Thursday, 1 December 2011

A Noble Ending

I have noticed that there is, particularly in the US but generally in the West as a whole, a deep confusion with relation to Hungarian surnames and whether one can assume "nobility" of the bearer of that surname. I have also gotten several messages about this.

I refer to the "nobiliary" particle of Y at the end of a surname. It appears that the popular understanding of this is that both Y and I at the end of a name are territorial equivalents such as "von" in German and "de" in French; but that I denotes a non-noble from a certain place, while Y denotes a noble from a certain place.

This is, I must say, on the whole complete rubbish. There is no such rule, and both endings of Y and I are used by both common and noble families - the greatest families in Hungary had Is in their surname - Teleki de Szek, Rakoczi, Szechenyi, Ujlaki. And the Y ending is used by millions of descendats of commoners today. To cite a queer instance: the illustrious Palffy family, who were Counts of Bratislava, were called "Palffy" even before they became noble.

I seriously believe that this misconception is unacceptable, because the alternative interpretation is so obvious: that a Y or I ending is identical to the "-er" endingt in German - i.e. Hamburger, Frankfurter, and other savoury delicacies. It means from the place, and not of the place in its aristocratic interpretation.

Another misconception is that Hungarian nobles all had a Y or I ending in their name, again because the belief is that it denotes nobility. This idea comes from the old medieval land tenure, when families tended to take the place name and made it into their surname. But, as we see from the families in this blog, this is not the case. The Prikkel, Szullo, Csiba, Csorba families are older than most families of Hungarian magnates, their histories stretching back at times to the 12th century, who on the whole managed to keep their 800year old estates until the 20th century - and yet they have no Y or Is at the end of their names. Even with magnates - Count Burian, Count Bethlen, Count Thurzo, Count Tisza, Count Fekete, Count Josika, Count Forgach, Prince Kollonics, Prince Grassalkovich - these are well-known and illustrious names, and the list could go on.

What these families do have, though, is usually a territorial designation after their surnames in Latin - so for instance Forgach de Ghymes et Gacs. In Hungarian, this would be ghymesi es gacsi Forgach (note the lower case spelling for the place names). This is the real noble particle, which only nobles could ever have. Mind you, many nobles did not officially have a noble territorial designation, which of course did not make them any less noble - such as the Ravasz family.