Expat Explainer: Why Do Hungarians Call Themselves Magyars?

  • 23 May 2023 5:55 AM
Expat Explainer: Why Do Hungarians Call Themselves Magyars?
By Peterjon Cresswell for XpatLoop. To understand why Hungarians call themselves Magyars, we must travel back in time to the era of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century.

It was during this period that this nomadic people of the Uralic language group migrated from their ancestral lands in the east and settled in the region that is now modern-day Hungary.

The term Magyar is the Hungarian word for ‘Hungarian’. It is pronounced with a ‘dj’ in the middle for the single Hungarian letter gy to create Ma-djar as enunciated by locals.

If Hungarians named themselves magyar, the exact reason isn’t known. Linguists reckon that Hungarian departed from its main Finno-Ugric branch 4,000 years ago, changing as it did so. Whatever it may have meant then is shrouded in mystery.

The warrior spirit

Many claim that the word Magyar can be traced back to an ancient Turkic word, mogor, which means ‘brave’ or ‘courageous’. As the Magyars established their presence in the Carpathian Basin, they adapted this term to define themselves, emphasising their warrior spirit and resilience. Over time, mogor evolved into Magyar, the name by which the Hungarian people became known.

Beyond its historical roots, the term Magyar holds profound cultural and linguistic significance for the Hungarian people. Hungarians are part of the Finno-Ugric language family, which includes several other ethnic groups such as the Finns and Estonians. While the origins of this language family remain somewhat obscure, it is believed to have its roots in the Ural mountains, the border between Europe and Asia in present-day Russia.

The men of Muager

Árpád was the original tribal leader whose name appears on countless names for streets, squares and bridges across Hungary today. According to local medieval chronicles, one of his ancestors was King Magor of the Huns. There was actually a real king called Muager or Mugal in the early 6th century, leader of the Pontus Huns, later became a part of the Onogur tribe.

One view is that King Muager’s name is the first form of the name Magyar, for those who followed him. As Muager only reigned for two years, however, it is debateable how his significant his influence might have been. It is possible after his death in 530 that the Magyars moved from Pontic steppe and joined the Uyghurs.

After the disintegration of the Uyghur Empire in 840, they moved west, half of them settling among the Volga Bulgarians, known as the Bashkirs. The others moved further west, uniting with the three tribes of the rebellious Kabars while they did so.

With Pechenegs a constant threat from the east, and Bulgarians from the west, they headed for Mukachevo in western Ukraine. Moving west under Árpád, they entered the Carpathian Basin, intermingling with the local population. After generations of conflict and change, the closest relatives of today’s Hungarians are genetically closer to Croatians and Ukrainians, with only slight traces of this exotic eastern past in their genes.

Mansi and Megyers

Whether the term Magyar comes from King Muager or not, one of the Hungarian tribes was the Megyers. They may have belonged to the Árpád dynasty or perhaps the Megyer tribe lent its name to the whole group –leaders had to make an oath in blood.

According to linguists, the term magyar could be a combination of the words mansi and er(ge). The Mansi still live around the Tyumen area of Siberia, where the Hungarians once dwelt, their language a close Finno-Ugric relative of Hungarian. Genetically, however, they remain far apart. Er means ‘man’ in many Finno-Ugric and Turkic languages, hence ‘Ma-nsi man’.

More recent linguistic analyses have debunked this theory, although two significant sub-groups of the Mansi, once separate, later united. A bastardisation of Mos and Ugor to create magyar is plausible, at least.

Perhaps derived from the Megyer tribe, the Hungarian words megy (‘he goes’) and megye (‘county’) seem pretty close. In Hungarian, words are like Lego bricks, built on top of each other, so megye might be a chunk of land that one can travel through. Adding an ‘r’ to the end of a word usually creates gerunds, a noun created from a verb, so megyer could refer to people who can travel through a certain land in one go, or people who make or have counties.

Seeds and peanuts

Some ultra-nationalists believe that magyar comes from the word mag, or ‘seed’. While Hungarians were cattle hoarders rather than cultivators, the term more refers to Hungarians carrying the seeds of their knowledge and culture.

The Hungarian word mogyoró, ‘peanut’, is not too dissimilar to Magyar, and built from the base word mony, ‘egg’ or ‘testicles’, again hinting at procreation.

It should also be mentioned that magyar fits perfectly into the pattern of other tribes’ names around the Pontic-Caspian steppe north of the Black Sea where they were formed. Bulgar, Khazar, Avar and Magyar all end in ‘-ar’, ‘man’ in Turkic languages. While scholars are still debating what Khazar, Bulgar and Avar actually meant, it could be that magyar was how other neighbouring Turkic tribes referred to Hungarians.

Whatever its origins, the term Magyar serves as a powerful symbol of Hungarian identity, rooted in the nation’s historical, cultural and linguistic heritage. It embodies the courage, resilience and shared values that have shaped the Hungarian people throughout their history.

By Peterjon Cresswell for XpatLoop.com
Peterjon Cresswell has been researching the bars and byways of Budapest for 30 years, extending his expertise across Europe to produce guidebooks for Time Out and his own website, liberoguide.com, focusing on football culture and the drinking around it.

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