Hungarian is famously one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, up there with Finnish. Part of this is because it has words that are unique to the language, sharing very little with any European equivalent. But there is a silver lining since Hungarian is an entirely phonetic language, which means with a bit of practice, you could well fake it enough to – however briefly – pass as a local in Hungary.
The ‘gy’ sound, in magyar
Perhaps the most important thing to learn first is this one word because the Hungarians do not call themselves as such. Instead, expect them to describe themselves as ‘büszke magyarok’, or ‘proud Hungarians’.
But that ‘gy’ sound is a tricky one. To an English native, the word might appear to sound like ‘mahg-ee-ars’, but that ‘gy’ is actually an individual letter of the alphabet and should be pronounced in the same way that we would pronounce a soft ‘j’ sound. It’s similar to the ‘juh’ in Jerry. As such, magyar is pronounced moh-jar.
This fact is important to know, though, because asking how someone is doing requires this sound twice: ‘hogy vagy?’ – or hoh-juh vah-juh.
The ‘s’ sound, in Budapest
If you’ve been saying Boo-da-pest all these years, then it’s time to know that you’ve been completely wrong. Say nothing of the fact that the Hungarian ‘u’ is much softer – like the ‘uh’ in ugly – but the Hungarian ‘s’ is actually a ‘sh’ sound.
All of this that means Budapest is buhd-oh-pesht.
The ‘sz’ sound, in szia
At least saying ‘hello’ in Hungarian is simple: szia is an easy greeting, though it’s sziasztok when speaking to more than one person. And if you’re visiting Budapest, then you’re probably also visiting the most famous of the ruin bars, Szimpla. It’s only right that when explaining the uniquely derelict aesthetic of the multi-room pub to friends back home, you at least get that pronunciation right.
Again, this is a single letter of the alphabet, with its closest sound being, well, the ‘ess’ of ‘sausage’. So, ‘snip’ in Hungarian phonetics is actually ‘sznip’.
If you want to perfect this sound, though, then there should be an ever so slight ‘zzz’ buzzing after that initial ‘s’. It’s more prominent in some words over others, but it’s good to know if you want to master the language.
The ‘a’ sound, in… well, a
This one might likely catch a lot of native English speakers. It’s a soft sound, and actually the same sort of sound from the ‘o’ in ‘orange’. That’s probably confusing enough, considering we’re used to either ‘ay’ or ‘ah’ when seeing this particular letter.
But think on this: the word ‘a’ is actually the equivalent of saying ‘the’ in Hungarian. So, not only is it very common, but since it appears by itself in a sentence, it can be tricky to switch your English-speaking side of the brain off when reading it in front of other words.
The ‘ö’ sound, in köszönöm
‘Thank you’ ought to be an important word to remember when visiting a new country, right? Well, good luck with this one: köszönöm, meaning ‘I thank you’, is not too easy to pick up straight away. The umlaut is not unlike the same Germanic sound, and since there is no equivalent sound in English, it can get a little ridiculous trying to explain it.
But we’ll try.
The best representation is with the letters ‘oe’, almost as though you’re saying ‘eurgh’ in disgust at something. Think of that sound but remove the ‘r’ and that should, hopefully, be the sound you want to achieve.
Remember that sound because that makes köszönöm end up as koe-ssoe-noem – three of those damn sounds. Of course, you can just use köszi, a shorter, more colloquial form. But be careful, as kosz – which is pronounced koh-ss – means ‘dirt’. It’s not a kind response to the friendly waitress who just served you.
The ‘i’ sound, in Andi, Sári, Zoli and so on
A sweet little factoid about the Hungarian language is that almost every time a word is shortened, it’s given an ‘i’ on the end to indicate as such. Part of this is because words in Hungarian can have entirely different meanings from a single, subtle phoneme difference.
But also part of this is because it makes the word cute.
As a sound, you’ll be tempted to go with ‘eye’, but in fact, it’s actually an ‘ee’ as found in ‘see’. Names are almost exclusively shortened with this effect to make them cuter equivalents. For example, Andrea becomes Andi; Sára becomes Sári; Zoltán becomes Zoli.
But it works for anything, really. For instance, sütemény (cupcake) becomes süti; pulóver (jumper) becomes pulcsi; cigaretta (cigarette) becomes cigi and so on.
There’s one last thing about this little ‘i’, too; it’s also used to denote the origin of something. Wine from Tokáj is Tokáji; sausage from Szeged is Szegedi; a person from Debrecen is Debreceni. It’s an important sound in Hungarian, so it’s one to remember.
The ‘c’ sound, in utca
Lastly, there’s this sound, which will likely always give away even well-trained foreigners to a Hungarian. And if you’re trying to give directions to the taxi driver from the airport, it’s something you’ll struggle with almost immediately, since utca is ‘street’.
It’s a tricky one to put down into words, a subtle ‘t’ in front of a soft ‘c’. Think of the ‘ts’ sound in ‘hats’, and you’re on the right track.
But it’s important to never forget that ‘t’ there because it’ll be something you’ll overlook time and again when it’s used in longer words, falling back on that English ‘sea’ sound when your mind isn’t concentrating.