Hunnic language

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Region From Eurasian steppe into Europe
Extinct After 6th century CE
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xhc
Glottolog None

The Hunnic language, or Hunnish, was the language spoken by Huns in the Hunnic Empire, a heterogeneous, multi-ethnic tribal confederation which ruled much of Eastern Europe and invaded the West during the 4th and 5th centuries. A variety of languages were spoken within the Hun Empire.[1] A contemporary report by Priscus has that Hunnish was spoken alongside Gothic and the languages of other tribes subjugated by the Huns.[2][3][4]

Since the Huns did not have a writing system, written evidence for the language is very limited, consisting almost entirely of proper names and fragmental protohistoric writings.[5] The Hunnic language cannot be classified at present,[6][7] but due to the origin of these proper names it has been compared mainly with Turkic and Mongolic.[8][7][9] Turkish scholars identify a scant dozen Hunnish words, taken from ancient Chinese sources, that may possibly link the language to Turkic. Such words include zheng li (tengri) and wo lu to (ordu; horde). Nonetheless, the available evidence is inconclusive, and further studies are ongoing to determine the exact genetic relationship of Hunnish to other languages.[10]


Contemporary observers of the European Huns, such as Priscus and the 6th century historian Jordanes, preserved three words of the language of the Huns:

In the villages we were supplied with food – millet instead of corn – and medos as the natives call it. The attendants who followed us received millet and a drink of barley, which the barbarians call kamos.[11][7]

When the Huns had mourned him [Attila] with such lamentations, a strava, as they call it, was celebrated over his tomb with great revelling.[12]

The words medos, a beverage akin to mead, kamos, a barley drink, and strava, a funeral feast, are of satemised Indo-European origin.[13] They may be of Slavic, but also Germanic and Iranian origin.[13][7][14][15] Maenchen-Helfen argued that strava may have come from an informant who spoke Slavic.[12] "Corn" here refers to the older English term for cereal grains, instead of maize, as that crop was not introduced to Europe until the Columbian Exchange almost a thousand years later.

Possible affiliations[edit]

Many of the waves of nomadic peoples who swept into Eastern Europe, are known to have spoken languages from a variety of families. Several proposals for the affinities of Hunnic have been made.


A number of historians and linguists including Peter Heather and Karl Heinrich Menges feel that the proper names only allow the Hunnic language to be positioned in the broad group of Altaic languages.[16][17] Heather argued that "opinions differ even over their linguistic affiliation, but the best guess would seem to be that the Huns were the first group of Turkic, as opposed to Iranian, nomads to have intruded into Europe".[18] Although Menges was also reserved towards the language evidence, his view of the Huns was that "there are ethnological reasons for considering them Turkic or close to the Turks".[16]

Omeljan Pritsak in his study (1982),"The Hunnic Language of the Attila Clan",[19] who analyzing the 33 survived personal names concluded: "It was not a Turkic language, but one between Turkic and Mongolian, probably closer to the former than the latter. The language had strong ties to Bulgar language and to modern Chuvash, but also had some important connections, especially lexical and morphological, to Ottoman Turkish and Yakut".[19]

Otto Maenchen-Helfen pointed out that many tribal and proper names among the Huns appear to have originated in Turkic languages, and they spoke one.[20] Some scholars suppose that Hunnic may have been mainly Turkic,[21][22] possibly a member of the Oghuric branch of the Turkic language family, to which Bulgar, Khazar, and Chuvash also belong.[23][24]

Lászlo Marácz noted that in recent years "increasing number of linguists demonstrate that the basis of the Turkic and Mongolian languages was the language of the Huns", and that on this basis were reconstructed some Hun words found in Chinese chronicles.[8] In 2013, Hyun Jin Kim concluded that "seems highly likely then from the names that we do know, most of which seem to be Turkic, that the Hunnic elite was predominantly Turkic-speaking".[9]


Maenchen-Helfen classified a few names as Germanized or Germanic,[25] and Iranian.[26]


