Nick Jones and Dr. Lance Larsen, Department of English
My project involved researching and observing Romania’s Székely population and their efforts to maintain cultural autonomy despite their minority status in Romania. The Székely people are a Hungarian-speaking group of disputed origin that has lived in Transylvania for at least 1,000 years, and currently they comprise a dominant majority of the population of Harghita County in the southeastern corner of Transylvania.
I conducted the first half of the project in America, reading available literature on the history and politics of the Székelys. Through research I became familiar with several of the main theories concerning the origin of the Székelys. The most widely accepted theory is that the Székelys are either identical or closely related to the Magyars (Hungarians), and that they have lived in Transylvania as a Hungarian-speaking ethnic group since the Magyar invasion of Pannonia. The Székelys lived in a multi-ethnic society in which each of the three ruling groups (Székelys, Hungarians, and Saxons) exercised relatively equal power and influence until the political upheaval of the late nineteenth century disrupted the balance of power and allowed the Romanian population to begin their gradual dominance of the area. The other main theory explaining the origin of the Székely people states that the Székelys are simply the segment of the native Romanian population that was assimilated into the ruling Hungarian culture over the hundreds of years that the Hungarian nobility ruled Transylvania.
The second part of my project, which involved living in Székelyföld (the Székely-dominated region of Romania) and speaking with Székelys, was more beneficial in helping me form an understanding of contemporary Székely attitudes toward culture and identity. Although I witnessed many interactions between ethnic Romanians and ethnic Székelys, the dynamic present in these situations wasn’t as interesting as the dynamic between Székelys and “mainland” Hungarians. I was more interested in this dynamic partly because I don’t know enough about Romanian culture to make an informed appraisal of the differences between Romanian culture and Székely culture, but also because the difference in native language dominates interactions between Székelys and Romanians, making the more subtle nuances of the dynamic harder to detect, especially for someone with only Hungarian language ability.
Apart from the groups of mainland Hungarian tourists who go from village to village in Székelyföld taking pictures of churches and monuments, there is little if any presence of mainland Hungary in Transylvania. My observations of the dynamic between Székelys and Hungarians mostly came from reports of interactions between the two groups, such as the experiences of Székely university students studying in Budapest or families visiting relatives on different sides of the border. From these reported interactions and also from my own observations of the differences between mainland and Székely “Hungarianism,” I noticed enough significant differences between the two groups that I now see each group as possessing a separate but related culture, while before my time in Romania I held the view that Székelys were merely Hungarians trapped on the wrong side of the fence.
Mainland Hungarians warned me before I went to Romania that I might have trouble understanding the Székely Hungarians because they speak so “parasztosan” (literally, like peasants). Although I didn’t have much trouble understanding the Székely dialect, I underestimated the difference between Székely Hungarian and mainland Hungarian. The Székelys use a different construction for asking questions (they attach a sort of suffix to the verb used in the question that translates to “or not” instead of using a certain inflection on the last word of a question as is done in Hungary) and speak with “lower vowels” (according to one of my hosts; I couldn’t detect a difference in vowel pitch, but the difference in question construction was very conspicuous). While the mainlanders make fun of Székelys for speaking like peasants, some Székelys believe that the higher-pitched Hungarians sound like cats. Székelys also have a slightly different vocabulary, using in some cases more “authentic” Hungarian words and in other cases words borrowed from Romanian (usually technical words or other terms that have come into usage in the last fifty years). One of my contacts in Székelyföld, Csongor (who will study at the university in Budapest next year), said that mainlanders can tell he’s Székely within three or four words. Because of these linguistic differences, many Székelys reported that when they are in Hungary they are looked down on and labeled as Romanians. Given the fact that the majority of Székelys can be easily picked out from Romanians when speaking Romanian, the Székelys are isolated linguistically and regarded as outsiders both in Romania and in Hungary. For this reason the primary ethnic slur used in Romania against Székelys, “bozgor,” meaning “without a homeland,” is particularly cutting.
Having witnessed aggressive and extreme nationalism while living in Hungary, I was curious to experience the dynamic of national identity among the Székely people. The Székelys describe themselves as a very proud group, but their resistance to the pressure to assimilate into Romanian culture seemed in many ways more peaceful and calm than the assertions of Hungarian supremacy among ultra-nationalists in the mainland. The Székelys assert their identity as Székelys not through aggressive rhetoric or plans to conquer lost lands, but rather they maintain cultural autonomy through means such as active participation in Roman Catholicism (which distinguishes them from Romanians, who are primarily Greek Orthodox). The most characteristic example of maintaining cultural autonomy is the practice of giving children distinctly Hungarian names. When I first came to Székelyföld, I was surprised by how many people had names that were unusual in mainland Hungary (such as Lehel, Elöd, Emöke, Elemér, Csongor). Then I was told that during the time of Ceausescu, when parents gave their children common Hungarian names, for example János (John), the Romanian hospital employees would record the Romanian version of the name, in this case Ioan, on the official records. For this reason, many Székelys of the older generation have Romanian names on their official identification. Instead of taking to the streets and violently protesting this forced “Romanianization,” parents gave their children names that were impossible to substitute with a Romanian form, and as a result the majority of the younger generation has received older, more uniquely Hungarian/Székely names.
I’ve recently completed a series of personal essays about national identity and nationhood in Romania, and this collection will be submitted as a thesis project for the BYU Honors Program. The final draft will be published by the Honors Program, and following graduation I plan to add to this project to develop it into a book-length examination of my experiences in Romania.