On Magyar migration

Jan 13, 2011 by

In yesteday’s posting I mentioned that from the linguistic point of view the closest relatives of Hungarian are the Khanty and Mansi languages spoken about 2,500 miles to the northeast, on the eastern slopes of the Urals. The affinity of Hungarian with Khanty and Mansi can be illustrated by such cognates as the following numerals: the Mansi χūrəm, the Khanty xutəm and the Hungarian három for ‘three’; or the Mansi χōt, the Khanty xut and the Hungarian hat for ‘six’. But unlike Hungarian which is spoken in Central Europe, Khanty and Mansi are the language spoken by the indigenous inhabitants of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug in the Russian Federation (its capital is Khanty-Mansiysk, an oil boom town and a centre of alpine skiing). Approximately 13,600 people speak Khanty and under 3,000 speak Mansi (generally, Mansi have been more assimilated by the Russians than the Khanty). So how come Hungarian is spoken so far from its linguistic brethren? The answer is migration.

The area around and just south of the Ural Mountains is probably the location of the original Finno-Ugric homeland. Historical linguists argue as to whether Finno-Ugric languages were originally spoken on the eastern or the western slopes of the Ural Mountains, but it is fairly clear that it was somewhere close to the Urals. The original homeland of the Hungarians (or Magyars, as they call themselves) -– known to historians as “Magna Hungaria” –- was located in the Kama basin in the upper Volga region.

But by the turn of the 9th century CE, the Magyars moved to the Pontic steppes, north of the Black Sea. In the next century, they moved further west, pushed by another nomadic group from the Eurasian flatlands: the Pechenegs. These were speakers of a Turkic language, which has heavily influenced the vocabulary of the Russian language.

Under the pressure from the Pechenegs, the Magyars crossed the Carpathian Mountains and by the end of the 9th century settled in the Great Hungarian Plain, the one place in Europe that looks like the great Eurasian flatlands and where pastoralist lifestyle can be easily maintained.

Here, the Magyars encountered a population speaking a Romance language, which was probably quite similar to an older form of Romanian. However, the Magyars managed to imposed their Ugric language on the local Romance-speaking population.

Interestingly, scholars now agree that the number of the Magyar conquerors was relatively small, at most about 30% of the resulting population. Moreover, their genes were further diluted by subsequent exchanges with their neighbors. As a result, the genetic effect of the Magyar conquest was modest at best: Hungary does not stand out on the genetic map of Europe, such as the map showing the distribution of PC2 (the second principle component of genetic variation among Europeans; the reader is referred to Cavalli-Sforza and Cavalli-Sforza 1995, Cavalli-Sforza 2000 for a more detailed discussion of how these principle components are calculated):

In contrast, Finns, Estonians, Karelians and especially the Saami are highlighted on the map of PC2. This genetic uniqueness of Finns (and related peoples) has been recently supported by the findings of the study conducted by the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM), which compiled the Finnish Gene Atlas based on DNA from more than 40,000 Finns. Unlike the Hungarians, speakers of Finnic languages managed to retain their special genetic profile because they descended from a more extensively Finno-Ugric founding population.

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