The Hungarian Alphabet: Pronouncing Hungarian Vowels

Posted by – April 4, 2011

BudapestFor an English speaker, Hungarian pronunciation presents few real difficulties. While no-one pronounces a foreign language perfectly without a huge amount of practice, neverthless Hungarian sounds are broadly similar to English sounds. At least it’s fair to say that there are no sounds in Hungarian that take months to even begin to produce. Basic Hungarian pronunciation is largely a matter of remembering which sound is which.

Even when it comes to sounds that occur in Hungarian but not at all in English, the same sounds often occur “unnofficially” in English — especially by children who have not yet fully got into the habit of restricting the range of sounds they use (probably Hungarians would say the same about English!).

There’s a lot to remember here, but concentrate on understanding how to pronounce Hungarian vowels, practise pronouncing some Hungarian words and refer to this page in future when you need to, and in a little time you’ll produce perfectly understandable Hungarian. Once you’ve mastered the Hungarian vowels, Hungarian word pronunciation will come to you fairly easily.

Fun Hungarian Course with Lots of Free Videos

Long Vowels and Short Vowels in English and Hungarian

In English, we actually have long vowels and short vowels if you think about it. For instance, the e in met is pronounced very quickly; it’s a short vowel. But try saying meet. The ee here is pronounced somewhat longer, more drawn out. It’s a long vowel.

The vowel sounds in met and meet are in fact not merely different lengths, but different sounds altogether. Nevertheless, you can easily imagine pronouncing meet with a short ee instead of a long ee as is usual. The resulting word sounds like a bit like across between “meet” and “mit”. Non-native English speakers who say the word meet often shorten the ee so that it sounds exactly like this. Try saying meet quickly (just as quickly as you’d say “hit”), and you’ll see what I mean.

Hungarian also has long and short vowels, but the difference between the two in Hungarian is more pronounced than in English. Long vowels take about twice as long to say as short vowels, although Hungarians occasionally seem to stretch them out even longer in everyday speech.

Let’s get started by looking at the vowels in Hungarian.

Easy Hungarian Vowels

First, the easy ones. The explanations here are all a lot more complicated than the sound itself, so if you find yourself straining your brain, you’re thinking too much! None of these vowels are remotely hard to pronounce for an English speaker.

The vowels in this table are all ‘short’ (said quickly like the vowels in hit or got). None of them are difficult to pronounce.

Letter Guide to Pronunciation Example
e Like e in bet nem (no)
i A lot like ee in meet, but said quickly like the i in hit. kis (small; the ‘s’ is pronounced like English ‘sh’)
u Like oo in boot, but said more quickly to keep it short. busz (bus; the ‘sz’ here is pronounced like English ‘s’)
a Like a cross between English a in can and English o in hot. nap (‘day’ or ‘sun’)
o A lot like the o in force, which if you think about it sounds a bit like au in caught — but remember to keep it short. Notice that if you prounced o in an English way like in “hot”, you’d risk confusion with the Hungarian “a” sound (see above). bor (wine)

Phew — that wasn’t so bad, was it? Although learning letter sounds is possibly the most tedious aspect of learning a new language, your future success rests on you being able to figure out how to pronounce words — so it’s important to get a firm grasp of Hungarian sounds before you proceed further. We’ve got a few more vowels to get through, but first make sure you can remember what you’ve just learned — otherwise you’ll get horribly confused.

Slightly More Difficult Short Hungarian Vowels

So far we’ve looked at the Hungarian pronunciation of all the vowels in the English alphabet — namely, a, e, i, o and u. When written without accents in Hungarian, all of these vowels are pronounced “short” — that is, they are said fairly quickly, like the vowels in English words like “hot”, “cat” and “wit”.

Now let’s look at two marginally more difficult Hungarian vowels. These two are both still short vowels but they have sounds that are a little more unusual from an English point of view. They both carry umlaut accents: ö and ü.

Both of these letters are pronounced with the lips rounded into a tight O, as if you’re trying to whistle.

  • ö is pronounced a bit like u in hurt or e in errrr (an expression of hesitation or disgust in English), except that your lips must be rounded as if to whistle. Example: köszönöm (which means “thankyou”; sz is pronounced like English ‘s’).

    If you make the e sound in let, but round your lips to whistle, you’ll get it.

