Hungarian/Lesson 1

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Lessons: 1234Vocab


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Welcome to your first Hungarian lesson! Please post any questions on the discussion page. First we're going to learn how to read Hungarian (and all of its funny characters!) and then we're going to practice reading words. Finally, we will introduce a very important concept in the Hungarian language: vowel harmony.

By the end of this lesson you will learn that Budapest is really pronounced as "Budhaphesht" (rough approximation).

About this sound listen

Sounds part 1

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The following letters and combinations of letters are considered to be a single sound each by the speakers of the Hungarian language. Compound letters aren't hard to pronounce after you have learnt the pronunciation of single letters, since most of them (with the exception of "ly") sound like the two (or three) sounds pronounced quickly after each other.

Vowels with the acute accent are "long", and are generally held 1.5 to 2 times as long as their unaccented counterparts.

Consonants can be made long by doubling them: étterem (restaurant), szálloda (hotel). Consonants that consist of multiple letters ("gy", "ly", etc.) double their first letter ("ggy", "lly", etc.). Don't exaggerate the long sounds. As a reference think of English phrases like "long gun" or "clown nose" where the common letter simulates a long consonant.

The letters and sounds of Hungarian

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You may want a printed copy of this chart. Always be mindful of the difference between sz and s. It is very easy to accidentally revert to English and learn words with the wrong pronunciation.

Writing Listen IPA Rough pronunciation guide Writing Listen IPA Rough pronunciation guide
a About this sound listen [ɒ] Like the "a" in "aw" or for american/ canadian speakers " uh" ny eny About this sound listen [ɲ] Like the Spanish ñ, Italian gn in "lasagna," or as in the English word "onion"
á About this sound listen [aː] a, as in "father," but long o About this sound listen [o] Same as the "o" in "row," but pure and without the "w" sound
b About this sound listen [b] Same as English ó About this sound listen [oː] Like "o," but longer.
c About this sound listen [ts̪] ts, as in "cats" ö About this sound listen [ø] Pronounced like in German "Österreich";
cs csé About this sound listen [ʧ] ch, as in "check" ő About this sound listen [øː] Same as ö, but longer.
d About this sound listen [] Same as English p About this sound listen [p] Same as English
dz dzé About this sound listen [dz̪] q ku About this sound listen Only used in foreign words
dzs dzsé About this sound listen [ʤ] "j" as in "jungle". r er About this sound listen [] Rolled more than English, not as aggressively as the Spanish rr though
e About this sound listen [ɛ] Like the "e" in "terrible" or e in well s es About this sound listen [ʃ] sh, like in "shook"
é About this sound listen [eː] Like the "a" in "cake," but longer. sz esz About this sound listen [] s, like in "sound"
f ef About this sound listen [f] Same as English t About this sound listen [] Same as English
g About this sound listen [g] Like the "g" in "gold." ty tyé About this sound listen [c] like tune or american ch but palatalized ( say t with tongue pointing up also)
gy gyé About this sound listen [ɟ] dy u About this sound listen [u] Like the English "oo" sound, but shorter and pure or " oo " in good
h About this sound listen [h] Same as English. ú About this sound listen [uː] Same as the letter "u" but longer
i About this sound listen [i] ee, as in "bee" ü About this sound listen [y] Pronounced as in German "Übermensch"
í About this sound listen [iː] Like "i," but longer. ű About this sound listen [yː] Same as the letter "ü" but longer
j About this sound listen [j] y sound, as in "yes" v About this sound listen [v] Same as English
k About this sound listen [k] Same as English, always hard w dupla vé About this sound listen Only used in foreign words. Pronounced like "v."
l el About this sound listen [] Same as English x iksz About this sound listen Only used in foreign words. Pronounced as an English "ks". The sequence "gz" is written "gz" instead of "x". The name of the letter is pronounced not like English "eks" but like English "eeks"
ly ely About this sound listen [j] Same as "j" y ipszilon About this sound listen Only used with other letters to make digraphs such as ly, gy. In old family names it is pronounced like "i".
m em About this sound listen [m] Same as English z About this sound listen [] Same as English.
n en About this sound listen [] Same as English zs zsé About this sound listen [ʒ] Pronounced as in "genre" or the French "j" (as in "Jacques")

The letter y is called ipszilon.
The letter ly is called elipszilon.
The letter w is called duplavé or vevé.
All the other letters are called as they are pronounced.

Note the differences:
só About this sound listen = salt but szó About this sound listen = word
fogas About this sound listen = rack but fogás About this sound listen = course, dish
That is why it is so important not to confuse letters with English counterparts, or with other letters.

Alphabetical order

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For alphabetic ordering, the consonant digraphs (2-letter consonants) and the vowels with umlauts are considered to be separate letters:

  • cukor before csak
  • ott before öccse
  • utca before üdítő

However, the long and short vowels are treated together:

  • új before ujj
  • éhes before ehhez
  • ebéd before édes

If nothing else differs between the words, the short vowel is before the long vowel:

  • öt before őt

Grammar /functions

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Addressing someone

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Before you begin learning some words, it is good to know that Hungarian—unlike English, but like German or Spanish—tends to have two different forms of address, which basically means that they can use two words for the same person, i.e. you can say "te" but you can also say "ön" or "maga," the latter two being more polite. Most of the time children address adults with the latter form (they used to do it with their parents too, but not anymore), and also two adults address each other with that form, if they don't know each other. So the other form ("te") is used when talking to people you know well, and usually siblings too, etc. It's called "tegezés," and the other form "magázás." "Magázás" can also express honour and adoration to someone. (There are other forms of polite address as well such as "ön" and "kend," the latter used mostly by country folk and rapidly becoming obsolete.)

