I am writing these notes from the perspective of a peripheral observer, having been a student of psychology and linguistics when structuralism reached Hungary. I was mainly a consumer of—if at times kitchen sink social participant in—the debates spurred by the arrival of structuralism. There was a great difference, for many of us, from what we saw on the French philosophical scene in the 1960s. The French history of structuralism has focused on structuralism as a comprehensive social theory that questioned the commitments of what were then traditionally left-leaning social power- and history-oriented social sciences and humanities in France. Seen from Hungary, however, structuralism appeared as a culmination of half a century of (what was assumed by many to be an almost) organic development: from Saussurian linguistics to universal structures of cognition and society. In Hungary, in addition, we had a political situation where the social implications of scientific theories could take the form of direct political intervention.

Structuralism hit many youngsters in Hungary coming from linguistics proper, and not from Foucault, Lacan, and Lévi-Strauss. At the same time, the message of structuralism in the Hungarian context was the concentration on pure structure and form rather than history and content. It was in a way like the 1920s Russian and Czech formalism: the inspiration towards form was coming from linguistics and language-inspired poetics.

Status quo of Hungarian linguistics in the early 1960s

To understand the situation of modern linguistics in Hungary and the impact of a structural vision, a few basic background factors should be considered. Hungarian linguistics in the 1930s and 1940s saw a small but promising structuralist attempt in the work of Gyula Laziczius (1896–1957), a phonologist and general linguist who initiated the Prague School (Linguistic Circle) and inspired Karl Bühler’s vision of language structure. Laziczius conceived langue as a system of signs accommodated to states of affairs in actual speech, or parole, and characterized by three functions: the descriptive, the directive, and the expressive functions (Laziczius 1942, 1966). As a phonologist with an instrumental phonetic background, Laziczius concentrated especially on the expressive function in his studies of emphatic aspects of speech.[1] One aspect of this had particular relevance for the following generation: between 1938 and 1949, Laziczius built the first European department of structuralist general linguistics at the University of Budapest (Pázmány, later Eötvös). Amidst the communist reorganization of academic life, the department was shut down, which resulted in a 10-15 year cessation of structuralist activity in Hungarian linguistics and hindered intergenerational transmission of structuralist orientations.

In the early 1960s, there was an interesting triangularity, wherein both traditional linguistics and Marxist ideology were opposed to a structural study of language. Traditional linguistics, still clinging to the frozen metatheory of the late nineteenth century neogrammarians, claimed that the only scientific study of language was historical linguistics. This attitude harbored suspicions about the structuralist and form-based “static” analysis of the linguistic system. Formális nyelvészet, or “formal linguistics,” moved away from immediately-given folk categories in a language and instead towards a view of language as a system of signs. Not an easy move.  

There was another tension surrounding the introduction of a structuralist approach to language in Hungary. The Marxist social imaginary understood society to be the result of constant class conflict and struggle, and applied a radical historicism and historical relativism to its interpretation. Class interest and history permeated everything. The structuralist attitude—when extended from the proper domain of language, with its concentration on system rather than history—presented a significant challenge.[2]

Structural analysis and would-be Hungarian structuralists thus had to face two inbuilt ideological, scientific, and existential rivals in the 1960s. Structuralists were considered problematic because they both neglected meaning and treated language as an object rather than an internal essence of humans. The other criticism, which Marxists leveled at structuralists’ ahistorical treatment of language, was that their concentration on structure implied a vision of eternal human nature.

Two structuralist Hungarian linguists in the 1960s: Antal and Fónagy

In spite of these intellectual and political contexts, two short-lived attempts to build up a structural linguistics still took form in Hungary. One was that of László Antal (1930-1993), a dynamic young linguist who was exceptionally well-read for the rather intellectually-closed communist country at the time. Antal started a campaign for structuralism in 1958 with a short paper published in a widely-read journal, Magyar Nyelvőr.[3] There, he outlined the idea that structuralism could serve as a generic name for all approaches that considered language to be “a closed system of signs,” and proposed “that the value of a given sign or sign category is determined by its definite place in the entire system” (Antal 1958, 94). Antal (1959, 1961b) worked to apply the structuralist approach to long-debated and difficult issues of Hungarian descriptive morphology.[4] He also published a popular book on what he called formal linguistic analysis (1964). This book—the first linguistics book that I ever read—combined the ideas borrowed from Harris (1951) and from Shannon (1948) with Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) information theory.

