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Patriotic vocabulary on national holiday

August 22nd, 2016

On the memorial day of the founding of the Kingdom of Hungary in 1000 AD, a centrist pundit enumerates the nouns used to describe Hungarians and their country in an exercise that may help visitors and foreign observers to understand the public discourse in Hungary on national issues.

In Magyar Nemzet, Albert Gazda suggests that life will become easier if one understands the difference between ‘state’, ‘country’, nation’ and ‘homeland’.

He offers a negative definition of the notion of ‘state’, the entity whose birth is celebrated on 20 August. The state, he writes, is not ‘me’, nor is it ‘us’. It is ‘them’. During the months of the regime change in 1990, he explains, Hungarians could hope that the state would cease to be alienated from them, but that belief proved to be an illusion, although ‘no words can express the huge difference’ between the previous Communist regime and the current one.

‘Country’ carries no emotional connotation in Hungarian, although people may like its rivers and hills. It merely expresses geographical realities and GDP figures, showing that it is small, ‘and whenever it dreams big, it rarely speaks the truth’.

‘Nation’, for Gazda, means more than ‘country’. In fact, somewhat like in German, nation has an ethnic connotation in Hungarian. Since World War II, Germans are understandably cautious in using this concept in order to avoid the semblance of expansionist intentions. In Hungary, however, to regard transborder ethnic Hungarians as part of the nation is widely accepted (while ethnic Romanians, Slovaks and Germans living in Hungary are also seen as part of it). Liberals, however, have opposed the decision to give transborder Hungarians access to citizenship and therefore voting rights in Hungary, and Gazdag interprets their minority stance as a surprising refusal to consider them as part and parcel of the nation.

‘Homeland’ is the most emotionally charged notion of the four. It expresses an intimate connection people feel towards not just their land, but to its culture, past and future. To Gazda, it is not equivalent to either country, or nation, or the state. He lists a dozen highly subjective feelings toward things that are Hungarian to characterise it: a glass of cold ‘Olaszrizling’ white wine; fencer Áron Szilágy’s Olympic gold medal; the lights at night on the Chain Bridge in Budapest; the dust at the Sziget rock festival. He also adds his feelings about hay stacks in Máramaros (Maramureș, in Romania) and the Synagogue in Szabadka (Subotica in Serbia). As ever more things become part of it and nothing that is severed or destroyed is ever lost from peoples’ feelings, Gazda concludes, ‘homeland’ means more and more by the day and its meaning never stops changing.


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