Rereading a well-loved thread made me nostalgic for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which reminded me of one of my favorite bizarre toponymic equivalences: the Hungarian name for the capital of Austria, whose other names (Wien, Vienna, &c) derive from Latin Vindobona, is Bécs. Does anybody happen to know the etymology of that word? And (for extra bonus points) does anybody know the history of the Hungarian spelling cs for the sound spelled ch in English? The answer to one or both questions may lie hidden somewhere in the thousands of books so laboriously transported to this new house, but I’m going to be out most of the day doing more practical things, so I’m hoping I’ll return and find the answers have magically appeared here.


  1. One of my pet ideas is that we are all Austro-Hungarians now. Psychoanalysis, Popper, logical positivism, and Wittgenstein, serial music and Bartok, Austrian economics, Kafka, Rilke, Trakl (?), and others I’ve momentarily forgotten all came from there. A sort of cultural hopelessness is characteristic of all of them, even the positivists and Austrian economists who solved the problem by jettisoning Kultur.
    “Wittgenstein’s Vienna” (Toulmin / Janik) is a great book.

  2. I have absolutely no idea, and I have asked about Bécs for years. A wild guess is that there were some early Slavic names for Vindabona and the Magyars adopted one. Like Graz coming from pre-slovene “grad”, a lot of the non-magyar place names from the 9th century have slavic roots: Balaton from “platno” (flat) Pécs from ‘pet’ (five churches) Debrecin from “dobro” etc.
    The cs for ‘ch’ is just one of many oddball spellings that date back to medeival times when Magyar was being written by latin educated clergymen. What is interesting is that Hungarian is a very conservative language – it doesn’t change at a fast rate, and subsequently doesn’t have a wide range of dialects. A modern speaker would very likely understand a speaker from the 13th century.

  3. Thanks — I figured if anyone knew, it would be you!

  4. Well, since {s} is /S/ in Hungarian, couldn’t {c} be /ts/ and {cs} be /tsS/ > /tS/?

  5. Michael Farris says:

    I thought that Balaton was from a Slavic root for ‘mud’ or ‘muddy’.
    Could Becs come from
    1. alternate version of pecs (five)
    2. something to do with whips
    3. something to do with barrels or kegs?
    Yeah, I know these are pretty far-fetched, in other words, I have no idea.
    The consonant clusters
    cs, zs, and sz are all consistent in hungarian in that the first indicates voicing and the second element indicates whether it’s palatized or not. I don’t know if it arose as an alternative to early Czech ‘cz’ which in Hungarian would come out as non-palatal, but that seems a reasonable explanation (which means it’s probably wrong, yes).

  6. 1. alternate version of pecs (five) – That would be my guess. Or perhaps from the Hungarian word for ‘honor’ “becs” (short e)
    2. something to do with whips – Probably not. The Hun. word is ‘ostor’ and I believe it is a turkic or Alanic loanword.
    3. something to do with barrels or kegs? Barrel or keg is ‘hordo’. I know. A very pretty bartender asked me to pick haul one off a truck and carry it into the bar for her last night.

  7. The pianist Georges Cziffra also has a puzzling name (to me at least). According to one website: “Georges (Györky) Cziffra was born 5 November 1921 in Budapest. He came from a Gypsy family (his parents were Hungarians who had been expelled from France during World War One)…”

  8. Michael Farris says:

    Actually with ‘whips’ and ‘kegs, barrels’ I was thinking maybe a Slavic word with one of those meanings fleetingly borrowed into Hungarian and then disappearing (except in the name for Wien) but again, I realize that’s stretching things.

  9. A few phone calls around town and no, none of myt brainy Hungarian buddies know the origins either. tommorow is March 15, “We lost the 1848 Revolution” Day, so I’ll ask passersby in the street and get back to ya.