Antal had started from the mentalistic frames of Saussure, but he gradually became committed to a strictly behavioral vision of language. Morphological boundaries in segmentation would correspond to changes in entropy. Antal “started from the problems of segmentation in agglutinative languages and proposed that over words, the usual tendency is decreasing entropy. By this he meant the number of possible continuations at any given point that correspond to lexical density and grammatical structure.”[5] Thus, Antal used Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) notion of entropy for equal probability outcomes, where entropy is a function of the number of possible outcomes.[6] It is important that Antal’s structural approach had a hidden existential component: his structuralism campaigned for the independence of linguistics (from psychology and logic) by arguing for the existence of self-sufficient linguistic structures. In this approach, there was a corollary between the independence of linguistic structure and the independence of general linguistics.    

Iván Fónagy (1920-2005), the other representative of structuralism in Hungary in the early 1960s, was the fundamental contrast to Antal. Instead of independence, he looked for interdependence. He was committed to combining the psychological (in fact, the psychoanalytic) and the literary approaches to language with a structural approach to the language system.

Fónagy had a pupil-mentor relationship with Laziczius and thus represented a sort of continuity with a Saussure-inspired mentalistic structuralism, which Fónagy embedded in his sophisticated approach to multiple functions of language and framed in the tradition of the Prague School (Jakobson 1960) and Karl Bühler (1934).

Fónagy mainly contributed to a structuralist approach in three ways. Unlike Antal, he was not interested in an internalist structural approach but rather its extension toward a comprehension of the total communicative situation (Kiefer 2005; Szende 2008; Pléh 2018).[7] A second novel contribution was his analysis of the functions of language, with special attention to emotional expression. Finally, he reinterpreted the arbitraire of linguistic signs. As Kiefer (2005) has pointed out, for Fónagy, arbitrary linguistic signs had been historically motivated, and in actual communicative acts they obtain a secondary iconic or indexical motivation.[8]

What happened to linguistic structuralism in Hungary?

As Ferenc Kiefer (1931-2020), a Hungarian linguist of the subsequent generation, recently chronicled, a sui generis, fully-fledged Hungarian linguistic structuralism never developed (Kiefer 2019). There were several reasons for this. The first was the reaction of official academia, which was dominated by traditional historical- and meaning-centered linguistics. In 1961, for example, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (an important intellectual compass in Budapest) organized a grand “debate” about structuralism, with a plenary talk by Zsigmond Telegdi (1909-1994), one of the most educated and influential linguists in Hungary at the time. Telegdi claimed that there was a proper place for formal analysis. He tried to ease the worries of traditionalists by suggesting that this place for structure should not reduce interest in historical linguistics. He also tried to relax the Marxists by claiming that, while formal analysis had its autonomy, in a comprehensive vision of language the study of meaning and society also had their places.

As Kiefer presents it, the debate resolved very little, if anything. Since that time, the duality of traditional historical linguistics, on the one hand, and more method-oriented theoretical linguistics, on the other, has remained prominent in Hungary. But two of Telegdi’s other rhetorical moves have proved to be very productive. First, he pointed out that in the Soviet Union discussions about structuralism led to an official academic resolution in 1960, in which a clear differentiation between structuralism as an idealist ideology and structuralism as a method was made (Telegdi 1961, 24). Second, he highlighted how older questions concerning linguistic structures were taken up by mathematicians in the Soviet Union, and applied to the new problems of machine translation and computerized language processing.[9]

As chair of the re-established Department of General Linguistics in Budapest, Telegdi helped create an educational curriculum for “general and applied linguists,” separate from both language-specific philology and traditional Hungarian linguistics.[10] The new linguistics, however, was much more than structural. Antal’s and Fónagy’s first attempts at a modern structuralism in Hungary were quickly displaced by generative grammar. Structures were soon supplemented or even replaced by rules all over the place.[11]

For my generation, which was trained by these early converts to generative grammar, the famous examples of separating grammaticality and meaning—for example, with sentences like Chomsky’s (1957) “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”—introduced the idea that syntax and form had primacy in cognitive organization. This idea was also taken up in psychology through “a primary concentration on formal aspects both regarding representations and regarding models of cognition. Cognitive research in the 1960s repeated for general cognition what had been initiated by the early linguistic structuralism of the Russian formalists and the avant-garde artistic movements in the 1920s” (Pléh 2019, 405). A focus on form and sentences soon appeared in experimental cognitive psychology as well as in linguistic theory. This attitude has remained a persistent feature of Hungarian psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology ever since.

Addendum: What happened to other structuralisms in Hungary?

