Borbála Obrusánszky: Hunnic Linguistic Issues

Monday, July 11, 2011

The research regarding the language of the Huns began in Europe after the French missionary Deguignes had translated in the 18th century Chinese sources which recorded the deeds of the Huns. The French scholar stated that Xiongnu in Far-Eastern sources is the same as Huns or Hunas in the European and Central Asian records. He also stated that the heritage of the Huns can be found in the living languages of their descendants: Turkic peoples, Hungarians and the Mongols. The Hungarian aspects were then elaborated by George Pray. During the same century, the research of the Hun tribes continued and several scholars investigated many ancient historical sources. Generally speaking until the mid 19th century, the above mentioned research was based solely on historical sources, and linguistic discussions followed that pattern.

The linguists of that time associated the language of the Huns not with a single ethnic group, but to those ones, who lived on the vast territories of the Eurasian steppe and who were traditionally related to Huns. At that time the artificial theory of language families had not been widespread, therefore the researchers believed that the root of the Turkic, Mongolian and the Hungarian languages was the language of the Scythians or Huns.

From the end of the 19th century onwards only a very few linguists thought in such a comprehensive way, the majority of the linguists accepted a linguistic concept, which was based on Darwinism and created so-called “family trees” with languages that had no real historical connections with each other.1 Based on this new linguistic concept, they were busy reconstructing the proto-languages. According to Gábor Bálint this was completely unnecessary. Among the historians positivism became widespread, which rejected all the legends and stories of the steppe tribes; hence they did not accept their historical tradition.

During this period the previously admired Hun people became monsters and barbarians and scholars were obliged to write only in negative terms like barbarians or savages, etc. In publications on Huns they were described as not having permanent houses, or cities, that they could not write, and that they just learned everything from the "civilized" people, i.e. Indo-Europeans. The "new" historical approach and the linguistic theories completely clouded the results, and its negative impact, unfortunately, is still felt today, especially in the official Hungarian scientific circles, which is still dominated by these outdated theories.

While the Western European languages are not really affected by the new linguistic classification, those nations, which had Hun heritage, especially Hungarians, had been listed as Siberian clans with unknown roots.

At the turning of the century, the focus shifted temporarily towards the Turkic lineage. Some Hungarian scholars, chiefly János Fogarasi and Gábor Bálint de Szentkatolna investigated the Mongolianand Manchu languages as well and they found, that the above mentioned languages are very close to Hungarian. They interpreted this fact as the common linguistic heritage from the Hun Empire. Unfortunately, this professional research method was abandoned by later scholars and Hungarian linguists spoke no more about the Hunnish heritage of the Hungarian language, Gyula Németh and Zoltán Gombocz being the only exceptions.

Nowadays, the research of the Hunnish languages is completely exiled from the official Hungarian linguistics; Mongolian or any other related Inner-Asian language does not get enough attention.2

When Doerfer has published a great essay about the Hun language, wherein he recorded that Barthold, Asmarin and Pritsak considered this language as a member of the Chuvas-Turkish group. This statement is very important for the origin of the Hungarian language, because most "Turkish loan-words" in Hungarian are of Chuvas type. It should be noted that Gábor Bálint3 rejected the importance of the Chuvash language regarding Hungarian; according to him Hungarian and Mongolian are closer than Hungarian and Chuvas. Nicholas Poppe reiterated this point of view.4 According to him these similarities are related to the common Hunnish ancestry.

Doerfer mentioned that two great linguists, Klaproth and Semenov identified the Hunnish language with Hungarian. It is curious that this point of view was not taken into account by the Hungarian linguists, though it significantly impacts the research of the origins of Hungarians.

Other researchers (Venelin, Velitman, Zabelin, etc) thought that the inheritors of the Hun language were the Slavs.5 This is not accidental, because Slavic languages also preserved many Hun words and cultural elements.

