Old Hungarian alphabet

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Not to be confused with Old Hungarian language.
Old Hungarian
Szekely-Hungarian Rovas.svg
Languages Hungarian
Time period
Attested from 12th century.[citation needed] Marginal use into the 17th century, revived in the 20th.
Parent systems
ISO 15924 Hung, 176

The Old Hungarian script is an alphabetic writing system used by the Hungarians in the Middle Ages.

The Hungarians settled the Carpathian Basin in 896. After the establishment of the Christian Hungarian kingdom, the script fell into disuse because the Latin alphabet was adopted. In remote regions of Transylvania, however, the script remained in marginal use by the Székely Magyars at least until the 17th century, giving its Hungarian name székely rovásírás. The Old Hungarian script has also been described as "runic" or "runiform" because it is superficially reminiscent of the Germanic runic alphabet.[1] The English name in ISO 15924 is Old Hungarian (Hungarian Runic).[2][3]


In modern Hungarian, the script is known formally as székely írás 'Szekler script'.[4] The writing system also called as rovásírás, székely rovásírás,[4] and székely-magyar írás (or simply rovás 'notch, score').[5]



Scientists can not give an exact date nor an origin for this special type of writing.

The inscription found in Homokmégy-Halom. From the 900s

The Hungarian Runes are most probably derived from the Old Turkic script,[6] itself recorded in inscriptions dating from c. AD 720. The origins of the Turkic scripts are uncertain. The scripts may derived from Asian scripts such as the Pahlavi and Sogdian alphabets, or possibly from Kharosthi, all of which are in turn remotely derived from the Aramaic script.[7] Or alternatively, according to some opinions, ancient Turkic runes descend from primaeval Turkic graphic logograms.[8]

Speakers of Proto-Hungarian would have come into contact with Turkic peoples during the 7th or 8th century, in the context of the Turkic expansion, as is also evidenced by numerous Turkic loanwords in Proto-Hungarian.

All the letters but one for sounds which were shared by Turkic and Ancient Hungarian can be related to their Old Turkic counterparts. Most of the missing characters were derived by script internal extensions, rather than borrowings, but a small number of characters seem to derive from Greek, such as eF 'eF'.[9]

The modern Hungarian term for this special script (coined in the 19th century) rovás derives from the verb róni ('to score') which is derived from old Uralic, general Hungarian terminology describing the technique of writing (írni 'to write', betű 'letter', bicska 'knife (also: for carving letters)') derive from Turkic,[10] which further supports transmission via Turkic alphabets.

On the Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós artifacts can it be red clearly that it has commonity with the Old Hungarian alphabet.

Medieval Hungary[edit]

The alphabet of Nikolsburg

Epigraphic evidence for the use of the Old Hungarian script in medieval Hungary dates to the 10th century, for example, from Homokmégy[11] The latter inscription was found on a fragment of a quiver made of bone. Although there have been several attempts to interpret it, the meaning of it is still unclear.

In 1000, with the coronation of Stephen I of Hungary, Hungary (previously an alliance of mostly nomadic tribes) became a Kingdom. The Latin alphabet was adopted as official script, however Old Hungarian continued to be used in the vernacular.

The runic script was first mentioned in the 13th century Chronicle of Simon of Kéza,[12] where he stated that the Székelys may use the script of the Vlachs,[13][14] possibly making a confusion between the runes and Cyrillic script (as the Romanian Cyrillic alphabet was used to write the Romanian language till 1860–1862 and remained in occasional use until ca. 1920): "... non tamen in plano Panonie, sed cum Blackis in montibus confinii sortem habuerunt, unde Blakis commixti litteris ipsorum uti perhibentur" (="...although not on the Pannonian Plain but among the borderland mountains along with the Vlachs [where] they mixed up with them and so allegedly they use their letters").[15] The earliest surviving copy of the actual alphabet was found is an incunabulum from 1483, found at the library of the castle of Nikolsburg, now Mikulov in Moravia, hand-written onto the endpaper of the printed book. This alphabet lists 35 letters and 15 ligatures with Latin transcriptions.

Early Modern period[edit]

The Old Hungarian script became part of folk art in several areas during this period.[citation needed] In Royal Hungary, Old Hungarian script was used less, although there are relics from this territory, too. There is another copy – similar to the Nikolsburg Alphabet – of the Old Hungarian alphabet, dated 1609. The inscription from Énlaka, dated 1668, is an example of the "folk art use".

There are a number of inscriptions ranging from the 17th to the early 19th[citation needed] centuries, including examples from Kibéd, Csejd, Makfalva, Szolokma, Marosvásárhely, Csíkrákos, Mezőkeresztes, Nagybánya, Torda, Felsőszemeréd [1], Kecskemét and Kiskunhalas.

Scholarly discussion[edit]

Hungarian script[16] was first described in late Humanist/Baroque scholarship, in 1598 by János Telegdi in his primer, "Rudimenta Priscae Hunnorum Linguae", where he presents his understanding of the script. It also contains Hungarian texts written with runes, for example, the Lord's Prayer.