Structuralism first appeared in Hungary, albeit belatedly, in linguistics. Being trained as a psychologist and linguist, I viewed developments at the time in other fields mainly with the eye of a linguist. I was happy to see the methods and worldview of formal linguistics extended to other domains. As a consequence, at the time we felt a number of critical interventions to be threats to the entire “linguistic turn” (Bollobás 2019). Other fields, such as folklore, anthropology, and literary studies followed suit about a decade later. But because of the complex—sometimes joined, sometimes rivaled—interests of the Communist Party’s ideological leadership in traditional historical, sociological, and literary scholarship, structuralism’s entry into these fields created a much bigger splash.

In my naïve view, this was related to two factors. Anthropological structuralism questioned the historical relativity so cherished by mainstream Marxists. Literary structuralism, for its part, posed a challenge to many literary scholars for reasons of tradition. The dominant view at the time held that literary analysis should be centered on life history and sociological contextualization. For the Marxists, this contextualization should embed literature into the frames of class struggle and aesthetic realism. With its concentration on form and sometimes even quantitative methods, and with its choice of authors to be studied and researchers to do these studies, structuralism in these fields created a real uproar.

One could list many examples.[12] Elemér Hankiss (1928-2015), who was at the time a politically-compromised multilingual literary scholar, edited a double book of translations on structuralism (Hankiss, 1971) that was provocative for two reasons. First, it collated all modern literary studies under the banner of structuralism; and second, it avoided the question of whether structuralism was an ideology—an issue that was crucial even for soft-line party treatments of structuralism at the time (Kelemen, 1969). Hankiss (1969) also published a book of essays for a general audience, and it employed structural analysis to show how similar principles operate in phenomena as seemingly diverse as Hungarian folk songs and the writings of Samuel Beckett. Both the ahistoricity and the choice of works were provocations.[13]That was enough from a single intellectual. Hankiss had to leave Szeged University and later the entire literary scene. He became a noted sociologist, politologist, a liberal political figure, and the president of Hungarian National television after 1990.

Gábor Bezeczky (2006), a Hungarian literary scholar, also provides a detailed description of the multiple forms that Hungarian literary structuralism took in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the Communist Party’s ideological reactions against it, ultimately resulting in a high-profile ideology session. These official reactions undermined foreign influences during the early 1970s. We were in the aftermath of the 1968 Prague Spring crackdown, and in the middle of what Kremlinologists have called a hardening of the Brezhnev party line and Soviet ideological control. All of the central party’s interventions felt threatening at the time. Structuralism—though a pseudo-official summary of the “debate” was still published in 1977 (Szerdahelyi 1977)—was practically stopped in literary and human sciences. Bezeczky (2006, 6) put it ironically: “The reason for alarm on the part of the party line literators was probably that they ran out of ideas. Within literary scholarship they were unable to juxtapose anything to what they called ‘formal’. Thus they reverted to a political stance”. Bollobás (2019) recently described the consequences ironically as well, noting how the new generation of students started a new chapter of post-structuralism. Thus, the late appearance of structuralism was fast followed by a strong post-structuralist movement in Hungarian literary theory. Does that mean that party hardliners won?  

One can see sad or instructive parallels in the fate of certain social and human sciences in Hungary. The politically-minded and tradition-oriented critics of modernity killed some trends, but much stronger and longer lasting ones appeared in their place. There was true human suffering and tragedy involved. The much-criticized linguistic structuralism was replaced by generative grammar. Literary structuralism was wiped out in the name of a strong post-structuralism and literary hermeneutics. And the party line critique of soft or revisionist Marxism led both to the death of Marxism in Hungary and the birth of a strong philosophy of language and mind.

Works Cited

Antal, László. 1958. A strukturalizmusról. [On structuralism]. Magyar Nyelvőr 82: 94–99.

Antal, László. 1959. Gondolatok a magyar főnév birtokos ragozásáról. [Thoughts on the possessive declination of Hungarian nouns]. Magyar Nyelv 55: 351–7.

Antal, László. 1961a. A magyar esetrendszer. [The Hungarian case system]. Budapest: Akademiai.

Antal, László 1961b. “On the Possessive Form of the Hungarian Noun.” General Linguistics 5: 39-46

Antal, László. 1964. A formális nyelvi elemzés. [Formal linguistic analysis]. Budapest: Gondolat.

Bernáth, Árpád. 2019. “Az irodalomelmélet 1956 után újra polgárjogot nyert Magyarországon.” [Literary theory has been licensed again after 1956 in Hungary]. In Elméletek vonzásában, edited by Enikő Bollobás, 50-112.