  • ü doesn’t occur in English, but it doesn’t sound too far from the sort of sound an English person might make under trying circumstances, for instance when getting off a roller coaster and experiencing a sudden sickening lurch in your stomach. Try saying the ee in meet but with rounded lips, as if to whistle. Example: süt (means: “shine”). Remember to keep the sound short. A similar sound occurs in German, with the same symbol (ü).

You can see that ö and ü are related to each other. They are both short sounds produced by rounding the lips. For ö say “e” from “let” in the back of your mouth; for ü say “ee” from “meet”, but short.

Once you’ve got the hang of these tricky two vowels, you’ve seen the worst that Hungarian pronunciation has to throw at the English speaker. It remains only to deal with the long vowels, which not tricky at all if you’ve mastered the short vowels.

Long Hungarian Vowels

Long Hungarian vowels take around twice as long to say as short ones. If this sounds odd, remember that we also have short and long vowels in English. In English, an extra vowel is typically added to a vowel to make it long. For instance, the English word met is pronounced with a short e. But if we add an a or another e to the first e, we get meat and meet, both of which contain a long ee sound.

As you can see from the following table, all Hungarian vowels that have accents (with the except of the umlaut vowels ö and ü) are pronounced long. All vowels without accents (or with umlauts) are pronounced short.

Letter Guide to Pronunciation Example
é Long e; sounds a bit like a cross between the ee in meet and the long a in father kép (image or picture)
í Long i; sounds a lot like the ee in meet víz (water)
ő Long ö. Sounds the same but longer. Notice that it’s as if the two dots of the umlaut over ö have been lengthened into the two dashes of ő. főz (to cook)
ű Long ü. Sounds the same but longer. Notice that it’s as if the two dots of the umlaut over ü have been lengthened into the two dashes of ű. bűz (a stink or bad smell)
á Long version of a. Like the a in cat but longer. Note: this isn’t precisely a long version of Hungarian a. The sound changes quite a bit. mák (poppy)
ó Long version of o. Sounds a bit like the au in caught. kór (disease)
ú Long version of u. Sounds like oo in cool. lúd (goose)

That’s it! The most difficult aspect of learning the Hungarian language is over and done with.

Some Notes

There are a couple of things about Hungarian vowel pronunciation that the English speaker should be particularly wary of, speaking from experience.

Always remember that ‘a’ (with no accent) is much more like an English ‘o’ than ‘a’. A good word to remember is csak (only), which is pronounced sort of halfway between ‘chak’ and ‘choc’ (maybe you’ve seen the excellent Hungarian romantic comedy, Csak Szex és Más Semmi — Only Sex and Nothing Else; if not, you should see it, it’s very funny). It’s easy to forget and start pronouncing ‘a’ like in English ‘cat’. Don’t! You won’t be understood.

If you’re an English speaker, you’ll interject y’s into everything without even realising it. Watch out! We can’t understand why Italians have to add ‘o’ or ‘e’ to the end of everything, but we English speakers are just as bad with our y’s. Take for instance the word Budai (meaning, ‘of Buda’ or ‘from Buda’ — Buda is one of the three towns that made up Budapest). An English speaker will say “Boodaiy”. Try saying it very slowly; Bood-o-ee. Don’t add that y onto the end. The same thing happens with words like “hét” (seven). We tend to say something like “heeyt”. Don’t! There’s only one vowel sound there; your mouth stays in only one position during the middle sound of this word. Stay off the y!

I always think of the English Yorkshire accent (not much help if you don’t know English accents — but see the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch for an example). Most English-speaking people, including Americans, will say for instance “newspayper”. In Yorkshire, England, they say “newspaaper”, where the ‘aa’ is a pure vowel sound without the y. The same trick works for other non-English languages; none of them as far as I know have that extra y sound in there.

Copyright © 2011 John W. Purcell

Technorati Tags: , ,

1 Comment on The Hungarian Alphabet: Pronouncing Hungarian Vowels

  1. Celia says:

    Hi there,

    I have very much enjoyed this article. I loved English phonetics as a student, and I have found your comments very interesting (especially about how foreigners sound to native speakers, it helps us realize the common mistakes we make). Not that I am into Hungarian now but I am always up for a good phonetic discussion!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.