Attempts have been made to identify the Hunnic language as Hungarian. These have not achieved scholarly approval. The thesis that Simon of Kéza, who dedicated his Gesta Hungarorum to Ladislaus IV (1272–1290), preserved genuine Magyar traditions about the Huns has long been refuted. Eighty years ago Hodgkin wrote: "The Hungarian traditions no more fully illustrate the history of Attila than the Book of Mormon illustrates the history of the Jews".[27] Hungarian legends and histories from medieval times onwards assume close ties with the Huns. The name Hunor is preserved in legends and (with a few Hunnic names, such as Attila) is used as a given name in modern Hungary and in Turkey as Atilla and Onur respectively. Some Hungarian people share the belief that the Székelys, a Hungarian ethnic group living in modern-day Transylvania, are descended from a group of Huns who remained in the Carpathian Basin after 454; this myth was recorded in the medieval Gesta Hungarorum.[28][citation needed]


It has been suggested that the Hunnic language was related to that of the Xiongnu (or Hsiung-nu) of Mongolia – itself a language of unknown affiliations.[29][30]


Some scholars – most notably Lajos Ligeti (1950/51) and Edwin G. Pulleyblank (1962) – have claimed that languages of Siberia, especially Ket – a member of the Yeniseian language family – may have been a major source (or perhaps even the linguistic core) of the Xiongnu and/or Hunnic languages.[31][32] Marácz claimed, however, that any purportedly Yeniseian words could also have Mongolian and/or Turkic origins.[8]

Possible script[edit]

It is possible that a written form of Hunnic existed and may yet be identified from artifacts. Priscus recorded that Hunnic secretaries read out names of fugitives from a written list.[33] Franz Altheim considered it was not Greek or Latin, but a script like the Oguric Turkic of the Bulgars.[33] He argued that the runes were brought into Europe from Central Asia by the Huns, and were an adapted version of the old Sogdian alphabet in the Hunnic (Oghur Turkic) language.[34] Zacharias Rhetor wrote that in 507/508 AD, Bishop Qardust of Arran went to the land of the Caucasian Huns for seven years, and returned with books written in the Hunnic language.[33] There is some debate as to whether a Xiongnu-Xianbei runic system existed, and was part of a wider Eurasian script which gave rise to the Old Turkic alphabet in the 8th century.[35]

Professor Azgar Mukhamediev of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan (part of the Russian Federation) has suggested that some of these unidentified inscriptions are in an unidentified Turkic language, in a script that he calls "Turanian".[36] Mukhamediev believes that one of the inscriptions refers to a "Khan Diggiz" and that this is reference to one of Attila's sons, Dengizich, thereby also implying that the language concerned is Hunnic.[36] Marácz noted that some Mongolian researchers collected alleged Hunnic runes.[8]

