We are an Oriental nation! That is the cry" – he introduces his opponents to Farkas Cserey in 1805 – "Very well; I will answer them. So you send the young Man whom Nature calls to the study of Sculpture or Architecture to the banks of the Don to sketch the hovels of Asia, rather than cause him to scan the ruins of Rome?"[60] On the day when he wrote these lines Kazinczy repeated, in a letter to Professor Ézsaiás Budai of Debrecen, his belief that he credited Debreceni Grammatika with giving rise to the argument that he attacked[61]. It is important to note that Kazinczy does not dispute the Oriental origins of Hungarian; he speaks neither for nor against the belief. He uses the comparison with art merely to point the consequences of a thought that he finds unacceptable, and to make his following of western models appear justified. In 1816 there emerges a line of thought which deals with the question of Oriental origin by giving reasons for his use of neologisms. "We know that our language is Oriental, not Western" – he confirms – "and we feel this to be a mark of good fortune, rather than wish to rid ourselves of it. Nor do we yet know that the thought of setting sacrilegious hands on the treasure in it has occurred to any of us." He quotes as evidence, for example, among other things, that, following the example of foreign languages, in Hungarian it has never occurred to anyone to make an adjective agree in number and case with the noun that it qualifies. Continuing this line of thought, he states that "since Greek, Latin, German, French and Italian literature are not only the literatures of the Greeks, Romans, Germans, French and Italians, but of the Magyars too, and this consideration forges between us and those nations a relationship which is worth as much as that other by which we are the relations of the Jews, the Arabs, the Turks and the Tartars: do we do wrong if we address those who are members of this spiritual body like ourselves, we that speak, that utter words in such a way that it is evident from our speech in whose society we have lived?"[62] Kazinczy thus, on the one hand, emphasises that innovations do not affect the basic grammatical structure of the language, and on the other hand defends the use of foreign expressions – indeed, shows that they are inevitable – by saying that through influences validated in the course of long cohabitation Hungarian literature is regarded as part of European literature, that is, he believes that he finds in Magyar national literature – to use Lajos Csetri's term[63] – alignment with a European literary model. This, however, sets before the creative writer requirements in artistic communication to be taken into consideration in the same way as does the grammatical structure that is recognised as Oriental in origin.

From what has gone before we can see how Kazinczy interprets the debate. On the one hand are those who insist on seeing things from a point of view that stresses exclusively the preservation of the national character of Hungarian, and who are intent on linking the linguistic norm to the grammatical structure and lexical apparatus of a dialect. On the other hand Kazinczy’s ambition, with the intention of being connected to and catching up with western literatures, is to get a theoretically strict set of norms adopted, however, his proposed points of reference are so general that in practice the writer is guaranteed the greatest possible freedom in the shaping of language.

To conclude discussion of the problem it is worth taking a glance at what was at stake in the frequently passionate debate. Light is shed on this by a letter from Kazinczy to the well-known economist Gergely Berzeviczy (1763–1822). The letter to which Kazinczy was replying is lost, but fortunately the problem was so important to him that in his answer he quoted Berzeviczy verbatim: "We might embark upon many more profitable occupations, and of happier outcome (writes Berzeviczy), to open before our country a road to that happiness which bountiful nature offers us, but we always disregard the guiding means." From the simple self-assurance of Kazinczy's reply it is clear that his friend has voiced a problem to which his personal convictions offer a prompt, considered answer: "There can be no occupation nobler and more profitable than to take the language of the country to the greatest degree of perfection. [...] History proves that if anywhere the Good has taken root, there the Beautiful has always prepared the way. [...] Poetry and all that is closely or loosely connected with it is the loveliest flower of the human mind, but without language it cannot bloom; [...] and by language I mean the national language of every nation."[64]By setting the development of the national language in the context of poetry, the Beautiful and the Good, Kazinczy gives a moral perspective to the matter as he sees it. The outlook of Debreceni Grammatika is perhaps narrower, but the protection of the national identity, which its authors felt was under threat, through the preservation of the Magyar character of the mother tongue was sufficient motivation for them to engage in a serious debate over the matter of translation and exoticisms of language.


