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New illiberalism and the old Hungarian alphabet

The history of the politics of scripts in modern central Europe is characterised by the gradual limitation of their number. The re-emerging Rovás and Glagolitic scriptures could be used to foster regional revisionism and tension.

April 30, 2020 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Bugac, the first Hungarian locality with its name officially announced in Rovás on a road sign Photo: Enantiomer (cc) wikimedia.org

At the turn of the 21st century, I came across what then was dubbed in English as ‘Hungarian Runes.’ At this time I was researching the history of the use of various scripts and languages in central Europe. Until the 17th century, the Rovásírás (rovás ‘notch’ and írás ‘writing’) was employed in Transylvania in the form of brief inscriptions incised in wood. Memorably, the United States historian, Peter Sugar, wrote his notes in Rovás when in Yugoslavia researching his first monograph on Industrialization of Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1878-1918 (1963). This ploy allowed him to evade the unwanted scrutiny of the Udba (Uprava državne bezbednosti), or the Yugoslav secret police. Sugar knew about this script because he was born and raised in a Jewish family in Budapest. During World War II, Sugar was sent for safety to neutral Turkey, where he continued education in Istanbul and learned more about Rovás.

Rovás is a Hungarian modification of the Old Turkish script (Orkhon alphabet) that emerged during the last third of the First Millennium among the Turkic peoples of central Asia. It was based on the Pahlavi script of the Iranian language and on the alphabet of the Iranic language of Sogdian, which used to be the lingua franca of traders traveling along the Silk Road. This Old Turkish script was re-discovered at the turn of the 20th century and gained historical and ideological interest in early Republican Turkey, when a ‘purely Turkic’ form of the Turkish national history and culture was rapidly invented. Of course, neither this Turkish writing system nor Rovás has anything to do with the Germanic Runes (from Old German runa ‘secret, whisper’) devised in the second century on the basis of the Latin alphabet in the Roman Empire’s borderlands in northern Europe. The superficial similarity of both Runes and Rovás is due to the method of their execution, that is, by incision on stone or wood.

Rovás inscription egy az isten georgyius musnai diakon ([by] God[‘s grace] Georgyius Musnai, Dean’), 1668, village Énlaka in Ottoman Transylvania (nowadays, Inlăceni, Romania) Source: Wikimedia

The history of the politics of scripts in modern central Europe is characterised by the gradual limitation of their number. Western Europe offered the normative model of monoscriptuality because the Latin alphabet was (almost) the sole writing system in this part of the Old Continent since antiquity. Conversely, in Central Europe, the Latin letters were employed in Catholic and Protestant polities while Cyrillic was used in (mainly Slavic) Orthodox realms and the Arabic script was utilised in the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, across the entire region, Jewish communities used Hebrew letters and their Muslim counterparts the Arabic script. In the Ottoman Empire, members of the predominantly Greek-speaking millet (ethnoreligious non-territorial autonomy) of Rum (Orthodox Romans) wrote in Greek letters, while members of the Armenian millet (who also thrived in Poland-Lithuania) stuck to their specific Armenian alphabet. In addition, the Georgian alphabet made an appearance in few Orthodox monasteries in the Balkans, while the late medieval Glagolitic script was preserved among Croatian Catholics on the island of Veglia (today Krk in Croatia) until the early 20th century. By the mid-20th century, the official and de facto use of these numerous scripts was radically reduced to the Greek alphabet employed in Greece and Cyprus, Cyrillic in use across Slavophone Orthodox nation-states, and the Latin alphabet extant everywhere else. This state of scriptual affairs is duly reflected in the number of official writing systems employed in the European Union. They number three, as readily attested on euro banknotes, which sport inscriptions in Cyrillic, Greek and Latin letters. Cyrillic is the official script in Bulgaria, while the Greek alphabet is employed in the member states of Cyprus and Greece. All the other European Union member states use the Latin script.

However, the rapid political and ideological changes at the turn of the 21st century have successfully challenged Central Europe’s present-day norm of triscriptuality. In the course of the war of Yugoslav succession, Croatia reinvented itself as a historically and culturally unique nation-state and utilised the politics of script in its effort. First of all, Cyrillic was banned, because it was deemed to be ‘Serbian.’ This step facilitated the re-emergence of Croatian as a language in its own right, following the split of Yugoslavia’s main official language of Serbo-Croatian. Serbo-Croatian sported two official scripts, namely, Cyrillic and Latin, whereas Croatian is written only in Latin letters. But a similar development took place among the Muslim Bosniaks, who also banned Cyrillic on the road to their own national tongue of Bosnian. Faced with this unwanted commonality, Croatian historians and philologists, often doubling as politicians, zoomed on Glagolitic. They made it into a potent symbol of Croatianness. Among others, this symbolic script allows for emphasising the presumed Croatian uniqueness vis-à-vis the Bosniaks and their Latin alphabet-based Bosnian language.

Irregular (private) biscriptural, Latin alphabet and Glagolitic, road sign in Grad Drivenik, Croatia. Source: Wikimedia

Since 1993, Glagolitic summer schools have been regularly organised in Croatia for the patriotic sake of popularising Glagolitic, including the skill of reading and writing in this script. In the traditional ecclesiastical use, Glagolitic was employed predominantly for printing and writing texts in the Church Slavonic language. Nowadays, this script is applied for writing in Croatian. Between 1996 and 2004, a standard Unicode set of characters was developed for Glagolitic, so nowadays one can use this script on the internet, too. What is more, the (Church) Slavonic Wikipediais composed with the use of both Cyrillic and Glagolitic. In the mid-2010s, the Croatian state extended formal legal protection over Glagolitic with an eye to promoting its symbolic use, including support for elective lessons of how to read and write in Glagolitic in schools. Glagolitic has popped up across Croatia on monuments, in the form of Glagolitic letters or words on T-shirts, and even in biscriptual plaques with the names of local offices. But beyond this symbolic employment of Glagolitic, there is no wish among the population at large to use it as an officially acknowledged second alphabet of the Croatian language. No books or periodicals are published in Glagolitic, with the qualified exception of school textbooks on how to write and read Glagolitic. However, apart from Glagolitic examples, such manuals are mostly written in Latin letters.