Today it is unacceptable for many scholars that the language of the Huns is preserved only by one nation or group; moreover it is impossible to regard some small Siberian peoples as the sole descendants. This idea was raised by Pulleyblank, and Volvoni, and Lajos Ligeti also accepted it. But how can be this true? It is unlogical that an ancient, long-lived, large empire’s heritage remained only with a small group of peoples, whose area of living is situated rather far from the central areas of the Huns. Neither the Ostyaks nor Kets were able to establish an independent state; they lived in a clan type society, unlike the Huns, who created the ancient world's greatest empire.

As other researches also proved, the Hun language heritage is preserved by not one people, but lots of nations throughout the Eurasian steppe land.

Izabella Horváth published a study, wherein she provided a comprehensive overview of the theories on the origins of the Hunnish language. She listed those authors who thought Huns were Mongols, Turks, and Slavs, Finns, etc.

She was the first, who summarized the results of Chinese researchers. One of the most interesting
points of view is that of the Chinese Wu, who stated that during the Hun period the Altaic languages have not divided into parts, so Hunnish can be regarded as a proto-Altaic language.6

The above citied theories show that the Huns left deep trails in the languages of various people in Eurasia, and they had a great impact on world history. Moreover, it also indicates that the Huns did not disappear suddenly. Unfortunately, the research of ancient Central Asian peoples is not without difficulties. The greatest problem is that over the past half century linguists have boxed various peoples of ancient times to fictitious language families, such as Indo-Europeans, Finno-Ugrians, etc.7 Scythian people are still listed as Iranians, although there is no coherent linguistic record for that and the historical process shows that the Persians accepted lots of Scythian words and military equipments. Several Scythian words or cultural elements had spread throughout the Eurasian region, and they are not related to the above language only.

It would be much better to mention ancient peoples under their own names relating to the Scythian or Hun language-group as did Rasmus Rask, and other linguists of the 19th century. Schöning recently published a collection of essays on Mongolian languages and he has claimed that the Turkish and Mongolian languages’ high degree of similarity may indicate a common origin; this basis might be the Hun and/or Xianbei language.8 Two Inner Mongolian scholars, Hugjiltu and Uchiraltu, arrived to the same conclusion, based on their historical linguistics researches. According to them there are in the Turkic and Mongolian languages more than a thousand words that may be similar, which probably refers to a common ancestor: the Hunnish language. Hugjiltu also claims that the common words may not be loanwords; they simply show that the Turkic and Mongolian peoples had close connection from ancient times until now. This truth is not only proved by linguistic correspondence, but also by the common way of life, and even political organization.9 Some scholars think that the Turkic-Mongolian relations depend on areal relations only. According to Rassadin it happened only in Central Asia. However, this is not a correct theory, because the Mongols had appeared there only in the 13th century.

During the past decade lots of linguists10 have questioned the legitimacy of the theories of language families, so it is highly expectable that in next decades new theories will arise in the international science, and the outdated methods of linguistics dating from the 19th century will slowly fade. One interesting initiative is a large international research program at Santa Fe University, which explores the possibility of monogenesis among languages of the world.

It is interesting that there is hardly any discussion on the Scythian language; the international literature clearly holds it as Indo-European or Iranian. The language of the Huns, however, was heavily disputed; the core issue was to which Turkic language it belonged: Chuvash type "r" Turkic or Common Turkic type "z" Turkic. Because in the name of Attila’s middle son Dengizik, one found the 'z' sound, the linguists held that the European Huns spoke such a Common Turkic language. In my view, in the heat of debate people forgot to clarify a few things: whether the "r" and "z" is really a significant difference to those special Turkic languages or merely dialect differences are involved. As Uchiraltu explained, the Hun tribes, as later other steppe peoples too, had no classified, official standard language; hence the language of the Huns varied by region. If one takes the vast territory ranging from the Great Wall in China to the Carpathian Basin, a vast number of types of dialects existed; it is highly possible that this issue is nothing more than a small difference in dialect.

Another unresolved issue is the etymology of the name Hun. It is interesting that those who accept that the Huns spoke a kind of Turkic language also accept that the name of the Empire, (“Hun”) is a Mongolian word. They deduct it from the word “hun” (or kümün) which means man, and this is in itself a major contradiction. If the Huns spoke Turkic, then why should they borrow their own name from a foreign language? The Huns, who were able to create such a developed civilization, did not have a word to designate themselves?