Translated by Bernard Adams



1 - See MÉREI Gy., VÖRÖS K., (Eds.). Magyarország története 1790–1848. 2 vols. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1980, Vol. 1, p. 439.  [retour]

2 - BESSENYEI Gy. Válogatott művei. BÍRÓ F. (Ed.). Budapest: Szépirodalmi Kiadó,1987, p. 589–90.  [retour]

3 - SZONTAGH G. [Recenzió Kölcsey Hit, remény, szeretet című írásáról]. Muzarion, 1829, 4: p. 89.  [retour]

4 - [A LEARNED SOCIETY IN DEBRECEN]. Magyar Grammatika. Béts [Vienna]: 1795 [hereinafterreferred to as DebrGr], p. XV.  [retour]

5 - DebrGr, p. XVI.  [retour]

6 - DebrGr, p. XVII.  [retour]

7 - DebrGr, p. XVII-XVIII.  [retour]

8 - DebrGr, p. XVIII.  [retour]

9 - DebrGr, p. XVIII.  [retour]

10 - DebrGr, p. XIX-XX.  [retour]

11 - DebrGr, p. XXII.  [retour]

12 - DebrGr, p. XXII-XXIII.  [retour]

13 - DebrGr, p. XXIII-XXIV.  [retour]

14 - DebrGr, p. XXIX.  [retour]

15 - DebrGr, p. XXX.  [retour]

16 - See KECSKÉS A. A magyar verselméleti gondolkodás története: A kezdetektől 1898-ig. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1991, p. 193-201.  [retour]

17 - DebrGr, p. XXVIII.  [retour]

18 - DebrGr, p. XXV.  [retour]

19 - MARGÓCSY I. A Révai–Verseghy-vita eszme- és kultúrtörténeti vonatkozásai. In: KULIN F., MARGÓCSY I., (Eds.). Klasszika és romantika között. Budapest: Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1990, p. 30.  [retour]

20 - TOLNAI V. A nyelvújítás: A nyelvújítás elmélete és története. Budapest: 1929, p. 76.  [retour]

21 - See CSETRI L. Egység vagy különbözőség? Nyelv- és irodalomszemlélet a magyar nyelvújítás korszakában. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990 [hereinafterreferred to as “CSETRI 1990/a”], p. 209.  [retour]

22 - See Csetri L. A magyar nyelvújítás kora irodalomszemléletének nyelvfilozófiai alapjairól. In: SZAUDER J., TARNAI A., (Eds.). Irodalom és felvilágosodás: Tanulmányok. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1974, p. 253.; CSETRI L. Kazinczy nyelvújítása. In: KULIN F., MARGÓCSY I., (Eds.). Klasszika és romantika között. Budapest: Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1990 [hereinafterreferred to as “CSETRI 1990/b”], p. 15-16.  [retour]

23 - CSETRI 1990/a, 23.  [retour]

24 - KAZINCZY F. Pályám emlékezete. In: Kazinczy F. Művei. 2 vols. SZAUDER M. (Ed.). Budapest: Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1979 [hereinafter referred to as “KAZINCZY 1979”], Vol. 1, p. 238-239.  [retour]

25 - BÁROTZI S. A forditonak szavai. In: [LA CALPRENEDE G.] Kassándra. BÁROTZI S., (Transl.). Pest: Trattner, 1794. [There are three unnumbered pages at the end of the book.]  [retour]

26 - HORVÁTH J. Báróczi Sándor. Budapest: Franklin, 1901, p. 34.  [retour]

27 - SZAUDER J. Bevezetés. In: KAZINCZY F. Válogatott művei, 2 vols. SZAUDER Józsefné and SZAUDER József, (Eds.). Budapest: Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1960, Vol. 1, p. XXI.  [retour]

