Hungary is a land-locked Central European country that borders no less than 7 countries.
Its geographic location is part of explaining why Hungary speaks so many languages. For centuries, the country has been in contact with its neighbors, borders have shifted and immigration and cultural exchange has taken place.
Add to that that Hungary, to this day, receives immigrants from far and wide and you’ll get some of the explanation as to the diversity of the land.
Other than Hungarian, 15 languages are spoken by more than 10.000 people in Hungary. Add to that that Hungary has 14 co-official minority languages and that it’s a country that speaks both English and German as second languages.
In the following, I’ll briefly discuss the Hungarian language spoken by the majority, then I’ll look into the most spoken languages in Hungary as well as the minority languages spoken in the country. Then we’ll have a look at the foreign languages taught in Hungary and finally, we’ll discuss specifically on the linguistic landscape of the capital city, Budapest.
- 1 The Hungarian Language In Hungary
- 2 What Are The Most Spoken Languages In Hungary?
- 3 Minority Languages In Hungary
- 3.1 The Armenian Language In Hungary
- 3.2 The Boyash Language In Hungary
- 3.3 The Bulgarian Language In Hungary
- 3.4 The Croatian Language In Hungary
- 3.5 The German Language In Hungary
- 3.6 The Greek Language In Hungary
- 3.7 The Polish Language In Hungary
- 3.8 The Romani Language In Hungary
- 3.9 The Romanian Language In Hungary
- 3.10 The Rusyn Language In Hungary
- 3.11 The Serbian Language In Hungary
- 3.12 The Slovak Language In Hungary
- 3.13 The Slovenian Language In Hungary
- 3.14 The Ukrainian Language In Hungary
- 4 Foreign Languages In Hungary
- 5 What About The Languages Spoken In Budapest?
The Hungarian Language In Hungary
Hungarian is the language spoken by the vast majority of Hungarians. Over 99% of the population speak it is their first language.
Hungarian, unlike most European languages, does not belong to the Indo-European language family. Hungarian is part of the Finno-Ugric family of languages, meaning that the most closely related languages in Europe are Finnish and Estonian. (And even those are very distantly related to Hungarian.)
The Hungarian language hasn’t remained unaffected by the languages that surround it, however. Modern Hungarian has loan-words from Turkic, Slavic, Germanic and even Latin languages, but the root of Hungarian remains strictly Finno-Ugric.
What Are The Most Spoken Languages In Hungary?
Apart from Hungarian, several languages are spoken in Hungary. These include languages from the countries that share borders with Hungary, but also languages native to more distant regions and cultures such as Chinese and Arabic.
Below you’ll see some statistics from 2011 on which languages are spoken in Hungary, by how many they’re spoken and if they’re spoken mainly as first or second languages. (Source).
|Language Spoken||Number of Speakers||Native Speakers||Non-Native Speakers|
The above number of languages is quite impressive, but when looking at the number of speakers for each language, it becomes clear that you need to be in luck to stumble across a speaker of any of the languages on the list except for the first three, Hungarian, English and German.
Even though there are close to 160.000 Russian speaking Hungarians and close to 130.000 people who speak Romanian, the numbers seem dwarfed next to the total population.
But what’s the reason for Hungary’s varied linguistic composition?
There are several possible explanations.
One if the obvious ones is the relationship that the country has had with its neighbors throughout the centuries. It’s natural to find Romanian, Ukrainian, German and Slovak speakers in Hungary, because the country has shared borders with these countries for centuries. This is also why you’ll find Hungarian speakers in countries like Romania as well.
Then there are other languages that are common, not because of geography, but of history. Russian, for example, was a compulsory language for young Hungarians during the Soviet period, which might explain why a relatively big number of Hungarians speak Russian to this day.
Refugee and immigration languages also take up an important part of the languages on the list. These are languages such as Chinese, Arabic, but also English. Immigration languages are the languages of foreigners who come to settle down in Hungary for various reasons.
Finally, there are the minority languages spoken in Hungary. While most of Hungary’s minority languages, like Rusyn or Armenian are spoken by such small numbers that they don’t even appear in the above table, others, like Romani are spoken by close to one percent of Hungarians.
Minority Languages In Hungary
The minority languages of Hungary are languages that have been spoken as a mother tongue by Hungarian citizens for several generations, or in some cases, centuries.
The Hungarian government recognizes 14 such languages that are all co-official with Hungarian in the country today. These languages have a protected status in the country and the government guarantees access to education in these languages. Despite this fact, many members of ethnic minorities in Hungary (about one third) report their primary language to be Hungarian.
