Vadon and puszta—Hungarian


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“Wilderness” has two equivalents in Hungarian: vadon and puszta. This has to do with ecology and linguistics. Some of Hungary falls into the forest zone of Europe and some into the forest-steppe zone; Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language on which Slavic languages have had a very significant influence. Vadon (which is a Finno-Ugric word) refers to dark, impenetrable forests with wild animals, definitely a dangerous place. Such vadon areas were colonized in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries but lingered on (at least in popular imagination) in faraway places of the Carpathians until recently. The word vadon is rarely used in today’s language and is distinctly old-fashioned. Its place was taken over by őserdő, which is a translation of the German Urwald (“primeval forest”). Puszta (a word of Slavic origin), on the other hand, is treeless; it is wilderness in the sense of British moorlands or German Heide. Its original meaning is “a place deserted by people,” in fact implying previous settlement.

A wolf in the woods of the Carpathians
A wolf in the woods of the Carpathians

The sound of wind in the leaves (1.02 MB)

Because most abandonment of settlements in Hungary took place in the forest-steppe zone, puszta came to mean “steppe.” (In contrast, note that the Polish puszcza, for example, means something like the Hungarian vadon!) In the nineteenth century puszta became the national landscape of Hungary, representing the best Romanticism could imagine: rugged honesty. Most Hungarians today would still look at the puszta through nineteenth-century glasses.

Hortobagy, the most famous Hungarian puszta
Hortobagy, the most famous Hungarian puszta

The puszta has extreme temperatures and is windy. It certainly has animals on it: “ancient” breeds of cattle, horse and swine. People also live there, but they have nothing to do with modern civilization. Both vadon and puszta are supposed to have covered vast areas in some distant past, but little of that remains. As a consequence, the concept of “wilderness” conservation is entirely missing.