28 - BÁRÓTZI S. Előljáró beszéd. In: LŐKÖS I., (Ed.). Érzelmes históriák. Budapest: Magvető Könyvkiadó, 1982, [hereinafter referred to as “LŐKÖS 1982”] p. 12.  [retour]

29 - KAZINCZY F. Bácsmegyeynek öszve-szedett levelei. In: LŐKÖS 1982, 359. See also LŐKÖS 1982, p. 207.; Kazinczy F. to Ráday G. 19 May 1788 In: Kazinczy F. Levelezése [Correspondence]. 22 vols. VÁCZY J. [1-21 vols.] (Ed.), HARSÁNYI I. [22 vol.] (Ed.). Budapest: Magyar Tudományos Akadémia, 1890–1911, 1927 [hereinafter referred to as “KazLev”], Vol. 1. p. 180.  [retour]

30 - Kazinczy F. to Kis J. 16 Nov. 1797 In: KazLev, Vol. 2. p. 421, 422. See also Kazinczy F. to Szentgyörgyi J. 24 Feb. 1804 In: KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 172.; Kazinczy F. to Budai E. 31 March 1805 In: KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 310.; CSETRI 1990/a, 42-44.  [retour]

31 - See CSETRI L. Kazinczy és a nyelvújítás. Tiszatáj, 1985, 39: 7, [hereinafter referred to as “CSETRI 1985”] p. 52.; CSETRI 1990/a, 43.  [retour]

32 - Kazinczy F. to Kis J. 27 July 1793 In: KazLev, Vol. 2. p. 297.  [retour]

33 - Kazinczy F. to Bölöni F. S. 22 Oct. 1815 In: KazLev, Vol. 13. p. 241.  [retour]

34 - Kazinczy F. to Virág B. 31 Oct. 1802 In: KazLev, Vol. 2. p. 500-501.  [retour]

35 - MARGÓCSY I. Kazinczy és Kisfaludy Sándor. Irodalomtörténet, 1981, 63: 3, p. 755.  [retour]

36 - Kazinczy F. to Horváth Á. 15 July 1806 In: KazLev, Vol. 4. p. 207.  [retour]

37 - Kazinczy F. to Szentgyörgyi J. 5 Feb. 1804 In: KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 152-153.  [retour]

38 - Kazinczy F. to Kis J. 12 Feb. 1804 In: KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 158-159. See also KAZINCZY F. Ortológus és neológus nálunk és más nemzeteknél. [1819] In: KAZINCZY 1979, Vol. 1. p. 823-826.  [retour]

39 - Kazinczy F. to Virág B. 31 Oct. 1802 In: KazLev, Vol. 2. p. 501.  [retour]

40 - DebrGr, XIX-XX.  [retour]

41 - Kazinczy F. to Cserey F. 31. March 1805 In: KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 303. See also Kazinczy F. to Berzsenyi D. 22 Jan. 1810 In: KazLev, Vol. 7. p. 233.  [retour]

42 - Kazinczy F. to Budai E. 31 March 1805 In: KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 309. See also Kazinczy F. to Prónay S. 21 Dec. 1815 In: KazLev, Vol. 13. p. 364.  [retour]

43 - Kazinczy F to Majtényi L. 31 April 1808 In: KazLev, Vol. 22. p. 227. See also Kazinczy F. to Aranka Gy. 1 July 1810. In: KazLev, Vol. 8. p. 2-3.; Kazinczy F to Kölcsey F. 14 June 1817 In: KazLev, Vol. 15. p. 242.; KAZINCZY F. Ortológus és neológus nálunk és más nemzeteknél. In: KAZINCZY 1979, Vol. 1. p. 833-834.  [retour]

44 - BÍRÓ F. A felvilágosodás korának magyar irodalma. Budapest: Balassi Kiadó, 1994, p. 136.  [retour]

