The Fall of the Language Curtain

Ten years ago the body of Imre Nagy, the political leader of the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956, was exhumed from a secret grave for a public and honorable reburial. A huge gathering in Budapest's "Heroes" Square marked that moment, listening to a then unknown student leader, Viktor Orban, call for the Red Army to leave Hungary and for democracy to be established. Today, Viktor Orban, is Hungary's Prime Minister.

BUDAPEST: In linguistics we know that some verbs have a function called the performative function. By uttering the verb we actually perform an act: we christen a ship, we pronounce a couple man and wife. In other former Communist countries, democratic changes were sometimes accompanied by violence. Changes in Hungary were brought about solely by the power of words. Words proved revolutionary. Language delivered a fundamental breakthrough in the life of nations.

Speeches delivered ten years ago at the reburial of former Prime Minister Imre Nagy, executed in 1958 by Communist collaborators of the Soviet occupying army, contributed to that process. Words demanding that Russian troops leave Hungarian territory culminated in the collapse of the communist regime. How effective words can be, particularly if two hundred thousand people gather in a square to hear them!

Under Communism, the language used in politics and public life, even literature, was like a secret code. Although everyone was more or less aware of the implications of terms used by politicians and journalists, there was an immense gap between that language and the one used by people in their hushed personal conversations. In 1989 the first manifestation of a nascent democracy was the gush of free speech triggered by decades of coerced silence. Freedom of speech and linguistic liberation were the stepping stones to democracy. People were glued to television, savouring the new politicians who openly spoke a language hitherto suppressed. The speech that I gave on 16 June 1989, at Imre Nagy's reburial exposed everyone's silent desire for free elections, and an independent and democratic Hungary.