In the 19th century scholars began to research the rules and the other features of the Old Hungarian script. From this time the name rovásírás 'runic writing' began to enter popular consciousness in Hungary, and script historians in other countries began to use the terms "Old Hungarian", "Altungarisch", and so on. Because the Old Hungarian script had been replaced by Latin, linguistic researchers in the 20th century had to reconstruct the alphabet from historic sources. Gyula Sebestyén, ethnographer, folklorist and Gyula (Julius) Németh, philologist, linguist, turcologist did the lion's share of this work. Sebestyén's publications, Rovás és rovásírás (Runes and runic writing, Budapest, 1909) and A magyar rovásírás hiteles emlékei (The authentic relics of Hungarian runic writing, Budapest, 1915) contain valuable information on the topic.

Popular revival[edit]

Welcome sign in Latin and Old Hungarian script for the town of Vonyarcvashegy, Hungary

Beginning with Adorján Magyar in 1915, the script has been promulgated as a means for writing modern Hungarian. These groups approached the question of representation of the vowels of modern Hungarian in different ways. Adorján Magyar made use of characters to distinguish a/á and e/é but did not distinguish the other vowels by length. A school led by Sándor Forrai from 1974 onward did also distinguish i/í, o/ó, ö/ő, u/ú, and ü/ű. The revival has become part of significant ideological nationalist subculture not only in Hungary (largely centered in Budapest), but also amongst the Hungarian diaspora, particularly in the United States and Canada.[17]

Old Hungarian has seen other usages in the modern period, sometimes in association with or referencing Hungarian neopaganism,[citation needed] similar to the way in which Norse neopagans have taken up the Germanic runes, and Celtic neopagans have taken up Ogham script for various purposes. The use of the script sometimes has a political undertone, as they can be found from time to time in graffiti with a variety of content.[17]


Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli's work (1690), The copied script derives from 1450

The inscription corpus includes:


The runic alphabet includes 42 letters. As in the Old Turkic script, some consonants have two forms, to be used with back vowels (a, á, o, ó, u, ú) and front vowels (e, ë, é, i, í, ö, ő, ü, ű) respectively. The alphabet does not contain the letters for the phonemes dz, dzs of modern Hungarian, since these are relative recent developments in the language's history. Nor does it have letters for Latin q, w, x and y.

For more information about the transliteration's pronunciation, see Hungarian alphabet.

Szekely Hungarian Rovas alphabet Szekely magyar rovas ABC.svg

The Hungarian runes also include some non-alphabetical runes which are not ligatures but separate signs. These are called capita dictionum. Further research is needed to define their origin and traditional usage. Some examples:

Capita dictionum


Old Hungarian letters were usually written from right to left on sticks. Later, in Transylvania, they appeared on several media. Writings on walls also were right to left and not boustrophedon style (alternating direction right to left and then left to right).

Hungarian numerals

The numbers are almost the same as the Roman, Etruscan, and Chuvash numerals. Numbers of livestock were carved on tally sticks and the sticks were then cut in two lengthwise to avoid later disputes.

  • Ligatures are common. (Note: the Hungarian runic script employed a number of ligatures. In some cases, an entire word was written with a single sign.)
  • There are no lower or upper case letters, but the first letter of a proper name was often written a bit larger.
  • The writing system did not always mark vowels. The rules for vowel inclusion were as follows:
    • If there are two vowels side by side, both have to be written, unless the second could be readily determined.
    • The vowels have to be written if their omission created ambiguity. (Example: krkK (rovásbetű).svgR (rovásbetű) JB.svgK (rovásbetű).svg can be interpreted as kerékK (rovásbetű).svgE (rovásbetű) JB.svgR (rovásbetű) JB.svgÉ (rovásbetű) JB.svgK (rovásbetű).svg [wheel] and kerekK (rovásbetű).svgE (rovásbetű) JB.svgR (rovásbetű) JB.svgE (rovásbetű) JB.svgK (rovásbetű).svg [rounded], thus the writer had to include the vowels to differentiate the intended words.)
    • The vowel at the end of the word must be written.
  • Sometimes, especially when writing consonant clusters, a consonant was omitted. This is however rather a phonologic process, the script reflecting the exact surface realization.

Text example[edit]

Text From Csikszentmárton, 1501

Text from Csíkszentmárton, 1501. Runes originally written as ligatures are underlined.

Interpretation in old Hungarian: "ÚRNaK SZÜLeTéSéTÜL FOGVÁN ÍRNaK eZeRÖTSZÁZeGY eSZTeNDŐBE MÁTYáS JÁNOS eSTYTáN KOVÁCS CSINÁLTáK MÁTYáSMeSTeR GeRGeLYMeSTeRCSINÁLTÁK G IJ A aS I LY LY LT A" (The letters actually written in the runic text are written with uppercase in the transcription.)