To this day Glagolitic remains a potent symbol of Croatian nationalism and its reinvented traditionalism. The story of the recent rise of Rovás in Hungary is similar. However, some differences are telling. During the 1990s in Hungary, an interest in Rovás was limited to scholars and amateur enthusiasts, some of whom were nationalists of conservative views. In 2003 the fringe World Association of Hungarians (Magyarok Világszövetsége) held a meeting in the Transylvanian town of Miercurea Ciuc (Csíkszereda ), Romania, to talk about the future of the Hungarian (Szekler) minority in the region. The delegates appealed for territorial autonomy for Szeklers and their land, as well as Rovás-script road signs with the Hungarian names of Szekler towns and villages. Unsurprisingly, the Romanian authorities would not consider any of these requests, designed to question the legitimacy of Bucharest’s rule over Szeklerland (that is, Ținutul Secuiesc in Romanian and Székelyföld in Hungarian).

In 1998, work began on developing a Unicode standard for Rovás. Fourteen years later, in 2012, such a standard was finally adopted for the officially named Old Hungarian (régi magyar) alphabet, which is also popularly referred to as the Székely-magyar rovásírás, or Szekler-Hungarian Rovás. Initially, two significant hurdles had to be scaled. First, the international community of Unicode users and developers long remained unconvinced that an internet standard of coding should be developed for an obscure Hungarian script, though next to no one used it and the Hungarian government did not support this scriptual project. Second, Rovás is written from right to left, unlike the majority of European scripts (with the exception of the Hebrew writing system). Despite these difficulties, in the mid-2000s, enthusiasts began publishing entire books that had been transliterated from the Hungarian language into Rovás. The establishment of the Rovás Foundation (Rovás Alapítvány) in 2009 gave an immediate boost to these efforts, resulting in the first professionally published and marketed book in Rovás – tellingly, a collection of Hungarian folktales. This foundation maintains the vibrant online service Rovas Info, available both in Hungarian and English.

Gyula Illyés, Hét meg hét magyar népmese (Hungarian Folktales, 2009). Source: Wikimedia

The game-changer for this linguistic project began in 2010 with the rise to power of Viktor Orbán and his national-conservative Fidesz (Magyar Polgári Szövetség, Hungarian Civic Alliance) party. He promised an ‘illiberal revolution’ that would end corruption and bring prosperity and stability to the average citizen. As a result, fringe nationalist groupings found themselves in the midst of the political center, which had dramatically shifted to the right. Prime Minister Orbán was quick to adopt these groupings’ main ideals and goals as his own to solidify power and gain a permanent parliamentary majority. Thus far, the majoritarian Fidesz government has remained unchallenged at the helm of power in Hungary for a decade. The Orbán administration also gave green light to a broader public use of the Hungarian national alphabet of Rovás. In 2010, with the aid of the Rovás Foundation’s expertise, official road signs with names of villages and towns in Rovás sprang up across Hungary. The village of Bugac – located half way between Budapest and Szeged was the first one.

The Rovás Foundation, with governmental support, publishes books in Rovás, develops educational material, trains teachers who offer lessons of this Old Hungarian alphabet in schools, and organizes Rovás training courses. These courses are a helping hand to illiberal nationalists and Fidesz party activists. In the recent past, when some free press still remained in Hungary, liberally-minded democratic journalists enjoyed proving that such activists were opportunists, who, despite their vociferous support for Rovás, were unable either to read or write in this Hungarian national script. Apart from bookshops, the internet, regional administrations, and schools, the use of Rovás tends to spread in marketing and on apparel. The authorities also allow for using Rovás in one’s personal signature, including IDs and passports.

Unlike in the case of Croatia’s Glagolitic, Hungary’s Rovás decidedly left the narrow confines of national symbolism and nowadays functions as a genuine second alphabet of the Hungarian language. Many Hungarians read and write in Rovás, especially those who sympathize with the nationalist right. The national Hungarian alphabet evokes warm patriotic feelings in many, which the governing Fidesz party uses to attract voters, while companies deploy it in advertising. In Croatia it is sufficient to be able to recognize Glagolitic letters by sight in order to be a good patriot, without the necessity of knowing which sound a given letter happens to denote. On the other hand, in Hungary a true patriot must be functionally literate in Rovás. The politics of script are coming back in a big way in Central Europe, but few seem to have noticed.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán shows the map of historic Hungary to the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Budapest, April 2019. (via
Prime Minister Orbán’s Facebook profile)

Rovás and the patriotic politics of script merge well with the subliminal irredentism of the Orbán administration that takes pride in adorning state offices with the map of pre-1918 ‘historic Hungary.’ No one protests that affording such an official recognition to this historic map may put Hungary at loggerheads with its neighbors, which are also members of NATO and the European Union. An illiberal conflict of the typical 20th -century ethnonational character is brewing. In 2015, the Rovás Foundation published Rovás maps of all the parts of historic Hungary, which remain outside the frontiers of today’s Hungarian nation-state. Rovás-fueled Hungarian irredentism is inching toward taking the center stage in Hungarian and central European politics.

Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was just published by Routledge. 


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