This post is going to be a bit out of the ordinary. It will be about language. But don’t fear. The topic does have something to do with politics, as you will see.
The story begins with an order coming from MTVA. This acronym stands for the name of an organization with a long and complicated name that no one can remember: “Médiaszolgáltatás-támogató és Vagyonkezelő Alap.” According to the English-language version of MTVA’s website, the organization calls itself in English “Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund.” On its website we can learn that “all the assets and most of the staff of the three public service media organizations (MTV, Duna TV, MR) and of the National News Agency (MTI) were transferred to the Media Support and Asset Management Fund.” According to the agency, “the integration of the public service media providers creates an exciting, interesting and valuable cooperation.” Well, judging from the ever-dropping viewership of the state-run media outlets, the new set-up didn’t exactly create excitement. On the contrary, the programming is deadly dull. The structure of the new organization looks like this:
This centralized structure ensures uniformity across a broad range of areas, including word usage. The MTVA manager in charge of programming passed on an order to the employees that as of May 21 when they write about the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries they have to use the until now practically never used adjective “külhoni.” That is, “külhoni magyarok” instead of the usual “határon túli magyarok.” The latter means “Hungarians beyond the borders” while the meaning of “külhoni” is far less clear.
And now a little lesson in Hungarian linguistics. “Kül-” is not a separate word in Hungarian. Etymologically most likely it has something to do with the word “ki ~ kint” meaning “out,” “outside.” “Hon” is a bona fide word but according to the Magyar Értelmező Szótár it is archaic and/or literary. The three-volume etymological dictionary explains that the word “hon” (Vaterland, patrie) most likely developed from “otthon,” meaning “home,” but by the eighteenth century it disappeared from the language, to be replaced by “haza” (homeland). It was revived in the early nineteenth century during the linguistic reform period when writers and linguists tried to “improve” and modernize Hungarian, but its revival didn’t really succeed.
Today “hon” appears only as a part of other nouns, and even most of those are considered to be old-fashioned and barely used. For example, “honfi” (patriot). Perhaps the best known words in Hungarian that are still widely used and contain the old “hon” are “honfoglalás,” the historical term for the occupied part of the Carpathian Basin by the Hungarian tribes in 896, and “honosítás,” meaning naturalization or “hontalan” (someone driven away from his homeland and/or stateless).
Now let’s turn to the other component of the word “külhoni,” the “kül-.” As I mentioned earlier, it has something to do with the word “ki” or “kint.” So, the modern Hungarian word for foreigner is “külföldi,” that is someone from outside the land. But there are many other examples, like “külügy,” meaning foreign affairs, or “külkereskedelem,” foreign trade. One also finds “kül-” in such combinations as “külváros,” which is an outlying area of a city, often pejoratively used as better-off people lived downtown while the poorer folks were in the “külvárosok.”
So, let’s get back to “külhon,” a very strange combination to Hungarian ears. Ágnes Huszár, whose specialty is sociolinguistics, wrote a short piece in Galamus in which she claims that “külhon” is a “contradictio in adiecto,” or as we say it in English a “contradiction in terms.” “Hon” means “here, at home” while “kül-” indicates outside of it. I don’t think that the surface contradiction is the real problem.
The fact is that the word “külhoni” exists, but according to the dictionary its usage is considered to be “pretentious.” In brief, no one in his right mind would use it. It means the same thing as “külföldi” (foreign/foreigner). Thus a “külhoni lakos” means exactly the same as “külföldi lakos,” someone who lives abroad. And indeed, a quick look at the Magyar Nemzeti Szövegtár, a fantastic resource for Hungarian vocabulary available to anyone interested in such matters, shows 1,096 occurrences of the word “külhoni” while its proper equivalent, “külföldi,” has 37,000 references. The instances of “külhoni” can practically all be found in recent texts–that is, since MTVA decided that in addition to its many media activities it will also involve itself with the “improvement” of the Hungarian language.
But why? My guess is that “the new language reformers” found this old-fashioned word better suited to their political agenda. I mentioned that “honosítás” means “naturalization” and that the person who has been naturalized is “honosított.” In our case, a newly naturalized Hungarian from Romania, Serbia, or Slovakia is now “magyar honos,” a Hungarian citizen. The new language reformers took the two components of an already existing word and gave the word a different meaning. In their minds it no longer means what until now it meant, “someone living abroad,” but a citizen living abroad. In this case a Hungarian citizen.
Whether for this distinction it was worth dredging up this old-fashioned and “pretentious” word, I doubt it. Moreover, changing the meanings of words by fiat is a hopeless task. However, this government is certain that it is capable of changing everything to its liking, including the very essence of Hungarian society. So why not its language?