Hungarian pronunciation
The Hungarian people, descendants of nomadic horsemen who swept into Europe around the year 900, call themselves and their language Magyar (pronounced roughly Ma-dyar, not Mag-yar). No one seems to be quite sure where the name "Hungary" came from, but one theory is that it's from a phrase the Turks used to describe the Magyars: on-gar, ten tribes.

Hungarian is not an Indo-European language -- it's part of the Finno-Ugric linguistic family, with roots in the Ural Mountains of Russia, and its closest European relative is Finnish. Because it is unrelated to most European languages, its appearance can be daunting. It's not as bad as it looks. Like Spanish, it's phonetic, so it's pronounced just the way it's written. But, as with any other language, to understand how Hungarian sounds -- to hear the music of the language -- you have to hear it spoken or sung by a native Magyar. Hungarian is what linguists call an agglutinative langugage: It forms many of its words by adding one or more suffixes to a root, so that one long word does the job of two or three short words in English (kz, hand; kzem, my hand; kzemben, in my hand). That's one reason the language looks the way it does.

I should add that I don't speak Hungarian. I studied its pronunciation with native Hungarians to sing with the Krptok Hungarian Folk Orchestra in Los Angeles back in the 1980s. Some Magyars have told me I pronounce the words pretty well for an American, but that might just have been a polite way of avoiding comment on my singing.


RULES OF HUNGARIAN PRONUNCIATION

  • Stress the first syllable of a word.
  • Accent marks over vowels are important. They affect the sound, not just the stress.
  • Vowels next to each other are pronounced separately. They are not elided into dipthongs, as in English.
  • Doubled letters, both vowels and consonants, are both pronounced, lengthening the sound.
  • Consonants not listed below are pronounced pretty much the same as in English.
  • Some Hungarian surnames preserve archaic spellings and may not be quite phonetic.

VOWELS

(Examples are based on the way I speak English: American with a California accent. If you're from Boston, New York or Over the Water, please adjust accordingly.)

A    Between ah and o, as in lawyer
    Father
E    Short e, between bed and bad
    Longer e, between leak and lake
I    Between rim and seem
    Longer i
O    Tone
    Longer o
    Lips form o, say eh (German )
    Hungarian also uses a long  that can't be shown in ASCII, 
     with double acute accents instead of dots. Like , but longer
U    Rude
    Longer u
    Lips form u, say ee (German )
    Hungarian also uses a long  that can't be shown in ASCII, 
     with double acute accents instead of dots. Like , but longer

CONSONANTS

C    ts
CS   ch as in church
GY   Palatalized dy sound, as in What d'you know?
GGY  Doubled gy
J    y
LY   Longer y sound, silent L
NY   Seor (Spanish)
R    Rolled once softly, as in Serbo-Croatian
S    sh
SZ   s
SSZ  Longer s
ZS   zh sound, as in pleasure
ZZS  Longer zs