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Upper Őrség (Hun: Felső-Őrség, German: Wart) is a traditional ethnographic region and a small Hungarian language island in southern Burgenland, Austria. It consists the town of Oberwart (Hun: Felsőőr) and the two villages of Unterwart (Hun: Alsóőr) and Siget in der Wart (Hun: Őrisziget). The population of the three settlement was 7694 according to the 2001 census. 1922 people belonged to the ethnic Hungarian minority (25 percent of the total population). The economic and cultural center of the microregion is Oberwart/Felsőőr.

History

In the 11th century the region was part of the border-zone (gyepű) of the Kingdom of Hungary. The mainly uninhabited frontier was defended by free border-guard communities called őrök és lövők i.e. guards and archers. In the contemporary Latin documents they are called spiculatores and sagittarii. They were probably related to the border-guards of the eastern frontier, the Székelys.

The descendants of the guards are still living in the villages of the Upper Őrség (and in the Lower Őrség or simply Őrség in present-day Hungary). The archers later assimilated into the German population. They lived around the villages of Alsólövő (now Unterschützen) and Felsölövő (now Oberschützen). There were more border-guard communities than the above mentioned villages.

In the early Middle Ages the gyepű became part of the county of Vas. Upper Őrség belonged to this county until 1921.

The community of the őrs received the privileges of the nobles from King Charles I of Hungary in the beginning of the 14th century. They were free of serfdom and taxation. The privileges were acknowledged by Rudolph I in 1582.

Being nobles differentiated the őrs from the people of the neighbouring villages, and it was an important agent in the formation of their distinct identity. Some families kept count their noble origins even in the 20th century. In the village of Alsóőr/Unterwart several families trace back their origin to medieval times, for example the Balikó, Balla, Benedek, Benkő, Deáki, Farkas, Gaál, Gangoly, Györög, Heritz, Gyáki, Kelemen, Leéb, Moór, Német, Paál, Palank, Seper, Szabó, Takács and Zarka family.

Upper Őrség became a language island in the 16th century. That time the neighbouring territories were already populated with Germans. After the devastating Ottoman war in 1532 Croatian settlers arrived. The őrs became an isolated community in this new situation. They spoke their distinct dialect and practiced strict endogamy well until the middle of the 20th century.

The őrs took part in the Hungarian wars of independence against the Habsburgs in the Rákóczi Uprising (1703-1711) and in the Revolutionary war of 1848-49.

At the end of the 19th century the community began dwindling. Contributing factors were the decline of small crafts in the age of capitalism and the frittering away of the noble properties between the children. Several new Hungarian civil servants and intellectuals arrived to Felsőőr which were the centre of local government but the newcomers remained "strangers" for the original population. After the change in 1921 most of them left Burgenland.

After World War I the German-speaking western part of Hungary was given to the Republic of Austria by the Treaty of Trianon. The people of Upper Őrség protested against the decision but their attempt to establish an independent micro-state (see Lajtabánság) failed.

As an ethnic minority the őrs effectively tried to keep their identity in the first decades of the new republic. After the Anschluss the policy of Germanization had severe effects on the ethnic minorities. Hungarian schools were closed and the use of native language strongly discouraged. In the years of World War II the Hungarian population of Burgenland was cut in half (in 1934 10'442 Hungarian lived in the province, in 1951 only 5251).

After World War II the remaining őrs were totally separated from the mother country by the Iron Curtain. In the 1960s Oberwart became a small industrial town with a German majority. Assimiliation accelereted although there were attempts to keep alive the sense of identity for example the formation of cultural groups and associations. The Reformed Church played an important part of this process, especially in Oberwart/Felsőőr. In 1976 the Hungarians were officially recognised as a minority group by the Austrian state. The Austrian policy against ethnic minorities changed very slowly in the last decades of the 20th century but today minority rights are accepted.

After the democratic change in Hungary in 1989 and the accession to EU in 2004 the remaining Hungarian population of the region had an opportunity to re-establish the cultural and economic connections with Hungary.

Language

The Hungarians of Upper Őrség have a distinct dialect, probably related to the Székelys of Transylvania. Typical phonetical differences compared to the standard Hungarian language:

  • /ɟ/ becomes /dʒ/ for example the word gyerek (child) is pronounced as dzserek
  • /c/ becomes /tʃ/ for example the word bátyám (uncle) is pronounced as bácsám
  • /v/ becomes /b/ for example the word szarvas (deer) is pronounced as szarbas
  • /n/ becomes /ɲ/ for example the word szappan (soap) is pronounced as szoppany
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