Hell and Sajnovics

Maximilian Hell dressed in what has been believed to represent a Saami costume, during his stay at Vardø in 1769. (Artist unknown, possibly W. Pohl from Vienna. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the 17th and 18th century, educated Europeans were already speculating on the possibility that there might be a connection between the language of the Hungarians, so conspicuously different from all other European languages, and some equally strange-sounding languages of the Far North. Already in the 1660s, the educated physician from Hamburg, Martin(us) Fogel(ius), had systematically compared the structure of the Finnish language with Hungarian – however, his manuscript remained in the archives of its commissioner in Florence and was only rediscovered in the late 19th century.

In 1769, the king of Denmark-Norway invited astronomers from many countries to the fortress island of Vardø at the Barents Sea coast, to observe the transit of Venus. Among these scientists was Maximilian Hell (1720–1792), since 1756 the director of the Observatory of Vienna. Born in the area of the old Kingdom of Hungary (Schemnitz/Selmecbánya/Banská Štiavnica in today’s Slovakia), he was aware of scholars’ debates concerning the Hungarian language and its possible relatives, and took with him his Hungarian colleague, János Sajnovics, so that they might, alongside their astronomic observations, also explore the Saami language. 

Sajnovics published the results of his observations, with the title Demonstratio idioma Ungarorum et Lapponum idem esse, in 1770. The rest is history.

Finno-Ugric Studies in Vienna

Throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century, Finno-Ugric elements were only occasionally present in the teaching and research of the University of Vienna, mostly in the form of courses or lectures which touched upon the history and culture of Hungary. Finally, an initiative of scholars from neighbouring disciplines (such as German philology, Slavic studies and Indo-European linguistics) led to the founding of a new chair of Finno-Ugric studies in 1974. The first holder of the chair was the Hungarian Károly Rédei (1932–2008), one of the most renowned Finno-Ugricists of his generation, known especially as the editor-in-chief of the Uralisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch and an expert in Permic and Ob-Ugric languages. He was succeeded by Johanna Laakso in 2000.

In the course of more than 40 years, the Finno-Ugric Department in Vienna has developed into a hub of diverse research interests. The millennial presence of the Hungarian language in Austria, and the close connections to historical Hungary, have given rise to various research projects in Hungarian literature and culture, especially with respect to multilingualism, multiculturalism, and interethnic contacts. The department also educates teachers of Hungarian. Alongside Hungarian studies, the department offers a popular BA programme in Finnish studies, including a module in Estonian. In regards to Finno-Ugric studies in the strict sense of the word, the Viennese department is one of the strongest centres outside the "Finno-Ugric countries"; the department has played a central role in the major international research projects of recent years (ELDIA, Ob-BABEL). It is one of the coordination sites of the Finno-Ugric applied-linguistic cooperation platform VIRSU and the original home of the Mari Web Project. The Viennese department also initiated the tradition of International Winter Schools for Finno-Ugric Studies, now continued in the form of the Erasmus+ Strategic Partnerships INFUSE and COPIUS.