Hunnic language

Region from Eurasian steppe into Europe
Extinct after 5th century CE
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xhc
Linguist list

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 reports that Hunnish was spoken alongside Gothic and the languages of other tribes subjugated by the Huns.[2][3][4]

According to authorities on the Huns, such as historian Otto Maenchen-Helfen, Hunnic cannot be classified at present, and there is no consensus on its affinities.[5][6][7] Contemporary observers of the European Huns, such as Priscus and the 6th century historian Jordanes preserved few words of the language of the Huns. Maenchen-Helfen points out that while many of the tribal names among the Huns appear to have originated in Turkic languages,[8] there are only three words (other than proper names) that are widely accepted by scholars as part of European Hunnic:[5] medos was a beverage akin to mead, while kamos was another drink made from barley, and strava was the name that Huns gave to a funeral feast. All three of these words are considered to have originated in non-Turkic languages, likely satemised Indo-European languages.[9]

Possible affiliations

Many of the waves of nomadic peoples who swept into Eastern Europe, such as the Turks, Mongols, Alans and Magyars, 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 evidence only allows the Hunnic language to be positioned in the broad group of Altaic languages.[10][11]

Notable studies include that of Pritsak 1982, who studied the names of known Huns and 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 Old Bulgarian and to modern Chuvash, but also had some important connections, especially lexical and morphological, to Ottoman and Yakut... The Turkic situation has no validity for Hunnic, which belonged to a separate Altaic group."[12]


Many authorities suppose that Hunnic may have been mainly Turkic,[13][14] possibly a member of the Oghuric branch of the Turkic language family, to which Bulgar, Khazar, Turkic Avar and Chuvash also belong.[15][16] All except for Chuvash are extinct and known only from very scant records. Maenchen-Helfen held that many of the tribal names among the Huns were Turkic.[5] Although K. H. Menges was 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."[10]


The only three words agreed to have been part of European Hunnic (medos, kamos, strava) are not Turkic,[5] but are probably derived from a satem Indo-European language similar to Slavic and Dacian.[17] Maenchen-Helfen suggests that "strava" may have come from an informant who spoke Slavic. Other names were classified as Germanic[18] and Iranian.[19] The Gothic language was widely used, described as not being Hunnic, and learned by non-Gothic subjects of the Huns.[20]


Attempts have been made to identify the Hunnic language as Hungarian. These have not achieved scholarly approval. The thesis that Kéẓai, 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."[21] 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.[22]


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.[23][24]


Some scholars, beginning with Edwin G. Pulleyblank (1962) have suggested that a Yeniseian language, such as Ket, was a major source (or perhaps even the linguistic core) of both the Xiongnu and Hunnic languages.[25][26]

Possible script

It is considered possible that a written form of Hunnic existed and may yet be identified from artifacts. Some archaeological institutions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia already hold objects, such as vessels, containing large number of unidentified and undeciphered inscriptions, in several different runiform-style scripts (resembling Old Turkic and Old Hungarian).

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".[27] 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.