  10. Geez, I remember reading about this ages ago. Bec [spelled with a hachek on the “c”]is Croatian as well. My (vague) recollection is that the derivation of the name is Magyar to Slavic, rather than Slavic to Magyar. The etymoly might come from the change of the initial consonant V into a B. A similar process occurred with the Croat and Slovenian name for Venice which was something along these lines: Venezia – Beneci – Bneci – Mneci – Mleci.
    If anyone can speak Magyar, the great online resource is Magyar Pallas Lexikon, a work which was originally published in the gran old days of the Danubian monarchy.

  11. Thanks Zixt. I checked out the Pallas Encyclopedia and this is what I found:
    Szlávok is korán lakhatták, mire külön szláv neve: Be is mutat. Mai « Wien» nevén csak 1030-ben említik először
    Don’t worry, I’ll translate.
    “Slavs also settled here early, as the special slavic name ‘Be’ also shows. The modern name “Wien” only occurs first in 1030.”
    Slavic language areas shrunk in Austria and Germany around the 10th century, cutting Slovene off from Czech. All through the Burgenland and west Hungary you still find communities of Slovene speakers (“Vends”) who speak non-standard Karinthian Slovene. One old SW slavic dialect is down in Italy, among the 1200 or so speakers of Rezianska in the Resia valley near Uccea and Tolmesso in NW Italy. They don’t really even like to say they speak a dialect of Slovene, and don’t want to join the Slovene minority association of Italy. The Resiani live way up in an alpine pass, and subsequently have really bad radio and TV reception. This means they still play and dance their traditional fiddle and cello music in any of the four bars along the valley, especially around August 15th. ( go to to hear some. Sounds like old cajun fiddlers got stuck in Transylvania or something. I love it. One great Resiani fiddler, Santucco, marrried a Hungarian girl and lives in Buda.
    For Gospodin Hat to feast linguistically on:

  12. Sorry, brain fried. Tolmezzo, and it is in NE Italy, right up on the Austrian and Slovene border area. Look for Resiutta on a map. Resia is between that and Uccea at the Slovene border crossing. It’s very isolated. You can’t get there using the modern autostrada. You have to take the side roads from Tarvisio in the North or Udine/Gemona in the south. There are no hotels in the valley, and the two places that serve food are kinda rough. Be ready to eat “frico” – cold sliced polenta with melted swiss cheese.

  13. speedwell says:

    My daddy, a native Hungarian, always said what Jim said. It seemed obvious enough to me.

  14. Becs baffles me for quite a while.
    Slavs were around before the Hungarians.
    celtic (Vedu wood /for the wooded river Wieden=Wien river/) > Vi-den > Vi-en > Wi-en
    ?? vi-eden > bi-eden > bedjen > becs > becs ??
    An Austro-Hungarian

  15. Peter Raphael says:

    I gave up in trying to find the Becs puzzle, but I still have some others:
    Lengyel, olasz, nemet, orosz and why everyone calls the country Hungar…
    but we call Magyar.
    Thanks for any clarification
    Koszonom szepen

  16. David Marjanović says:

    why everyone calls the country Hungar…
    but we call Magyar

    Onogur = on Oğur = 10 Oğur tribes that came along with the Magyars, as did some Ossetes. The H is from confusing the Hungarians with the Huns (a confusion that 19th-century Hungarian nationalists were actually quite happy with).

  17. Shelomo Ben-Abraham says:

    Here are my two bits:
    <B> still puzzles me.
    might have come up in the 10th century but it certainly derived from .
    BTW: in Slovak is , in Czech .
    might be related to ; that’s just a wild guess;
    is <– <– ;
    is /

  18. Your formatting destroyed your comment. I fixed the angle brackets around B but couldn’t do anything about the rest. Try again, without the angle brackets (which get interpreted as HTML commands).

  19. Wikipedia references a couple explanations.

  20. …the capital of Austria, whose other names (Wien, Vienna, &c) derive from Latin Vindobona…

    Fact is, they don’t. The superficial similarity of Wien and Vindobona is accidental.

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