Old Hungarian alphabet

Old Hungarian alphabet
Old Hungarian
Type Alphabet
Time period unknown to today
Parent systems
Old Turkic and Iberian script
  • Old Hungarian
ISO 15924 Hung, 176
Unicode range Not yet in Unicode
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols.

The Old Hungarian script (in Hungarian known as rovásírás, or székely rovásírás,[1] székely-magyar rovás; for short also simply rovás "notch, score"[2]) is an alphabetic writing system used by the Hungarians before the Middle Ages. Because it is reminiscent of the runic alphabet, the Old Hungarian script has also popularly been called "Hungarian runes" or "Hungarian runic script".

When the Kingdom of Hungary was established in AD 1000 and Christianity was adopted, the Latin alphabet was adopted and the script fell into disuse. In remote regions of Transylvania, however, the script remained in marginal use by the Székely Magyars at least into the 17th century, giving it the name székely rovásírás.

The script is adapted to the phonology of the Hungarian language, featuring letters for phonemes such as cs, gy, ly, ny, ö, sz, ty, ü, zs. The modern Hungarian alphabet represents these sounds with digraphs (letter sequences used to write a single sound) and diacritics.

The rovásírás 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. The Latin letters q, w, x and y also do not have an equivalent as these do not stand for separate phonemes in Hungarian but are only used to spell foreign words.




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

The Hungarian Runes are related to the Old Turkic script, itself probably (though debatedly) deriving from Aramaic script.[3]

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'.[4] T

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,[5] which supports the theory of transmission via Turks further.

Medieval Hungary

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[6] 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 vernacularly.

The runic script was first mentioned in the 13th century Chronicle of Simon of Kéza,[7] where he stated that the Székelys may use the script of the Vlachs,[8][9] 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").[10] 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

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, Szokolma, Marosvásárhely, Csíkrákos, Mezőkeresztes, Nagybánya, Torda, Felsőszemeréd [1], Kecskemét and Kiskunhalas.

After 1850, with the spread of modern education and education in Latin orthography, Hungarian runic writing was all but extinguished.

Scholarly discussion

Hungarian script[11] 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 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

Welcome sign - rovas script of Bugac, Hungary, 2010

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.[12]

Old Hungarian has seen other usages in the modern period, sometimes in association with or referencing Hungarian neopaganism, 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.[12]


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

In the latter part of the 20th century, several new rovás and rovás-like inscriptions were found. For rovás-like see the section "Confusion" below.

Some of the findings include:

  • A labeled crest etched into stone from Pécs, late 13th century (Label: aBA SZeNTjeI vaGYUNK aKI eSZTeR ANna erZSéBeT; We are the saints [nuns] of Aba; who are Esther, Anna and Elizabeth.)
  • Runic stick calendar, around 1300, copied by Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli in 1690.[13] It contains several feasts and names, thus it is one of the most extensive runic records.
  • Nicholsburg alphabet
  • Runic record in Istanbul, 1515.
  • Székelyderzs: a brick with runic inscription, found in the Unitarian church
  • Énlaka: runic inscription, discovered by Balázs Orbán in 1864. (photo)
  • Székelydálya: runic inscription, found in the Calvinist church
  • The inscription from Felsőszemeréd (Horné Semerovce), Slovakia (15th century)


The runic alphabet includes 42 letters.[14] Some consonants have two forms, for example, aS and eS. The 'a' form should be written after vowels a, á, o, ó, u, ú, while the 'e' form after e, ë, é, i, í, ö, ő, ü, ű.
To gather information about the transliteration's pronunciation, see Hungarian alphabet.

Hungarian runes

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


In the region north of the Caucasus, west of the Ural mountains up to the Carpathian Basin several related, though different, yet undeciphered scripts exist. All of them feature characteristics in ductus which can be called "runiform".

Within the Carpathian Basin some of these scripts, which do constitute Old Hungarian, are e.g. the relic from Homokmégy (of which a Scythian reading has been proposed), needle-box from Szarvas (with Hungarian readings proposed), and most prominently the inscriptions of the Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós, a precious golden hoard of unknown origin (various Hungarian, Turkic and Greek readings proposed).

While the Szarvas and the Nagyszentmiklós inscriptions share the same script, the Homokmégy finding is written in another.

Due to the polysemy of rovás, rovásírás which can be understood, and is also used, as 'runiform script', but is also commonly used as 'Old Hungarian Script', these scripts are often confused, and relics of the latter ones are often found cited among the OHS findings.

Quite confusingly, the numerals are often referred to as integral part of the script. The counting system existed independently of the Old Hungarian Script, it is probably of different origin.


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 rovás 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: krkRovasiras krk2.jpg can be interpreted as kerékRovasiras keerek.jpg [wheel] and kerekRovasiras kereek2.jpg [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 realisation.

Text example

Text From Csikszentmárton, 1501

Text from Csikszentmárton, 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 Gergely 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:

A set of closely related 8-bit code pages exist. These are mapped to the Latin script with extensions. After installing one of them and applying their formatting to the document – because of the lack of capital letters – rovás 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


  1. ^ About this sound listen
  2. ^ from the verb 'to carve', 'to score' since the letters were usually carved on wood or sticks.
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Új Magyar Lexikon (New Hungarian Encyclopaedia) - Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1962. (Volume 5) ISBN 963-05-2808-8
  5. ^ András Róna-Tas A magyar írásbeliség török eredetéhez (In: Klára Sándor (edt.) Rovás és Rovásírás p.9-14 — Szeged, 1992, ISBN 963-481-885-4)
  6. ^ 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)
  7. ^ Dóra Tóth-Károly Bera: Honfoglalás és őstörténet. Aquila, Budapest, 1996. ISBN 963-8276-96-7
  8. ^ Drăgoescu, Anton. Istoria României: Transilvania. Vol. I, Ch. 4,p. 34
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Simon Keza, Endlicher, p. 100
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ a b Maxwell, Alexander (2004). "Contemporary Hungarian Rune-Writing: Ideological Linguistic Nationalism within a Homogenous Nation", Anthropos, 99: 2004, pp. 161-175
  13. ^ Klára Sándor: A bolognai rovásemlék, Szeged, 1991; ISBN 963 481 870 6
  14. ^ The letters may vary, but every style is almost the same.



  • 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.
  • 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)
  • Dóra Tóth-Károly Bera: Honfoglalás és őstörténet. Aquila, Budapest, 1996. ISBN 963-8276-96-7
  • Kiszely István: A magyar nép õstörténete


  • Dr. Edward D. Rockstein: "The Mystery of the Székely Runes", Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers, Vol. 19, 1990, pp. 176–183.


  • J. Thelegdi: Rudimenta priscae Hunnorum linguae brevibus quaestionibus et responsionibus comprehensa, Batavia, 1598.

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