Interview with an expert: Dr. Gábor Hosszú

When I wrote a post last fall about rovás, I never could have expected the outcome: an email from a professor in Budapest who has written a book on the subject, called Heritage of Scribes, while designing software to help archeologists decipher inscriptions. We ended up working together to revise a new edition of his book, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share more information with you. So, without further ado, meet the rovás expert!


Dr. Gábor Hosszú was born in Budapest in 1963. He finished his studies at the Budapesti Műszaki Egyetem (BME, the Budapest University of Technology and Economics) in 1985 and was a fellow for three years through the Hungarian Academy of Sciences academic recognition program. In 1990, Hosszú began teaching in BME’s Department of Electron Devices, where he is now an Associate Professor. He has written 4 books, one as co-author, numerous book chapters, and several hundred scholarly articles. His main areas of research are electronic and computer modelling, internet communication, and digital paleography. Hosszú recently earned a law degree with thesis work exploring an 18th-century Szekler-Hungarian legal text written in Rovas.


What is Rovas and where was it predominantly used?
Rovas (pronounced “rove-ash”) is a script used by Hungarians and relative nations for centuries. The oldest known relics written in legible Rovas come from the 7th century, though it’s certain that Rovas letters were used much earlier than that.

You suggest in Heritage of Scribes that there are actually three distinct types of Rovas. What are they, and which is most common?
The three main branches of Rovas are: Szekely-Hungarian Rovas (SHR), Carpathian Basin Rovas (CBR), and Steppean Rovas. Of these, SHR is the most widely known. The oldest SHR relic was made around 900 CE, and since then SHR has been in continual use.

Up to the 19th century, SHR was generally only used by the Szeklers, also called Székelys, who acted as border guards for the Hungarian Monarchy. The persistence of this branch of Rovas can attributed, I believe, to the Christian prayers and religious texts of the Szeklers. They used it for all their celebrations, and so for centuries, SHR had a function, a purpose. (Today, the Szeklers live in the southwestern region of the Carpathian Basin, the southwestern section of which is known as Erdely [Transylvania] and is now part of Romania.)

All three Rovas alphabets are related somehow to Aramaic. What is the connection? Why was Aramaic so influential to early Hungarian writing?
The last decades have brought huge breakthroughs in Rovas etymology. More and more archeological evidence of Rovas writing is turning up, and we have been able to decipher a significant share of it. Since 2008, I myself have taken a very active part in the research. In addition, I worked out a comparative method for verifying the provenance of individuals graphemes, which groups the glyphs of the graphemes into individual descent lines based on minimum topological variation. In this way we were able to work out a comprehensive model of the origins of Rovas letters, which I called the Rovas Atlas (and which you can find in Heritage of Scribes).

It turned out from the Rovas Atlas that scripts from Asia Minor, like Early Aramaic and Central Asia’s useful Kharoshthi, were part of Rovas’s background, but the greatest influencer was the Imperial Aramaic that emerged within the territory of the Achaemenid Persian Empire and was used throughout the empire as the de facto standard script.

Most likely the Scythians living in Eastern Europe took up the alphabets from Phoenicia, Asia Minor, and then Early Aramaic sometime after the 7th century BCE, and then in the 2nd century BCE in Central Asia the Yuezhi (also called Tocharians) took up the Imperial Aramaic script. Through this latter group’s use evolved what I call in the model Early Steppean script. This writing system was probably brought along with the As tribe (ancestors of the present-day Jász, an ethnic subgroup of Hungarians) to Europe and the southern Black Sea before the Scythians, and later, through mixing with the writing used by Sarmatians and Alans, it turned into the as-yet only reconstructed Proto-Rovas script.

How does a script like Rovas evolve?
In my opinion, a written language can only evolve and remain in use if it has some kind of use or purpose. What’s more, it is always used in the first place by an educated class. A writing system’s main functions can be, I believe, among the following: national, religious, or international.

The tribes of the Eurasian Steppe were horsemen with extensive trade networks and often established huge kingdoms. For this reason, both national and international relationships required the writing. A common culture grew amongst the nations of the Eurasian Steppe, which naturally changed depending on languages and periods of history. It’s clear, at least, that they borrowed letters from each other and later used them mixed with letters from other sources.

Rovas was never an official script in the Hungarian territory. What effect did the coronation of King Stephen as Hungary’s first Christian monarch (c.1000 CE) have on the use of rovas within the Carpathian Basin?
Carpathian Basin Rovas was the de facto official writing system in the 7th and 8th century “Avar” Kaganate (which was most likely headed by the Onogurs). In contrast, in the last third of the 9th century with the arrival of Arpád’s Magyars, they did not use SHR. Only one written relic has been discovered, in a cemetery from a battle during the honfoglalás (Land Acquisition, or conquest), and it was written in Steppean Rovas. One relic of course does not fully attest to a whole time period, but it is true that later in the Hungarian Monarchy use of Székely Rovas writing was treated as a purely Szekler trait. Thus, most likely, constituents of the Hungarian state never even used SHR.