Bezeczky, Gábor. 2006. “A strukturalizmus Magyarországon.” [Structuralism in Hungary.] 2000, 17.4: 64-76.

Bollobás, Enikő. 2019. “Az első nyelvi fordulat Magyarországon. A strukturalista szemlélet megjelenése az irodalomtudományban.” [The first linguistic turn in Hungary. The appearance of strcturalsist approach I literary scholarship]. In Elméletek vonzásában, edited by Enikő Bollobás, 113-155.

Bollobás, Emikő, ed. 2019. Elméletek vonzásában. [Attracted by theories]. Budapest: Gondolat.

Brown, Roger. 1970. Psycholinguistics: Selected Papers. New York: Free Press.

Bühler, Karl. 1934. Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena: Fischer. English edition: 1990. Theory of Language: The Representational Function of Language. Translated by D. F. Goodwin. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. Hague: Mouton.

Fónagy, Iván. 1960. “A hang és a szó hírértéke a költői nyelvben.” [The information value of sound and word in poetic language]. Nyelvtudományi Közlemények 62: 73–100.

Fónagy, Iván. 1962. “Beszéd és valószínűség.” [Speech and probability]. Magyar Nyelvőr 86: 309–320.

Fónagy, Iván.  1963. “A stílus hírértéke.” [Information value of style]. Általános Nyelvészeti Tanulmányok 1: 69–76.

Fónagy, Iván. 1971. “Double Coding in Speech.” Semiotica 3: 189–222.

Fónagy, Iván. 1990/91. “The Chances of Vocal Characterology.” Acta Lingustica Hungarica. 40: 285–313.

Fónagy, Iván. 2001. Languages within Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Fónagy, Iván, and Fonagy, Peter. 1995. “Communication with Pretend Actions in Language, Literature and Psychoanalysis.” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 18: 363–418.

Harris, Zellig. 1951. Methods in Structural Linguistics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jakobson, Roman. 1960. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.” In Style in Language, edited by T. Sebeok. Cambridge: MIT Press, 350-377.

Kelemen, János. 1969. Mi a strukturalizmus? [What is structuralism?]. Budapest: Kossuth.

Kenesei, István. 2006. “Antal László igazgyöngyei és hamis ékszerei.” [The real pearls and hake jewelry of A.L.] In: Kálmán László (szerk.), KB 120 A titkos kötet Nyelvészeti tanulmányok Bánréti Zoltán és Komlósy András tiszteletére. Budapest: MTA Nyelvtudományi Intézet – Tinta Kiadó, 337–352.

Kiefer, Ferenc. 2005. “Fónagy Iván (1920-2005).” Magyar Tudomány 166: 1170–1172.

Kiefer, Ferenc. 2008. “Gyula Laziczius, a Hungarian structuralist.”  Acta Linguistica Hungarica 55: 121–130

Kiefer, Ferenc. 2019. “A hatvanas évek magyar nyelvtudománya. Az elméleti nyitás korszaka.” [Hungarian linguistics of the 1960s. The age of theoretical opening]. In Elméletek vonzásában, edited by Enikő Bollobás, 19-49.

Laziczius, Gyula. 1942. Általános nyelvészet. Alapelvek és módszertani kérdések. [General linguistics: Basic principles and questions of method]. Budapest: MTA.

Laziczius, Julius. 1944/1961. Lehrbuch der Phonetik. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Laziczius, Gyula. 1966. Selected Writings of Gyula Laziczius, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok. The Hague: Mouton.

Hankiss, Elemér. 1969. A népdaltól az abszurd drámáig. [From folk song to absurd drama]. Budapest: Magvetó.

Hankiss, Elemér, ed. 1971a. Strukturalizmus. I–II. Budapest: Európa.

Hankiss, Elemer, ed. 1971b. Formateremtő elvek a költői műalkotásban. [Form creating principles in poetry.] Budapest: Akademiai Kiado.

Hankiss, Elemer, ed. 1971c. A novellaelemzés új módszerei. [New methods of short story analysis]. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado.

Pléh, Csaba. 2019. “The Inspirational Role of Chomsky in the Cognitive Turn of Psychology.” Acta Linguistica Academica 66: 397–428.

Pléh, Csaba, Németh, Kornél, Varga, Dániel, Fazekas, Judit and Várhelyi, Klára. 2013. “Entropy measures and predictive recognition as mirrored in gating and lexical decision over multimorphemic Hungarian noun forms.”  Psihologija 46: 397–420.