Probably similar runic writing was preserved today by the Hungarians (Old Hungarian alphabet) and Crimean Tatars.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Blockley, R. C. 1983. The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire. Liverpool: Francis Cairns.; citing Priscus
  2. ^ Priscus: Byzantine History, available in the original Greek in Ludwig Dindorf : Historici Graeci Minores (Leipzig, Teubner, 1870) and available online as a translation by J.B. Bury: Priscus at the court of Attila Archived February 4, 2001, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Wang Shiping, Where Did the Huns Go? Wang Zu, Scourge of God
  4. ^ Lin Gan, A Study of Northern Nationalities in Ancient China[unreliable source?]
  5. ^ Maenchen-Helfen 1973, p. 376.
  6. ^ Sinor 1990, p. 201.
  7. ^ a b c d Pronk-Tiethoff 2013, p. 58.
  8. ^ a b c d e Marácz, Lászlo (2009). "Borbála Obrusánszky: Heritage of the Huns" (PDF). Journal of Eurasian Studies. 1: 158, 162. 
  9. ^ a b Kim 2013, p. 30.
  10. ^ Ahmet Bican Ercilasun, Başlangıçtan Yirminci Yüzyıla Türk Dili Tarihi, Akçağ Yayınları, Ankara 2010, s. 60. ISBN 978-975-338-589-3
  11. ^ Maenchen-Helfen 1973, p. 424.
  12. ^ a b Maenchen-Helfen 1973, p. 425.
  13. ^ a b Maenchen-Helfen 1973, p. 424–426.
  14. ^ Schenker, Alexander M. (1995). The Dawn of Slavic: an introduction to Slavic philology. Yale University Press. p. 6. ISBN 9780520015968. 
  15. ^ Vékony, Gábor (2000). Dacians, Romans, Romanians. Matthias Corvinus. p. 236. ISBN 9781882785131. 
  16. ^ a b Karl Heinrich Menges (1995). The Turkic Languages and Peoples: An Introduction to Turkic Studies. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 17. ISBN 978-3-447-03533-0. 
  17. ^ Neville Brown (2001). History and Climate Change: A Eurocentric Perspective. Taylor & Francis. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-415-01959-0.  citing E.A. Thompson The Huns (revised posthumously by Peter Heather)
  18. ^ Heather, Peter (1995). The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe. English Historical Review. p. 5. 
  19. ^ a b Pritsak, Omeljan (1982). The Hunnic Language of the Attila Clan (PDF). IV. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. ISSN 0363-5570. 
  20. ^ Maenchen-Helfen 1973, p. 392–411.
  21. ^ Gmyrya, L. 1995. Hun country at the Caspian Gate: Caspian Dagestan during the epoch of the Great Movement of Peoples
  22. ^ (in German) Doerfer, Gerhard. Zur Sprache der Hunnen. Central Asiatic Journal, 17(1): 1-50.
  23. ^ "It is assumed that the Huns also were speakers of an l- and r- type Turkic language and that their migration was responsible for the appearance of this language in the West." Johanson, Lars; Éva Agnes Csató (ed.). 1998. The Turkic languages. Routledge; Pritsak, Omeljan. 1982 "The Hunnic Language of the Attila Clan." Harvard Ukrainian Studies, vol. 6, pp. 428–476.; Dybo A.V., "Linguistic contacts of early Türks. Lexical fund: Pra-Türkic period" Moscow, 2007, p. 103, ISBN 978-5-02-036320-5 (In Russian); Dybo A.V., "Chronology of Türkic languages and linguistic contacts of early Türks", Moskow, 2007, p. 786, (In Russian); Starostin S.A. (project "Tower of Babel"), the database includes Sinicisms borrowed into the Pra-Türkic (i.e., present in both Pra-Türkic and Bulgar branches); Murdak O.A. "Pra-Türkic metallurgical lexicon", "Monumenta Altaica"; Tzvetkov P.S., "The Turks, Slavs and the Origin of the Bulgarians"//The Turks, Vol 1, pp. 562–567, Ankara, 2002, ISBN 975-6782-55-2, 975-6782-56-0; Shervashidxe I.N., "Fragment of Ancient Türkic lexicon. Titles"//Problems of Linguistics, No 3, pp. 81–91, (In Russian)
  24. ^ Heather, Peter. 1995. The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe. English Historical Review, 90: 4-41.
  25. ^ Maenchen-Helfen 1973, p. 386–389.
  26. ^ Maenchen-Helfen 1973, p. 390–391.
  27. ^ Maenchen-Helfen 1973, p. 386.
  28. ^ Kordé Zoltán: A székelykérdés története
  29. ^ Étienne de la Vaissière, Xiongnu. Encyclopedia Iranica online Archived January 4, 2012, at the Wayback Machine., 2006
  30. ^ Dr. Obrusánszky, Borbála : The History and Civilization of the Huns. Paper of the University of Amsterdam, 8 October 2007. Page 60. [1]
  31. ^ E. G. Pulleyblank, "The consonontal system of old Chinese" [Pt 1], Asia Major, vol. IX (1962), pp. 1–2.
  32. ^ A wide range of sources on the Yeniseian language are discussed by Edward J. Vajda (Yeniseian Peoples and Languages: A History of Yeniseian Studies with an Annotated Bibliography and a Source Guide (2013, Oxford/New York, Routledge). Sources for the theories of a connection between Yeniseian and Hunnic are mentioned by Vajda on the following pages: pp. 4, 14, 48, 103–6, 108–9, 130–1, 135–6, 182, 204, 263, 286, 310.
  33. ^ a b c Kim 2013, p. 204.
  34. ^ Kim 2013, p. 55, 204.
  35. ^ Kim 2013, p. 205.
  36. ^ a b Mukhamediev, Azgar (1995). Zăkiev, M. Z., ed. Problemy lingvoėtnoistorii tatarskogo naroda. Kazan. p. 195.