Hungarian pronunciation has straightforward rules, but it can be very different from other European languages.
Hungarian ortography is strongly phonemic, meaning that each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a single sound (phoneme), and this sound is to be pronunced independently of the context of the given letter. This means if one learns how to pronunce the letters, one can pronunce Hungarian words by simply pronuncing the letters after each other. Another important property is that the main stress is always on the first syllable (eg. hotel is /'hotel/ and not /ho'tel/).
The standard dialect of the spoken language contains 27 consonants and 14 vowels, each of which has its own symbol in the old Hungarian alphabet. However, the old Latin alphabet contains only 24 letters, so it wasn't enough to describe the Hungarian language, and even the modern Latin alphabet with its 26 letters is too small. Therefore, when Hungary switched to the Latin alphabet several additions were made: vowels with three different types of accents, and some double consonats, also known as digraphs were added. Especially the latter can confuse foreign speakers.
Most of the standard consonants are similar to their English counterparts with three notable exceptions:
- c - /ts/ similar to ts in English. Note that it is never pronounced as k /k/, except in a few foreign names or loanwords (eg. Coulomb /'kulomb/).
- s - /ʃ/ pronunced similar to sh in English.
- r - /r/ but tapped (if single) or trilled (if double) similar to Spanish.
In Hungarian there are 8 digraphs and 1 trigraph. Four digraphs are composed of a consonant followed by y. In these consonants y is used to "soften" the sound:
- gy - /ɟ/, similar to the first sound of duke in British English. Actually it is closer to D than G so maybe the correct letter would have been dy.
- ly - used to be pronunced as /ʎ/, but now it is pronunced exactly like j /j/, making it maybe the most common spelling mistakes in Hungarian (hajó - ship, but folyó - river)
- ny - /ɲ/, similar to ñ in Spanish.
- ty - /c/, similar to the second sound of stew in British English.
There are three digraphs with s and z:
- cs - /tʃ/, unless it's a composed word, where the first word ends with a c and the next starts with s. Note that c is never pronunced as k.
- sz - /s/, just like s in English.
- zs - /ʒ/, similar to the first sound of the word genre.
There is a digraph and a trigraph based on letter d:
- dz - /dz/
- dzs - /dʒ/, similar to the first sound of the English word jam.
In composite words, or words with endings (Hungarian is an agglutinative language) some consonants may look like digraphs. In this case some grammatical knowledge is needed for the correct pronunciation. A good example is the word egészség, meaning health. In this case the word egész means whole, and -ség means "the state of (being)". Thus the word is pronunced /'ɛgeːsʃeːg/ (sz-s) and not /'ɛgeːʃʒeːg/ (s-zs) or /'ɛgeːʃzʃeːg/ (s-z-s).
In the Hungarian language there are long consonants, that is consonants pronunced longer. In writing they are denoted by doubling the symbol, or if it's a digraph then by doubling the first character. For example: Anna /'ɒnːɒ/ (Anne), or hosszú /'hosːuː/ (long).
Not used Latin letters
The following letters are only appear in loanwords and historical names:
- q - Usually pronunced as k /k/, often appears as Qu, in this case often pronounced as kv /kv/.
- x - Usually pronunced as k followed by sz /ks/, even if it's the first letter of the word: Xenon /'ksɛnon/ and not /ˈzɛnɒn/.
- y - Usually pronunced as i /i/ , sometimes as j /j/ if it stands alone, but it is not to be confsed with y used in digraphs (see above).
- w - Usually pronunced as v /v/. The sound represented by English w /w/ is not present in Hungarian, therefore many Hungarians pronounce v instead of w when speaking English.
There are certain consonant combinations that are difficult to pronunce, in these cases an assimilation may occur. This is similar to trying to pronunce the word handbag very fast, although it works differently in Hungarian and English. However, not using these assimilations, but trying to pronunce the consonants separately usually gives a result that is close enough.
The vowels pronunced differently than their English counterparts. Futhermore, there are some rounded vowels denoted by umlauts, and long vowels denoted by accent. Special to the Hungarian language are two rounded long vowels denoted by so-called Hungarian accents. It can be a bit confusing that á is not a long a and é is not a long e.
|á /aː/||some dialects have a short á|
|e /ɛ/||some dialects have a long e|
|é /eː/||some dialects have a short é|
|i /i/||í /iː/|
|o /o/||ó /oː/||ö /ø/||ő /øː/|
|u /u/||ú /uː/||ü /y/||ű /yː/|
Diphtongs are not common in the Hungarian language. Compare the pronunciation of EU and Europe in English, German and Hungarian: /ˈiːˈjuː/ - /ˈjuɹəp/ (English), /ˈeːˈuː/ - /ɔɪ̯ˈʀoːpa/ (German) and /ˈɛu/ - /ˈɛuroːpɒ/ (Hungarian).