Returning to the question regarding the Huns, the focus of the current research is on creating new linguistic theories and on solving the issue of affiliation of the various steppe peoples. The ancient Chinese records, which preserved lots of Hunnish words, are of great help for the scholars. The Hun words found in these records can be found in the Turkic languages, in the Mongolian, the Manchu, or even in the Hungarian; this shows that several languages are linked to the language of the Huns, in line with the fact that the state and culture of the Huns had a decisive influence on the communities of the whole Eurasian steppe, and the above mentioned peoples are the descendants of the Huns.

The importance of the several hundreds Hunnish words, which were preserved in the Chinese sources, was highlighted by Otto Maenchen-Helfen. Indeed, the Chinese language also includes a relatively high number of foreign words whose origin is disputed. The well-known Hungarian expert of the Chinese language and civilization, Péter Polonyi recorded that Chinese words relating to the horse-breeding are very similar to the Hungarian words, which could suggest a common origin.11 It is highly probable that both languages derived them from the Huns. Mang Muren from the University of Inner Mongolia, published an essay in 2004, and described an interesting theory, which is hotly debated among Chinese scholars.12 He claims that in the Chinese language there are about four thousand words, which are similar to Mongolian. If we analyze this huge bulk of words, the result may lead us to the Huns. It is expected that in the coming years the international research results concerning the Scythians and the Huns will clarify a large number of linguistic and historical issue and this will affect the Hungarian prehistoric research, too.

Hun Linguistics

The Inner Mongolian scholar Uchiraltu has brought a new color in the international linguistics research. While the above mentioned scholars dealt with only some words and expressions, he created a system of reconstruction for those words, which survived in Chinese chronicles. He transcribed the words according to the old Chinese phonetics and looked at those ones in the early Turkic and Mongolian vocabularies and he tried to find the most suited word for that. With this method he tried to find out the earliest words and expressions in order to compare them with Hun words. According to the Wei-shu,13 Turkic is rather a Hunnic language; the difference is less than a dialect difference, led Uchiraltu to the conclusion that the early Turkic and Mongolian languages well preserved the words of the Hunnic language. His main sources were the early Turkic runic inscriptions, glosses and the Secret History of the Mongols from the 13th century. The two empires were situated not so far from the Hun Empire; the Huns dominated much of Central Asian and European steppe region up until the 5th century A.D., after that they lost their dominating role. According to new historical results, Hun tribes existed on their own until
the 8th century A.D.14 Uchiraltu’s linguistic work is not only sensational due to its topic, but also because of its strict linguistic aspects. Next to that he uses in his linguistic research the results of historical, religious and ethnographic studies; this method significantly improves the validity of his statements. He does not stop at the linguistics level; he records his opinion only if the result is supported by cultural and historical facts. This is a very important method in the linguistic research; the Hungarian examples below will prove that the match goes far beyond superficial form relationships of correlations.

His research contains several important elements which impact the Hungarian-Hun connections.
Uchiraltu’s studies show that the early Turkish and Mongolian words had existed in the Hunnic language and it is not correct if we speak about “loanwords”, but rather the Turkic, Mongolian, Hungarian and other related nations were closely related to the system consisting of the Scythian and Hun languages. His work will probably give an additional impetus to the research of the Hunnic language.

Some Hunnic expressions

Seal Uchiraltu’s study shows that the Huns used the "Keeper of the Seals” title as 'pichigechi', which appeared later in the Turkic, Mongolian, and even in the Sanskrit languages. The word, however, can be found in the Hungarian language as well, as ‘pecsét’. The Hungarian Historical Etymological Dictionary describes it as a Slavic loanword, but is not able to reveal the origin of the Slavic word itself.