The officially recognized minority languages in Hungary are the following.
Let’s have a look at each one, just very briefly.
The Armenian Language In Hungary
Armenians have been present in Hungary for about 1000 years. More recently, Hungary has seen immigration after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
It’s estimated that around 30.000 Armenians live in Hungary today. That’s a little under 0,1% of the total population. Roughly half of these speak Armenian as their mother tongue. And two thirds of Hungarian Armenian speakers, or 10.000, live in Budapest.
The Boyash Language In Hungary
The Boyash people is a caste of Roma who used to be used for forced labor in Romanian mines. When slavery was abolished in the region in the 19th century, the Boyash spread throughout central Europe and many came to live in Hungary. According to statistics from 1993, about 14.000 Boyash live in Hungary (And mostly in Southern Hungary). Today, this number might be higher, though.
The Boyash speak an archaic variant of the Romanian language (and not the Roma language) with loan-words from other regional languages.
The Bulgarian Language In Hungary
Bulgarians have been present in Hungary since the Middle Ages, but the majority of today’s Bulgarian community in Hungary came to the country in the 18th-20th centuries as craftsmen and gardeners.
Today, estimates put the number of Bulgarians in Hungary between 2-7.000 people. Roughly 2.200 of these are said to live in Budapest, the capital, where a Bulgarian high-school also exists.
Generally, Hungary’s Bulgarians have preserved their national identity and they have kept their language that they still teach to their children.
The Croatian Language In Hungary
Close to 27.000 Croats live in Hungary (according to the 2011 census) and some 2.200 live in Budapest. The Croats in Hungary belong to 7 or eight different groups that all speak different dialects of Croatian. They arrived in Hungary at different times in history.
Croatians have been present in Hungary (or what is today known as Hungary) for over 1000 years. The biggest immigration waves happened during Ottoman invasions, however, when Croats flew to different Hungarian regions.
Around 15.000 (or roughly half) of the Hungarian Croats speak Croatian (or a dialect of Croatian) as their mother tongue
The German Language In Hungary
The German minority in Hungary is also referred to as the Danube Swabians. It consists of a group of some 180.000 individuals, the descendants of Germans who migrated to Hungary from the middle ages up until the 18th century.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, the German minority in Hungary was thriving, reaching numbers upwards 2 million. Nationalist movements in Hungary as well as various political decisions lead to a lot of Germans assimilating into Hungarian culture and adopting the Hungarian language.
After the end of the second world war, a large amount of Germans was even expelled from Hungary, which took part in seriously lowering the numbers of Germans present in the country.
Of the 180.000 Germans in Hungary, roughly 18.000 live in Budapest.
It is not clear how many of the remaining German Hungarians speak German as their mother language today, but it is possible that the numbers go as low as a third.
The German dialect spoken by the Danube Swabians is sometimes referred to simply as Swabian. It’s a dialect that might sound strange to many Germans today, and in some cases, a Swabian speaker might even need to speak in High German in order to be understood.
Swabian is reported to sound like a mix of a lot of 18th century dialects from the German South-West mixed in with loan-words from Hungarian, the languages of the Balkans and Russian.
The Greek Language In Hungary
Greek is also spoken in Hungary, but not by a lot of people.
Greeks first began migrating to Hungary in the 15th century, but in very small numbers. In the 17th and 18th centuries, over 10.000 Greeks migrated to Hungary, but the majority of the members of the Greek minority today came during the Greek civil-war in the 1940’s.
Today, a little under 4.000 Greek Hungarians like in Hungary.
The village Beloiannisz in the center of Hungary was founded by Greek communist refugees in 1950. Today, roughly 300 out of its population of 1100 belong to the Greek minority. The amount of Greeks who live in Budapest is not really noteworthy.
The Polish Language In Hungary
Hungary has a Polish community of around 10.000 people. Most of them live either in Budapest, or in the Northern regions.
The Polish presence in Hungary goes back over 1.000 years. The two countries and peoples share a long friendship and they’ve had a shared leadership two times, when the same regent ruled the two countries at the same time.
The Polish-Hungarian relationship can be illustrated with this oft-cited poem:
Pole and Hungarian brothers be,
good for fight and good for party.
Both are valiant, both are lively,
Upon them may God’s blessings be.
How many of the Polish minority in Hungary speak Polish as their first language is unclear, but it might be 20-40% of the population of 10.000.