45 - Kazinczy F. to Cserey F. 31 March 1805 In: KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 303-304. See also Kazinczy F. to Budai E. 31 March 1805 In: KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 310.; KAZINCZY F. Ortológus és neológus nálunk és más nemzeteknél In: KAZINCZY 1979, Vol. 1. p. 816-817.  [retour]

46 - KAZINCZY F. Báróczy Sándor élete. In: KAZINCZY 1979, Vol. 1. p. 790.  [retour]

47 - Kazinczy F. to Nagy G. 29 April 1806 In: KazLev, Vol. 4. p. 137.  [retour]

48 - KAZINCZY F. Ortológus és neológus nálunk és más nemzeteknél. In: KAZINCZY 1979, Vol. 1. p. 832.  [retour]

49 - See Kazinczy F to Pápay S. 11. March 1811 In: KazLev, Vol. 8. p. 379-380.; Kazinczy F. to Engel J. K. 19 March 1814 In: KazLev, Vol. 11. p. 292.; KAZINCZY F. Jelentés a’ Klopstock’ Messziása’ eránt. [16 Jan. 1816] In: KazLev, Vol. 13. p. 481.  [retour]

50 - See CSETRI 1990/a, p. 84.  [retour]

51 - CSETRI 1990/a, 209.  [retour]

52 - Kazinczy F. to Berzeviczy G. 23 July 1810 In: KazLev, Vol. 22. p. 255-256.; KAZINCZY F. Ortológus és neológus nálunk és más nemzeteknél. In: KAZINCZY 1979, Vol. 1. p. 816.  [retour]

53 - Kazinczy F. to Horváth Á. 15 July 1806 In: KazLev, Vol. 4. p. 207.  [retour]

54 - Kazinczy F. to Cserey F. 31 March 1805 In: KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 303. See also Kazinczy F to Budai E. 31 March 1805 KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 309.  [retour]

55 - BATSÁNYI J. [Dolgozatok Ányos Pálról.] In: BATSÁNYI J. Összes művei. KERESZTURY D., TARNAI A., (Eds.). Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1960, p. 118-119.  [retour]

56 - Kazinczy F. to Takács J. 10 July 1815 In: KazLev, Vol. 13. p. 21. See also Kazinczy F. to Szentgyörgyi J. 6 Aug. 1815 In: KazLev, Vol.13. p. 54-55.; Kazinczy F. to Kölcsey F. 6 Aug. 1815 KazLev, Vol. 13. p. 57.  [retour]

57 - KAZINCZY F. Báróczy Sándor élete. In: KAZINCZY 1979, Vol. 1. p. 794.  [retour]

58 - KAZINCZY F. Jelentés a’ Klopstock’ Messziása’ eránt. [16 Jan. 1816] In: KazLev, Vol. 13. p. 481. See also KAZINCZY F. Ortológus és neológus nálunk és más nemzeteknél. In: KAZINCZY 1979, Vol. 1. p. 817.  [retour]

59 - DebrGr, XX-XXI.  [retour]

60 - Kazinczy F. to Cserey F. 31 March 1805 In: KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 303. See also Kazinczy F. to Budai E. 31 March 1805 In: KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 309-310.; Kazinczy F. to Majtényi L. 30 April 1808 In: KazLev, Vol. 22. p. 226-227.  [retour]

61 - Kazinczy F. to Budai E. 31 March 1805 In. KazLev, Vol. 3. p. 309-310.  [retour]

62 - KAZINCZY F. A Tövisek és Virágok tervezett második kiadásának kéziratban maradt jegyzetei. In: KAZINCZY F. Összes művei. 5 vols. ABAFI L. (Ed.). Budapest: Aigner Lajos, 1879–1884, Vol. 1. p. 244-245. See also Kazinczy F. to Rumy K. Gy. 6 Jan. 1816 In: KazLev, Vol. p. 389.  [retour]

63 - CSETRI 1985, p. 48-51.  [retour]

64 - Kazinczy F. to Berzeviczy G. 23 July 1810 In: KazLev, Vol. 22. p. 255-256.  [retour]


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