The root ‘pichi-‘ does not only mean seal, but ‘letter’, too.15 The ’bichi’ means ‘to write’ in Mongolian, the word ‘bichig’ means writing. In Clauson’s dictionary the root ‘bich-’ means ‘cut, engraving’, which refers to the ancient writing method of the runic script. The ancient peoples of the Eurasian steppe had their own writing system, or the runic writing. In some North-western Turkic dialects the 'pichu' form occurs. We need to mention the Hungarian word for one kind of knife — ‘bichka’ — it represents the object, with which the wood was carved. According to Clauson’s dictionary this word meant in the ancient Turkic languages: 'knife, sword'.16 It is very likely that the writing (‘bich-‘) and the device of writing were related to each other. The word ‘pichik’ reconstructed by Uchiraltu indicates that the writing and the carving were closely related! The different signs throughout Central Asia (tree of life signs, swastika, etc.) can lead us to the steppe peoples. Moreover, the early Turkic word "irü" might be related to the above-mentioned word 'write' but Clauson linked it to the sign of ‘belgü’, or ‘stamp’.17 It is worth noting that the word related to writing in Hungarian leads us to Central and Inner Asia. Though the Hungarian Etimological Dictionary states that the Hungarian ‘ír’ (‘write’) is 'yaz-' in the Chuvash-type Old Turkic language, the supposed original form could be *ir*. This word was also discovered in the Mongolian language, another link to the the Huns.18 According to Szentkatolnai the Hungarian word ‘ír’ is related to the Mongolian ‘ira’, the latter having the meaning of ‘carve’.19

To the same conclusion arrived the authors of the Czuczor Fogarasi Dictionary,20 which related it to ‘mark, symbol’. Recently, Katalin Csornai found that the Hungarian ‘ró’ (‘carve’) exists in the form of ‘lu’ in the Chinese chronicles21 as a Hunnish word, whereby the runic symbols and and the act of engraving were considered holy.

The Hungarian etymological dictionary has no any idea regarding the origin of the word ‘ró’.22 The fact that the above mentioned three words occur in such an early period, complemented by finds of runic monuments in Central Asia discovered during the last decades, are a clear proof that the steppe peoples had developed literacy which it existed later among Turkic, Avar, and Hungarian peoples, and others.

Kadar, the Chief Judge

According to Uchiraltu, the ‘godouhou’ was an important title of Huns as the Chinese sources recorded. The Mongolian linguist reconstructed it as ‘kutugu’. Among the ancient Turkic peoples the ‘kut’ or ‘gut’ can be found as a relevant title; among Uighurs, Turks, etc., the title ‘idikut’ was the rank of rulers of tribes whose origin is unclear according to Clauson.23 Uchiraltu had studied the Chinese and Central Asian sources and he found, that the dignity of the chief judge was ‘kutugu’ among Huns. The Mongols preserved the word ‘kukuktu’, and they are still using it to identify Buddhist saints. In the old Turkic languages, the word ‘kut’ means grace of Heaven, but it also meant strength and majesty.24

The author, referring to Chinese linguists, explains that during the migration process of the western Huns some linguistic changes had happened: the sound 'u' rather than 'a' was used, so the original ‘kutugu’ became ‘katagu’ or ‘kadagu’.25 The Chinese data proved the truthfullness of the ancient Hungarian chronicles, where ‘Kadar’ was the chief-judge of the Huns. We have additional data, e.g. Tarihi Üngürüs, which is an ancient Hungarian chronicle that was translated into Turkish and preserved in Turkey for a long period. In it the commander in chief of the Huns was ‘Kattar’, which may be a variant of the ‘kadar’.

Arnold Ipolyi, the renowned Hungarian scholar thought that the ‘kadar’ he was the representatives of the ancient judicial-priest system.26 Podhracky explained it similarly; ‘kadar’ was originally monk or priest as the Parthian 'cat’, ‘kad' or ‘cat-ousi’, which is similar to the Turkish ‘kad’ and ‘kadi’.27 There are some other variants as well, e.g. according to the historian György Győrffy ‘kadir’ was a Khazarian rank, and the same name can be found in the early Hungarian Kingdom in some personal names and toponims, and in the clan name of Kadarkaluz.28 The Hungarian Historical Etimological Dictionary originates it from Bulgarian.29 As we know from the ancient Bulgarian historical sources, or the list of the ancient kings, the leading clan originated from Attila.