Interpretation in modern Hungarian: "(Ezt) az Úr születése utáni 1501. évben írták. Mátyás, János, István kovácsok csinálták. Mátyás mester (és) Gergely mester csinálták [uninterpretable]"

English translation: "(This) was written in the 1501st year of our Lord. The smiths Matthias, John (and) Stephen did (this). Master Matthias (and) Master Gregory did [uninterpretable]"


Old Hungarian has been provisionally assigned the Unicode range U+10C80..10CFF. A number of proposals for encoding the script, which differed in some regards from one another, were taken into consideration when the assignment was made. The most recent ballot for the script is based on Everson & Szelp 2012 (Consolidated proposal for encoding the Old Hungarian script in the UCS).[19]

Pre-Unicode encodings[edit]

A set of closely related 8-bit code pages exist, devised in the 1990s by Gabor Hosszú. These were mapped to Latin-1 or Latin-2 character set fonts. After installing one of them and applying their formatting to the document – because of the lack of capital letters – runic characters could be entered in the following way: those letters which are unique letters in today's Hungarian orthography are virtually lowercase ones, and can be written by simply pressing the specific key; and since the modern digraphs equal to separate rovás letters, they were encoded as 'uppercase' letters, i.e. in the space originally restricted for capitals. Thus, typing a lowercase g will produce the rovas character for the sound marked with Latin script g, but entering an uppercase G will amount to a rovás sign equivalent to a digraph gy in Latin-based Hungarian orthography.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Everson & Szelp (2012)
  2. ^ "ISO 15924/RA Notice of Changes". ISO 15924. 
  3. ^ Code request for the Rovas script in ISO 15924 (2012-10-20)
  4. ^ a b About this sound listen 
  5. ^ From the verb 'to carve', 'to score' since the letters were usually carved on wood or sticks.
  6. ^ Róna-Tas (1987, 1988)
  7. ^ András Róna-Tas: On the Development and Origin of the East Turkic "Runic" Script (In: Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungariae XLI (1987), p. 7-14
  8. ^ Franz Altheim: Geschichte der Hunnen, vol. 1, p. 118
  9. ^ Új Magyar Lexikon (New Hungarian Encyclopaedia) - Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1962. (Volume 5) ISBN 963-05-2808-8
  10. ^ András Róna-Tas A magyar írásbeliség török eredetéhez (In: Klára Sándor (ed.) Rovás és Rovásírás p.9-14 — Szeged, 1992, ISBN 963-481-885-4)
  11. ^ István Fodor - György Diószegi - László Legeza: Őseink nyomában. (On the scent of our ancestors) - Magyar Könyvklub-Helikon Kiadó, Budapest, 1996. ISBN 963-208-400-4 (Page 82)
  12. ^ Dóra Tóth-Károly Bera: Honfoglalás és őstörténet. Aquila, Budapest, 1996. ISBN 963-8276-96-7
  13. ^ Drăgoescu, Anton. Istoria României: Transilvania. Vol. I, Ch. 4,p. 34
  14. ^ Adolf Armbruster. Romanitatea Românilor: The History of an Idea. Editura Enciclopedică. Ch1.3. This is further strengthened by the quote by Keza: Blackis, qui ipsorum (Romanorum) fuere pastores et coloni, remanentibus sponte in Pannonia.
  15. ^ Simon Keza, Endlicher, p. 100
  16. ^ Diringer, David. 1947. The Alphabet. A Key to the History of Mankind. London: Hutchinson's Scientific and technical Publications. Pp. 314-315. Gelb, I. J. 1952. A study of writing: The foundations of grammatology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pp. 142, 144. Gaur, Albertine. 1992. A History of Writing. London: British Library. ISBN 0-7123-0270-0. P. 143. Coulmas, Florian. 1996. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. ISBN 0-631-19446-0. Pp. 366-368.
  17. ^ a b Maxwell, Alexander (2004). "Contemporary Hungarian Rune-Writing: Ideological Linguistic Nationalism within a Homogenous Nation", Anthropos, 99: 2004, pp. 161-175
  18. ^ Klára Sándor: A bolognai rovásemlék, Szeged, 1991; ISBN 963-481-870-6
  19. ^


  • Gábor Hosszú (2011): Heritage of Scribes. The Relation of Rovas Scripts to Eurasian Writing Systems. First edition. Budapest: Rovas Foundation, ISBN 978-963-88437-4-6, fully available from Google Books at http://books.google.hu/books?id=TyK8azCqC34C&pg=PA177
  • Edward D. Rockstein: "The Mystery of the Székely Runes", Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers, Vol. 19, 1990, pp. 176–183.
  • Új Magyar Lexikon (New Hungarian Encyclopaedia) - Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1962. (Volume 5) ISBN 963-05-2808-8
  • Gyula Sebestyén: A magyar rovásírás hiteles emlékei, Budapest, 1915.
  • J. Thelegdi: Rudimenta priscae Hunnorum linguae brevibus quaestionibus et responsionibus comprehensa, Batavia, 1598.

External links[edit]