Arpád’s conquering Magyars supposedly used some form of Steppean Rovas but it was forgotten since the Christian missionaries invited by King Saint Stephen and his father, Grand Prince Géza, after 972 CE did not know Rovas; they used a Latin-based writing adapted to the Hungarian language. The medieval version of the Latin script, which was used for medieval Hungarian, is called Old Hungarian orthography.

In short: King Saint Stephen’s coronation did not affect the use of Rovas in the Carpathian Basin in any way.

When did Hungarians stop using Rovas?
One subgroup of Hungarians, the Szeklers, never completely stopped using Rovas, but the Hungarian Monarchy used the Latin-based Hungarian orthography and this gradually affected those within the Monarchy, while still enjoying autonomy within the small Szekelyland territory. Otherwise the Szeklers only stood apart legally (there were privileges to being the border defense); linguistically they always spoke Hungarian.

As far as Magyars are concerned, they never used the Steppean Rovas brought with them, since the Hungarian state was founded on Christian principles after 972 and most importantly because the Christian missionaries from southern Italy were not familiar with Rovas. These missionaries prepared the first certificates and used the writing system they knew. In other words, the Hungarian Monarchy did not willfully forget Rovas; it’s just what happened.

What caused the revived interest in this old Hungarian alphabet? Why study it?
Szekely-Hungarian Rovas is like folk dance, folk music, or the language itself: it is a part of the proud history of a national culture. Of course this is a treasure belonging to more than just Hungarian culture, but similarly to the cultural creations of the world’s many peoples, and part of the pride of humankind’s entire culture too. What’s more, Rovas—like any national cultural treasure—plays a role in preserving and strengthening an identity. It is not directed against anyone, it simply expresses what members of a nation have in common. In this way it is a tool for building community.

You hold a university degree in engineering, not linguistics. How did you end up authoring a book on ancient languages?
I work with digital paleography, which is a type of modelling. In other words, it is an engineering discipline, and within that is the field of applied informatics, which naturally leads to other fields such as literature, history, and geography. In any case, in my research I applied basic engineering methods to model the development of languages. Outside of engineering studies, I gathered necessary information in part through ongoing consultation with recognized scientists in the disciplines and also by studying linguistic history myself over several semesters: one semester at the Pázmány Péter Katolikus Egyetem faculty of the arts, and two semesters at Eötvös Loránd University‘s faculty of humanities. I’m able to put the knowledge I gained there through discussions with linguists to good use.

Where can people find more detailed information on Rovas and its history?
Very little reliable information is available in English on Rovas. However, a wide range of amateur works related to Rovas are available in Hungary and abroad, the latter particularly in English. These works describe quite a lot of Rovas relics and they play an important role in the growing popularity of Rovas, but because of holes in the methodology these examples are largely inaccurate. They give bad or only half-true information.

This was the main reason for preparing the English-language book Heritage of Scribes, in which I gathered the results of Hungarian and international paleographic literature. In addition, I included my own experience with digital paleographics research in the book. All of which helped form a useful model for Rovas.

When will your revised edition of Heritage of Scribes be available? How can readers get a copy?
The third, revised edition of Heritage of Scribes has just undergone a review by a professional English-language editor. It will be available on Google Books (a preliminary draft is already posted there). We don’t plan to offer a print version of the third edition. The third edition is methodologically the same; the research mirrors that of the second edition, printed copies of which are available from the publisher (Rovas Foundation, Budapest).

Many thanks to Dr. Hosszú for his time! I’ll let you know when the revised edition is available. I do hope you’ll take a look at this unique, important work!


6 thoughts on “Interview with an expert: Dr. Gábor Hosszú

  1. Pingback: Spotlight on: Paul Lendvai | translation, untangled

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  3. I recently acquired an artifact finger ring with what I believe are Rovas inscription. It is 5 symbols, and translates (reading left to right) to the phonetic sound “BULTR” or possibly “BULTISZ” according to a literal translation. I am an amateur collector, and not an archaeologist or linguistic expert. I wonder if you would look at this photo and see what you think? Here is a link to the pictures I have on facebook:

  4. Thank you Carolyn, I received two emails (as did you by CC) from Dr. Hasszu. As you can tell, he is rather interested as well. We will continue this via those emails to keep the other 5 CC-ers on the same page.

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