According to Uchiraltu the word faith was a significant Hunnish title. The Mongolian scholar found closely linked to the Mongolian Mother Earth (Etügen) cult. This new data provides a new key to the understanding of the word faith, as the etymological dictionary considers it of unknown origin.30 The goddess of the Central Asian steppe peoples is mostly known under the name Etügen (though several vartiations exist), in whom they revered Mother Earth. In the historical sources it is mentioned in different ways: in some places it is Etügen, a Turkic source calls her Ötüken, identifying the sacred mountain or forest. In Mongolia, the geographical names had often been called Eej, i.e. Mother; examples are: Mother Cliff, Mother Tree, or Pious Mother. The other names of the Mother are: Mother Earth, or World Mother. According to Zundui Altangerel, in the era of pre-Buddhist Mongolia, inside each yurt stood the altar of Mother Earth, the Etügen idol.31

The Etügen, Ötüken, Idugan forms can be found in the late Turkic and Mongolian sources, but its
origin is less researched. When I investigated the Mother Earth cult, I realized that all of the above terms are related to the Hungarian word ‘hit’ (’faith’).32 It came as a big surprise to me that Uchiraltu found it among the Hunnish words in the Chinese chronicles as ‘hitü’ or ‘hidü’, which was a title of that time.33 In Turkic documents the word ‘iduq’34 occurs, which means saint. It is possible that this may be a relative of the Hungarian word faith. Regarding the Hungarian word for faith Ármin Vámbéry, the famous Hungarian Turkologist found it in the Yakut language as ‘itegel’, and Gábor Bálint in the Mongolian ‘itegen’ or ‘sitügen’; but these interpretations have not been taken into account by the other Hungarian linguists, even though they may be of exact match.35 There can be no better proof that this word is related to the Hunnisch language than the fact that next to the Turkic, Mongolian, Hungarian languages it can be found in the old Bulgarian as well, where in the form of ‘itzig’ it means ‘saint’.36 In Sanskrit it means ‘good’, ‘well-doer’, ‘friendship’, ‘good action’, ‘good will’.37

Horde, the capital of the supreme king

In ancient times among the Central and Inner Asian people the word ‘horde’ was a very important term. In Clauson’s dictionary the word ‘ordu’ is a Mongolian loanword to the Turks with the meaning royal home and palace. The horde was a center for the tribal leader, and later for the khagans, or supreme kings. Uchiraltu thinks that the word can be found among Huns, as the Chinese recorded: ‘yu-tu’. For the early Turkic peoples 'orta' meant ‘medium’, ‘center’.38 The Russians still use it as ‘gorod’.39 The word for town is pronounced as ‘ghordas’, therefore it can be connected to the Horde. So it is doubtful that some Hungarian toponyms ending in ‘-grad’ would be of Slavic origin, but rather we should consider it as the heritage of the Huns. Uchiraltu connects the Horde with the ‘yurt’ (accommodation, a round tent), which meant the same center, but later became a name for family ‘house’.


Uchiraltu reconstructed the Hunnish word ‘dong / tong’, with the meaning of ‘milk’, and explained its relation to the Mongolian ‘sün’ or milk. He also noted that in the Eastern Mongolian gorlos dialect the word for milk is ‘tun’ or ‘tün’, because they used ‘t’ instead of ‘s’. This data may be important for the Hungarians as well. Gábor Bálint de Szentkatolna guessed parallels between the Mongolian and Hungarian ‘milk’ but he could not find completely convincing explanation of how they relate to each other. Uchiraltu now provided the explanation. Indeed, the Hungarian Czuczor-Fogarasi etymological dictionary provided something valuable: ‘milk’ in the Szekler dialect is ‘té’. In the Central Asian Chagatai language we find the word ‘sai’ which has relationship to the above mentioned Hunnish expression.40 The Chagatai language contains many words, which can be found in archaic Mongol. According to the etymological dictionary the word ‘milk’ in the Hungarian language is an Iranian loan-word, and comes from the ancient Iranic verb ‘dhayati’, which means ‘sucking’. It is also associated with the word for nurse, as the nurse and breast milk are closely linked. The Mongolian data also shows a similar agreement, as
the word ‘number’ means ‘milking’ and ‘full’ means ‘twice suckled lamb’. I am not a linguist, but because of the high degree of similarity, I believe that both the Iranian and Mongolian forms may be related to the Hungarian, which means that this word also goes back to a common source, i.e. the Huns. This is all the plausible, because all animal names, and milk-related terms are from the Eurasian steppe world, and are tightly connected to the Huns.


