Il problema della lingua unna

🇮🇹 Per la versione italiana clicca qui.

The Huns were among the absolute protagonists of Late Antiquity and, together with their leader Attila, became legendary, so much so that the ferocity and fighting skills of this nomadic people are still celebrated today. Despite the historical importance of the so-called Hunnic Empire and the relative abundance of information we have about this population, a mystery about them has not yet been solved: what language did they speak?

The question of what language they spoke is an extremely interesting one. The very few fragments we have of this language do not, of course, allow us to reconstruct it in its entirety, but, on the other hand, understanding to which language family the Huns belonged could help historians, at least in part, to clarify the problem concerning the geographical and cultural origin of this people.

There are many problems in this regard, and we will try to summarise them briefly. First, the language itself died out by the 6th century at the latest when the Hunnic power had been definitively destroyed. At present, therefore, no language in Europe is directly derived from the Hunnic language. The only clues that we can use to classify this language are those provided by historical sources.

These are almost hopelessly scarce. This is not surprising considering the nomadic nature of these people: they hardly met civilisations equipped with a writing system before arriving in the Old Continent. At the same time, the relative brevity of the Hunnic Empire in Europe and its internal structure (a multi-ethnic confederation of warrior tribes) did not favour the writing of the language of the dominant ethnic group in documents that can be preserved up to the present day.

The historians Priscus and Giordano mention the three words medos (a drink probably made from honey), kamos (a drink made from barley) and strava (funeral feast). Of the three, the first two are probably borrowings from the Germanic or Iranian languages. The third seems to be a word of Slavic origin.

The only other clues on which one can attempt to sketch a hypothesis, to link the Hunnic language to some linguistic family, are the names of persons present in the historical sources of the time (referring to chiefs or other men of power). But we should remember that making linguistic comparisons based on names of persons can be risky from a scientific point of view: a person can be called Kevin without necessarily being of Celtic origin, for example.

In the case of the Huns, there seemed to be a good chance of linking their speech to some language family based on the names of persons. However, more than a century of discussion has not yielded any satisfactory and definitive results in this respect. Some link Hunnic to the Uralic languages (e.g., Hungarian and Finnish), others to the so-called Yeniseian languages (currently spoken by some 20 people in the Yeniseian river basin in Central Siberia), while many claim that the Huns spoke a Turkic language, but even here there are more doubts than certainties.

In a case such as the Hunnic language, the most honest solution is not to get ahead of ourselves: the clues we have are very few and often contradictory. As things stand at present, there is no clear solution, but only a long list of hypotheses. The problem remains unsolvable and almost certainly will remain so, since it is unlikely that in the future new elements providing significant evidence of this language will emerge.

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