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Hunnish,
the Language of the Huns

One of the minor intellectual tragedies of history is that the Roman and Byzantine ambassadors who spoke or had some knowledge of the language of the Huns never recorded their knowledge of that language. This absence of knowledge of the nature of Hunnish left posterity to puzzle and quarrel over the ethnic afiliations of the Huns.

The only words that have come down to us from the Huns are names; personal names, tribal names and place names. This collection is a very mixed bag. The Huns conquered and assimilated numerous peoples in their brief history so the names associated with the Huns could have been and were German (Gothic), Iranian (Alans) and Turkic/Mongolian. This last designation, Turkic/Mongolian, is included to reflect the fact that the Mongolian language was closely enough related to the Turkic languages that it is not easy to distinguish a Turkic name from a Mongolian name.

Turkish and Mongolian are sister languages in the Altaic language family. They are both agglutinative; i.e., phrases are formed by adding suffixes to a root word. Both Turkish and Mongolian have the characteristic known as vowel harmony. Some vowels (e,i,ö,ü) are articulated in the front of the mouth and other vowels (a,i,u) are articulated in the back of the mouth. With vowel harmony all of the vowels of a word (which in an agglutinative language may amount to a sentence) are either all front vowels or all back vowels. Thus the vowels of suffixes change to conform to the vowel character (front or back) of the preceding syllables.

The preponderance of the scholarly judgment is that the Huns were Turks but the evidence for their being Turks could equally justify believing they were Mongolian. Of course, there probably would have been both Mongols and Turks in the leadership of the Huns just as in the 13th century Genghis Khan's Golden Horde about half of the warriors were Turks. The question of who were the Huns really centers on what was the ethnicity of the leadership of the Huns because without a doubt there were Goths, Gepids and Alans among the rank and file of the Hunnish army.

The fact that Romans and Byzantines knowledgable of Hunnish did not record their knowledge may indicate that the language was so different in terms of grammatical structure, morphology and phonology that it was extremely difficult to write down. For example, some of the languages of Southern Africa incorporate tongue clicks. How does one spell a word involving a tongue click? In English this difficulty was resolved by using Xh to denote one type of tongue click, as in Xhosa, and !k for another, as in !Kung. Generally English creates a diagraph involving the letter h to represent some sound for which there is not a letter in the alphabet, as in th, sh and ch. Less well known is the use of zh to represent the middle sound in measure and treasure. Also kh is supposed to represent the guttural sound found in German and Scottish but most people blithely pronounce it as a k as in Khomeini and in Khan. Thus Khan as in Genghis Khan (meaning Great Emperor) should be pronouned as a raspy Haan, incidently not too much different from Hun.

The fact that Hunnish names were written in numerous different forms is further evidence that the sound system of Hunnish was quite different from the sound systems of Latin and Greek. But Otto Maenchen-Helfen points out in The World of the Huns that Roman and Byzantine authors tended to modify all foreign names until they sounded like Roman or Greek names; i.e., real names.

Personal Names Among the Huns

The linguistic classification of personal names has usually been coupled with postulated etymologies of the names. For example, Attila is classified as Gothic Germanic derived from att (father) and ila (a diminutive). Thus Attila means Little Father. But this is reminiscent of Ataturk (Father Turk), the title of Mustapha Kemal, the founder of the Republic of Turkey.

The acquisition of non-Hunnish names by Huns comes from the practice of the conquerors acquiring wives from among a conquered people. The offspring of these unions often acquired, at least in part, the language and cultures of the mothers. This makes the identification of the origin of any people problematic. We do have a physical description of Attila however. The envoy Priskos from Byzantium saw Attila and wrote down his description. Priskos' writings have not survived by a later historian Jordanes reported on those writings. Attila, according to Priskos, had a short, broad body with a large head. He had small, deep-set eyes with a darker complexion and a sparse beard. This description sounds more like the description of a Mongol than a Turk, or perhaps a Turco-Mongolian.

(To be continued.)

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