The etymological dictionary considers the Hungraian word for ‘buttermilk’ as an ancient Chuvas loanword, in the form ‘*irago’ as the earliest variant. In Uchiraltu’s text we can find a form of Chinese dairy products as 'lao'. Katalin Csornai found that this word may be of Hunnish origin, too, because the Chinese people did not consume dairy products at that time; its spread has been observed only in the last few years and are mainly consumed as fermented milky products. In the past the milky products had been mainly consumed by the steppe peoples. We know from the ethnographic observations and the historical records regarding the steppe peoples that the sour milk products were very popular; nevertheless, fresh milk was only drunk by children, the elderly, and the spiritual leaders. Returning to the word for buttermilk, Gábor Bálint de Szentkatolna considered it related to the Mongolian ‘airag’41, — which is a fermented milk churn — due to morphological and semantic reasons. Later, György Kara established a relation between the Hungarian word ‘író’ or buttermilk and the Mongolian ‘agurag’, ‘uurag’. In my view Szentkatolnai’s research is more accurate, because the word indicates a product that must be a fermented one.

Bű or magic

The words ‘bű’ (‘magic’) and ‘báj’ (‘charm’) indicate some ancient healing methods. Not only the word but the whole Eurasian healing process survived in the vast area that was once inhabited by the Huns; its variants can be still studied in the Central Asian and Hungarian intellectual culture, even in folk medicine. ‘Bű’ has parallels with the Turkic and Mongolian word ‘böge’, which means wizard, but it also designates the old natural religion, i.e. shamanism.42 This ancient belief in Tibet is called ‘bön’ (‘bon’ in the Western literature). The most western member if this word group is the Hungarian ‘bű’, which according to the academician Arnold Ipolyi originally meant ‘spell’.43 The Czuczor-Fogarasi dictionary gives the following explanation: 'Such an enticement that enchants us in a secret, wonderous was. It is such an amiable quality of somebody or something, which induces affection, coupled with admiration and attracts to itself’.44

All this indicates that in the entire Eurasian region there was a natural ancient belief, which was the religion of the Scythians and the Huns, and this was called ‘spell’. Some researchers agree that the magic of faith also appeared in the ancient Chinese civilization; sources often refer to magical women, the ‘wu’. Maspero, Uchiraltu, MacKenzie and others claim based on ancient Chinese sources that not only the Chinese word ‘wu’, but the whole healing process is derived from the steppe peoples.45 The word ‘bű’ is considered of Old Turkic origin with the meaning 'sorcery’, ‘witchcraft'. The Czuczor-Fogarasi dictionary defines ‘bű’ and ‘báj’ as two words originating from a common source, and the two academic linguists related these two words to the word ‘bölcs’ (‘wise’), meaning ‘adept at understanding mysterious, magical things’.46 Regarding the word ‘báj’ the Hungarian Historical Etymological Dictionary defines it as of Old Turkic origin, meaning magic.47


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January-March 2011
Volume III., Issue 1.


Anonymous said...

dear borbala,
thanks for your exhaustive Report. everybody should agrree that our hunnic chuvashity is our
utmost pride and the most important issue of our Nation. everything else e.g. halapenz, boritek does not exist! it is like our alleged finnish Connection ( and that makes a hell of a lot of difference) a mere ragalom for our debasement.
you must know i,t dearest borbala, as your Name indicates you are of pure ösmagyar hungaromongolian descent. hony soit qui mal y pense.

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