The group's remote ancestors, who spoke languages belonging to the Eastern (Ugric) branch of the Finno-Ugric language family, lived on the middle Volga River and its eastern tributaries. They moved east around 500 BC, where they encountered the more warlike and culturally more advanced Turkish groups. The two groups merged, speaking Ugric, with the addition of many Turkic words, and using Turkic grammatical structure. They were typical nomadic steppe dwellers.
Around 500 AD the Magyars moved from Asia to the steppes north of the Caucasus mountains, where they remained about 400 years. The false notion is widely held that they were part of Attila's Huns.
They were nomadic horsemen who moved into the grassy plain within the curve of the Carpathian Mountains in central Europe now called Hungary in 896 AD, under Prince Árpád. This area became Hungary, and the language became modern Hungarian.
Over the next 60 or so years they raided into Germany, north and central France and Italy. Their superior horsemanship proved unbeatable on the plains, but they were vulnerable in the mountains or when returning home with their booty, a fact not lost on their victims who began attacking them on mountain passes and at river crossings. In 933 they were defeated by Germans under Henry the Fowler, and in 955 they were finally defeated by the German Otto I at the battle of Lechfield. Their leaders were killed and they settled back into their plains.
The Magyar Duke Géza (r. 972-997) began to convert his people to Christianity; the task was finished by Géza's son and successor, St. Stephen (r. 997-1038), who also received a royal crown from Pope Sylvester (1000). Stephen enacted a body of laws, and gave Hungary the unified political structure it was to retain in one form or another from his time on.
The Magyars at first formed a caste of free men ruling over both the slaves they had brought with them as well as local tribes in Hungary. After a few hundred years there emerged a large unfree Magyar class comprising by 1500 about 75% of the total Magyar population. The ruling elite had a policy of admitting Germans and other outsiders to the Magyar nobility on condition they adopt the Magyar language and culture. Thus Hungary was to be essentially Magyar in terms of ethnicity and culture. Wars with the Ottoman Empire led to much migration and resettlement of depopulated areas. By 1800 the Magyars comprised just under half of the total population in Hungary; they were a majority only in the central plains. Hungary was politically united with Austria in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Hungarians were in full control in Hungary, just as Germans were elsewhere in the Empire. Nationalistic movements among the minority groups were recognized when the Empire was broken up in 1918–1919, but about a fourth of the Magyar-speakers were left outside Hungary. In the 21st century there are still large Magyar-speaking minorities in the neighboring states. At the end of the 19th century, agrarian depression had caused a large-scale emigration of Magyars to the United States; they moved to industrial centers and have become assimilated into the larger Catholic population. There have been smaller migrations, political in character, in 1945-1946 fleeing the Soviets, and again after the failed 1956 revolution.
The official orthography of Hungary is the Latin-based Hungarian alphabet. However, there are further scripts, namely the Rovas orthographies: the Szekely-Hungarian Rovas and the Carpathian Basin Rovas. There scripts are part of the cultural heritage of Hungary and sporadically they are in use as well.
Historian Hans Kohn contrasted the liberal, democratic, and political nationalism of the West and the aristocratic, authoritarian, backward, and ethnic nationalism of Eastern Europe. Deme (1992) argues that Magyar nationalism belongs in the former category rather than the latter. The historical development of nationalism in Hungary centers around writings of Sándor Bessenyei (1747-1811), who focused on both political liberty and cultural nationalism, and Count István Széchenyi, the leading statesman of Hungary in the 1830s, who tried to transform Hungary into a modern constitutional state and establish institutions to support Magyar nationalism.
- Deme, Laszlo. "Writers and Essayists and the Rise of Magyar Nationalism in the 1820s and 1830s". Slavic Review 1984 43(4): 624–640.
- Vermes, Gabor. István Tisza: The Liberal Vision and Conservative Statecraft of a Magyar Nationalist. (1986). 627 pp.
- Laszlo Deme, "Pre-1848 Magyar Nationalism Revisited: Ethnic and Authoritarian or Political and Progressive?" East European Quarterly 1992 27(2): 141-169.