Yesterday night seemed to be the right time to start the project I had dreamed of the most. Due to being a patriotic Hungarian, I always wanted to be able to read and write in the so called Old Hungarian Runic script or “rovásírás”. The alphabet, which fits the language’s phonology more than the Roman script, was used by the Hungarians before the 10th century. It was written right to left, or in boustrophedon style (alternating direction). Unfortunately, as the writing system has not yet been fully desciphered and several research projects are still active, finding a good source to learn it from was not as easy as I expected. Throughout the past few years, many associations in Hungary have encouraged the publication of books written in Hungarian Runes and the compulsory education of the script in primary or secondary school. Despite these nationalistic movements, the standardised material is not really accessible on the internet.
After an hour of searching, I had the Wikipedia article, the Omniglot page and Klára Friedrich’s textbook open in my browser. Each of the three longed to teach me different letters and rules, so I felt a bit lost before diving deep into the details. However, I soon realised that Klára Friedrich, who supports and teaches Sándor Forrai’s version of the modernised Hungarian runes, refers to each of the differences seen in the other articles, and explains why Forrai’s variant should be considered the standard one. So I sided with Friedrich and started reading through the textbook, learning all of the letters and moving on to the rules of the rovás orthography.
Let me summarise a few of the most interesting rules that make the script so unique. Firstly, the sounds [k] (marked by ‘k’ in Hungarian) and [c] (written as ‘ty’ in the Roman script) both have two different graphemes associated with them, even though Klára Friedrich is against the idea due to it not being supported by enough evidence. The rule is simple: [k] is written as after a low vowel or as a final letter, whereas is used after a high vowel or a consonant, or at the beginning of a word. The same rule applies to [c]. An even more exciting rule is that words can be shortened through the omission of vowels. Friedrich states that when used on their own, consonants used to be pronounced with an [ɛ] sound preceding them. Therefore, having a consonant with no vowel in front of it could alter its pronunciation to include the special vowel. For instance, (equivalent of ‘gy’, IPA [ɟ]) on its own would be read as either [ɟ] or [ɛɟ]. The latter, written as ‘egy’ in the Roman script, means ‘one’ in Hungarian. Of course, the rule does not only apply to words, but syllables as well, making it possible to omit [ɛ] from every syllable that contains it (provided that it’s followed by a consonant). Other vowels can also be left out if the word contains more than one of the particular vowel. In this case, however, the first one (and the last one if it is the final letter) has to be present.
And if you are still reading this article, let me tell you a bit about the most interesting of them all: ligatures. The Hungarian Runic script has no limitations on what ligatures can be used. Although originally introduced as a method of saving space, it allows writers to let out their creativity, as long as the ligature includes the elements of all graphemes contained in the syllable or monosyllabic word. This example shows the merging of the letters for [l] and [ɛ] to create the word ‘le’ (meaning ‘down’), or a syllable to be used as part of a longer word:
So by today I’m fairly confident on reading the Old Hungarian alphabet, even though I still struggle when it comes to trying to read a text with adequate fluency. I’ve only practised an hour so far so it’s not really an important issue. For those of you who are interested in seeing what the script actually looks like, here’s a collection of transcripted tales by Gyula Illyés. And to finish with, let me show you my first attempt at the handwritten Runic writing system. The paragraph is a quote from “Erdők könyve” by Albert Wass. I copied the transcripted version from Klára Friedrich’s textbook, even though my own transcription would have been exactly the same – I chose the easy way!