  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
  3. ^ Wang Shiping, Where Did the Huns Go? Wang Zu, Scourge of God
  4. ^ Lin Gan, A Study of Northern Nationalities in Ancient China
  5. ^ a b c d Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen. The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture. University of California Press, 1973
  6. ^ Sinor, Denis. 1977. The Outlines of Hungarian Prehistory. Journal of World History, 4(3):513-540.
  7. ^ Poppe, Nicholas. 1965. Introduction to Altaic linguistics. Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz. Ural-altaische bibliothek; 14.
  8. ^ Otto Maenchen-Helfen, Language of Huns
  9. ^ Schenker, Alexander. 1995. The Dawn of Slavic: an introduction to Slavic philology. Yale University Press.
  10. ^ a b Karl Heinrich Menges (1995). The Turkic Languages and Peoples: An Introduction to Turkic Studies. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 17.  
  11. ^ Neville Brown (2001). History and Climate Change: A Eurocentric Perspective. Taylor & Francis. p. 72.   citing E.A. Thompson The Huns (revised posthumously by Peter Heather)
  12. ^ Pritsak, Omeljan. 1982. The Hunnic Language of the Attila Clan. Harvard Ukrainian Studies, 6: 428-476.
  13. ^ Gmyrya, L. 1995. Hun country at the Caspian Gate: Caspian Dagestan during the epoch of the Great Movement of Peoples
  14. ^ (German) Doerfer, Gerhard. Zur Sprache der Hunnen. Central Asiatic Journal, 17(1): 1-50.
  15. ^ "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.[1]; 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, [2] (In Russian); Starostin S.A. (project "Tower of Babel"), [3] 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”, [4]; 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)
  16. ^ Heather, Peter. 1995. The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe. English Historical Review, 90: 4-41.
  17. ^ Schenker, Alexander. 1995. The Dawn of Slavic: an introduction to Slavic philology. Yale University Press.
  18. ^ O. Maenchen-Helfen The World of the Huns. Chapter IX. Language. 5. Iranian names
  19. ^ O. Maenchen-Helfen The World of the Huns. Chapter IX. Language. 4. Germanized and Germanic Names
  20. ^ Priscus fr. 8 ("For the subjects of the Huns, swept together from various lands, speak, besides their own barbarous tongues, either Hunnic or Gothic, or--as many as have commercial dealings with the western Romans--Latin")
  21. ^ O. Maenchen-Helfen. The World of the Huns. Chapter IX. Language. 4. Germanized and Germanic Names
  22. ^ Kordé Zoltán: A székelykérdés története
  23. ^ Étienne de la Vaissière, Xiongnu. Encyclopedia Iranica online, 2006
  24. ^ Dr. Obrusánszky, Borbála : The History and Civilization of the Huns. Paper of the University of Amsterdam, 8 October 2007. Page 60. [5]
  25. ^ E. G. Pulleyblank, "The consonontal system of old Chinese" [Pt 1], Asia Major, vol. IX (1962), pp. 1–2.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^  


  • Clark, Larry. 1998. "Chuvash." In: Johanson & Csató, pp. 434–452.
  • Gmyrya, L. 1995. Hun country at the Caspian Gate: Caspian Dagestan during the epoch of the Great Movement of Peoples. Makhachkala: Dagestan Publishing.
  • Golden, Peter B. 1998. "The Turkic peoples: A historical sketch." In: Johanson & Csató, pp. 16–29.
  • Heather, Peter. 1995. "The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe." English Historical Review 110.4–41.
  • Johanson, Lars & Éva Agnes Csató (ed.). 1998. The Turkic languages. London: Routledge.
  • Johanson, Lars. 1998. "The history of Turkic." In: Johanson & Csató, pp. 81–125.[6]
  • Johanson, Lars. 1998. "Turkic languages." In: Encyclopædia Britannica. CD 98. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 5 September 2007.[7]
  • Johanson, Lars. 2000. "Linguistic convergence in the Volga area." In: Gilbers, Dicky, Nerbonne, John & Jos Schaeken (ed.). Languages in contact. Amsterdam & Atlanta: Rodopi. (Studies in Slavic and General linguistics 28.), pp. 165–178.[8]
  • Johanson, Lars. 2007. Chuvash. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Elsevier.
  • Kemal, Cemal. 2002. "The Origins of the Huns: A new view on the eastern heritage of the Hun tribes." (Text edited from conversations with Kemal Cemal, Turkey, 1 November 2002.) In: The History Files, Features for Europe, Barbarian Europe.[9]
  • Krueger, John. 1961. Chuvash Manual. Bloomington: Indiana University Publications.
  • Maenchen-Helfen, Otto J. 1973. The world of the Huns: Studies in their history and culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.[10]
  • Mukhamadiev, Azgar G. 1995. "The inscription on the plate of Khan Diggiz." In: In: Problems of the lingo-ethno-history of the Tatar people. Kazan: Tatarskoe knizhnoe izd-vo, pp. 36–83. (ISBN 5-201-08300, in Russian). Translated from the Russian into English,[11]
  • Pritsak, Omeljan. 1982. "The Hunnic Language of the Attila Clan." Harvard Ukrainian Studies, vol. 6, pp. 428–476.
  • Róna-Tas, András. 1998. "The reconstruction of Proto-Turkic and the genetic question." In: Johanson & Csató, pp. 67–80.
  • Schönig, Claus. 1997–1998. "A new attempt to classify the Turkic languages I–III." Turkic Languages 1:1.117–133, 1:2.262–277, 2:1.130–151.
  • Samoilovich, A. N. 1922. Some additions to the classification of the Turkic languages. Petrograd.[12]
  • Thompson, E.A. 1948. A History of Attila and the Huns. London: Oxford University Press. Reedited by Peter Heather. 1996. The Huns. Oxford: Blackwell.

External links

  • The World of the Huns by Otto Maenchen-Helfen, University of California Press, 1973. IX. LanguageChapter:
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