The Kingdom of Hungary consisted of a multitude of peoples. Besides the “real” Hungarians, there were Slovakians, Ruthenians, Serbs, Romanians, Jews, Germans, Slovenes and Croats, all with their own language and customs. Besides this cacophony of languages and dialects there was one lingua franca that was used for everyday business and in all levels of government: Latin. Admittedly, it was mostly no more than “kitchen-” or “hussar-Latin”, but it tripped off the tongue, especially of those whose owners had spent a few years in school. Whether a Catholic, a Lutheran or a Calvinist one; everyone left as a latinist and could get by with that language anywhere in public life. Latin was the language of books and scholars, but above all of commerce, civil service and law. Hungarian was hardly spoken, even by the “real” Hungarians. The bourgeoisie in the major industrial and commercial centres spoke German next to Latin, and the nobility used it at most to communicate with its tenants, but avoided using it in polite company. Moreover, the magnates, the high nobility, who gradually had taken over the manners of the Viennese court, had almost completely lost any knowledge of the language.
The government in Vienna was since long convinced that the poor knowledge of German, the trading language of the empire, was the main cause of Hungary’s economic backwardness. On top of that came Joseph’s centralist policy, which would be difficult to implement without a common administrative language. In 1784 the Emperor therefore declared German the only authorized official language. Latin had to be replaced completely within three years by German, even at the level of the smallest local authorities. The same applied to the judiciary and the schools, where German was to be introduced as the teaching language. Even clergymen were no longer allowed to fulfill their duties if they did not master the German language. It was a bolt from the blue and a slap in the face of anyone who felt even slightly Hungarian and regarded the growing interference of Vienna with suspicion. So, exactly the opposite of what the Emperor envisaged by his measure happened. Instead of replacing Latin silently with German he had revived as if by magic the moribund Hungarian language. Had the language until recently virtually disappeared from public life, now it was as if a long closed vat had exploded and had disgorged its contents over the country. Suddenly Hungarian was spoken everywhere, even -or perhaps especially- in circles where the use of the language until recently did not testify to a refined taste. Newspapers and pamphlets began to appear in Hungarian in which the complaints against the imperial policy -initially very careful, but gradually more open- were propagated. Those who didn’t master the language set themselves diligently to the study of Hungarian and literary men such as Ferenc Kazinczy set themselves the task of modernizing it and providing it with new words so that it -in 1844- was ready to become the official language of the kingdom.
© 2016, Marcel Wick