The Romani Language In Hungary
The Romani people (often referred to as Gypsies) first started migrating to Hungary in the 14th century, fleeing the Balkans that were under occupation by the Ottoman Empire. While the Romani people originally came from the Indian sub-continent, they’ve been present in most of Europe for centuries.
In the 18th century a policy for forced assimilation were introduced in Hungary. The Romani language was prohibited and children were taken from their families to be raised by Hungarian speaking families.
These measures had a devastating effect, and many members of the Romani minority assimilated into a Hungarian way of life and abandoned their ancestral language.
Between 450.000 to 1.000.000 Romanis are estimated to live in Hungary today, but as few as 5% of them speak Romani as their first language.
The Romanian Language In Hungary
Roughly 36.000 Romanians live in Hungary, a little more than 6.000 of them in Budapest, the capital.
Part of the important exchange between Romania and Hungary is the shared history of the two countries. Historically, large parts of Romania, like the region of Transylvania, has been Hungarian territory. For the same reason, an important Hungarian minority is present in Romania today.
Romanians first settled in Hungary in the 13th century, but the vast majority of the Romanian minority in Hungary has come during the first two decades of the 2000’s.
The Rusyn Language In Hungary
A little more than 1.000 people speak Rusyn in Hungary.
Rusyn is an East-Slavic language like Russian and Ukrainian. Some authorities consider it a dialect of Ukrainian, but most linguists agree that Rusyn is a separate language.
Apart from in Hungary, Rusyn is spoken in the Czech Republic, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine.
The Serbian Language In Hungary
While Serbian used to be a much more important language in Hungary, today only a little more than 7.000 Hungarian Serbian speakers remain. Roughly half of them speak the Serbian language, and many of them live in Budapest.
Serbians have been present in Hungary for more than 900 years.
From the 14th to the 17th century, a large number of Serbs settled in Hungary after having served as soldiers for the Ottoman Empire in the region.
The Slovak Language In Hungary
Over 100.000 Hungarians have Slovak ancestry, and 56.000 of them spoke Slovak in 2001.
The Slovak presence in Hungary goes back to the 9th century, and the Slovak population was high during the middle ages. In this period, the Hungarian territory englobed parts of present-day Slovakia and the Czech Republic and many Slovaks have remained in those countries after the displacement of the geographical borders.
The Slovenian Language In Hungary
Around 5.000 members of the Slovene minority of Hungary live in the country today, most of them in Budapest.
The Slovenian population of Hungary has been present since the 7th century. In other words, they actually predate the Hungarians, but the present day Slovenian minority of Hungary came during later migration periods.
Members of the Slovene minority in Hungary speak different dialects of the Slovenian language, but the most current is Prekmurje Slovene.
The Ukrainian Language In Hungary
Close to half a million Ukrainians used to live in Hungary, but because of the Treaty of Trianon in 1910, most lands inhabited by Hungarian Ukrainians over-went to Czechoslovakia.
Today, about 5.000 Ukrainians remain in Hungary.
Foreign Languages In Hungary
The two major foreign languages studied in Hungary are English and German spoken by 16 % and 11,2% of the Hungarian population.
The speakers of these two languages are mostly to e found in big cities like Budapest or in tourist areas in the country, however. If you decide to go on an adventure and explore the Hungarian country-side, chances are that you’ll need to be somewhat fluent in hand-gestures in order to ask for directions. But that just might do.
In recent years, the Hungarian school-system has dedicated more attention to the study of foreign languages. A lot of hours are scheduled for learning languages like English and German and students are divided into groups depending on their levels. This might mean that numbers of foreign language proficiency will be on the rise in the years to come.
What About The Languages Spoken In Budapest?
Budapest, the capital of Hungary is slightly more multilingual than the rest of the country. Many of the Hungarian minority groups mentioned above have a significant presence in the capital city and it’s also a favored location for most immigrants.
English proficiency is high in Budapest, as opposed to the rest of Hungary. The capital city is home for a large proportion of Hungary’s international expats. intellectuals and more importantly – the majority of people employed in the tourist industry.
The latter also explains why the proportions of German speakers, and even Russian speakers are higher in Budapest.
But despite the relatively high level of English in Budapest, nothing is better than speaking Hungarian with the Hungarians. I warmly recommend learning a few basic phrases before going there. You might be able to get by with English and hand gestures, but nothing is better than making an effort with the local language.
If you’d like to give this a shot and learn the basics of Hungarian, I recommend that you go and read my article called “How To Learn Hungarian By Yourself“.