Shannon, Claude. 1948. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Bell System Technical Journal 27: 379–423.

Shannon, Claude, and Weaver, Warren. 1949. A Mathematical Model of Communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Szende, Tamás. 2008. “Ivan Fonagy (1920–2005): Leitmotifs in his Oeuvre.” Acta Linguistica Hungarica 51: 131–143.

Szerdahelyi, István, ed. 1977. A strukturalizmus-vita. I.-II. [The structuralism debate]. Budapest: Akademiai.

Telegdi, Zsigmond. 1961. “A nyelvtudomány újabb fejlődésének egyes kérdéseiről.” [On some questions of newer developments in linguistics]. MTA I. Oszt. Közl. 18: 11–27.

[1] Kiefer (2008) gives a detailed account of his life and oeuvre.

[2] This challenge was outlined in the local context, for example, by the booklet that claimed to put structuralism back in its proper place, by Kelemen (1969), a linguistically well-read and rather young (just 26 years old!) Marxist philosopher at the time.

[3] The journal has no official English name but can be translated as, Hungarian Language Guardian. The meaning of guardian is as a safeguard of proper language use. It could, in fact, be translated almost as a “watchdog.”

[4] For example, he started to apply morphemic analysis in the style of Bloomfield and Harris (1951) for the Hungarian possessive nominal forms and the status of the plural possessed markers (ház-a-i-m-ban ‘house-Poss-Plau-Mine-IN’) that had already created plenty of discussion. In the same vein he published a much influential book on the Hungarian nominal case system showing how distributional analysis and the concept of allomorphy was helping to decide the status of certain endings if they are case markers and the status of linking vowels without a recourse to meaning intuitions (Antal 1961a).

[5] To take an English example, the string boo can continue as boot, book, boor, boom etc., having high uncertainty, while prog can only continue as progr, having no uncertainty at that point.

[6] This point is first made and elaborated in (Pléh et al. 2013, 398).

[7] The first extension had a starting point similar to Antal. Fónagy (1960, 1962, 1963) also wanted to extend the recently emerging information theory to the analysis of language. But while for Antal entropy was an issue related to language segmentation, for Fónagy who was using information theory to consider issues of parole, uncertainties of prediction were related to some language-external factors to be found in the Sender, to be analyzed as a symptom mature for psychoanalytic interpretation.

[8] This is the essential element of his ideas about double coding (Fónagy 1971, 2001). There are two coding processes on all levels of language. There is a primary code, where the grammar is manipulating arbitrary signs to arrive to a propositionally articulated message. The secondary coding introduces a Distorter in the communicative chain that reshapes, recodes, distorts and transforms the arbitrary signs of primary code into messages referring to unconscious underlying processes as well. The two layers are never separated, they constantly “interplay”. The secondary code is “parasitic”: it builds upon the primary code, there is no secondary code without an elaborated primary code. As Szende (2008, 135) his student and follower in Hungarian phonetics put it, the notional, propositional component “on its way to implementation undergoes another encoding operation by way of which the linguistic form eventually uttered becomes a full-fledged utterance. That operation of expressing emotions or the speaker’s attitude towards the entity or included in the statement changes the utterance mimetically and/or articulatorily. This can be most immediately recognized in the use of emphatic forms. It is in that sense, thus, that speech is ’doubly encoded’”.

[9] Kiefer also describes in detail how similar initiatives were implemented in Hungary among, for example, mathematicians involved in information theory and cybernetics in both Szeged and Budapest. The Academy’s Institute for Computer Science opened an entire section of mathematical linguistics and a machine translation section for a new generation of linguists—Kiefer included. Parallel developments took shape in Debrecen as well with the guidance of Ferenc Pap.

[10] The department also issued a successful yearbook series Általános Nyelvészeti Tanulmányok (Studies of General Linguistics). The scientific training was assisted substantially through co-teaching by members of the Hungarian Academy of Science’s Research Institute of Linguistics as well.

[11] The cultivation of a new generation of linguists dedicated to generative grammar was also facilitated by American Ford Foundation scholarships in the mid-1960s to the would-be teachers of the next generation.

[12] Here, I merely draw a few from the excellent surveys of Bernáth (2019) and Bollobás (2019).

[13] The same provocations held for his selective collections of modern poetry and short stories, which were analyzed by a select group of mainly structuralist and psychoanalytic experts (Hankiss 1971b, 1971c).

Csaba Pléh: contributions / website / vispleh@ceu.edu