Also, if you get to know somebody, whoever is older can offer to use "tegeződés," and instead of addressing each other with "ön" or "maga." you can use "te." But make sure that it is acceptable to the other party before this happens as "letegezés" (addressing him with "te") could be taken as offensive.

Polite forms are very important in Hungarian and addressing someone with the inappropriate level of politeness can cause complications. This includes addressing someone who is a close friend with a polite form such as "maga" instead of the familiar form. Doing this usually signifies displeasure.

Greeting and saying goodbye

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Now that we have some idea how to read Hungarian, let's practice by learning basic words!

Good morning - Jó reggelt (kívánok) About this sound listen (until 8-9AM)

The entire phrase literally means "I wish you a good morning," and it is more polite to say "kívánok" than leave it out, which is akin to slang. For example, one would not leave out "kívánok" when addressing an old lady. This applies to all other greetings using "kívánok."

Good day - Jó napot (kívánok) About this sound listen (from 8-9 AM to 5-6 PM) (until it gets dark)

Good evening - Jó estét (kívánok) About this sound listen (after 6 PM)

Good night - Jó éjszakát (kívánok) About this sound listen (if you go to bed)

Note that Hungarians do not say "Good afternoon," but simply Good day, as above: Jó napot (kívánok)

In addition, there are separate greetings depending on the person.

Csókolom (About this sound listen ), which literally means "I kiss (it)" (Hungarians used to kiss ladies' hands when they met, and this "Csókolom" is a shorter form of "Kezét/kezit csókolom" = "I kiss your hand"), is used by children to adults (traditionally to their parents, but nowadays most parents do not mind if their children use "te" for them), and by men to women. This is the greeting to use when speaking to a 80-year-old grandmother. Sometimes it is unclear whether or not to use this greeting, or awkward, and so "Jó napot kívánok" can be used instead. Csókolom, like most Hungarian greetings, means both "hello" and "goodbye."

Viszontlátásra About this sound listen is used as a formal farewell, and literally means "for seeing again," the same as the German "Auf Wiedersehen." This is the only word that exclusively means "goodbye." Say this when leaving a shop, airplane, etc. It can be shortened to viszlát or viszlátásra, but these are considered slang, more informal, and should not be used with older people, though they may be used with younger people. (Though for some people viszlát is too formal. )

Szia is a frequently used greeting that means both "hi" and "bye," depending on the context. It is informal, so do not use it when speaking to an elderly person (unless part of your family) or someone you do not know. Similarly, the word helló is often used by younger people. Though, like "szia," it is sometimes used to mean both "hello" and "goodbye," the most common use of the two words are (confusingly) szia for hello, and helló for goodbye.

Szervusz and Szevasz are other informal, slightly old-fashioned greetings to express "hello" and "goodbye."

Sziasztok, Szervusztok and Szevasztok are the plural forms of these greetings, which can be used, if we meet two or more people.

Cultural note:

Hungarian close friends and relatives greet each other by kiss on each cheek provided that at least one of them is a woman. Hungarian males greet each other with a handshake, which should be done like this: you stay one step distant from each other, elbows slightly bent and you give a firm, but not too strong handgrab. You do not actually shake it, just grab. The grab does not take longer the one or two seconds.

Tip: It is very impolite not to accept one's hand, but there is a way to avoid it, if you do not feel like shaking hands (e.g. it is a hot summer day and one's palm may be sweaty): You keep two or more meters distance. If the partner still wants to shake hands you can say sentences like: Elnézést, most mostam kezet! (I am sorry, I have just washed my hands - meaning that they are probably wet.), or Elnézést, kicsit piszkos a kezem, épp autót szereltem. (I am sorry, my hands are dirty for I have just repaired my car.) Be prepared, that the answer still sounds: Nem baj. (Never mind that.) And soon you find yourself shaking hands.

Just a remark in connection with this is that Hungarians shake hands more often than people from northern Europe, especially Englishmen. You shake hands with a Hungarian friend, partner or relative when you meet, when you depart and when you meet again, on the same day.

The distance during an interaction is also a bit closer than is normal in north Europe. Communication distance with friends is one and a half or two steps, with business partners a maximum of two meters.

If you come for an informal visit to Hungary, be prepared for backslaps, handshakes, hugs, and other kinds of physical contact from your friends.


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Köszönöm, which means "thank you", will always come in handy. The equivalent of "thank you very much" is köszönöm szépen, which is literally "I thank nicely". This word can be used with any age, but its shortened versions, köszi, and köszi szépen, are informal and should not be used with older people.

The response is szívesen, which literally means "gladly" and is the equivalent of "you're welcome". "You're very welcome" is nagyon szívesen.

Excusing, apologising

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Elnézést kérek, Elnézését kérem or simply Elnézést (all of these means "I beg your pardon","Sorry."), Bocsásson meg ("Excuse me!"), Bocsánat ("Pardon" or "Excuse me!") or Ne haragudj! (literally "Don't be cross with me", but used as the equivalent of "Sorry!") are the formal forms of apologising, usually naming the reason of the apology afterwards e.g. "Elnézést kérek, de most el kell mennem." ("I beg your pardon but now I have to leave."). The informal form of apologising is bocs, bocsi or bocsesz, apparently derived from "bocsánat".

The response is Semmi gond/probléma, Nem gond/probléma (both "No problem"), Nem számít ("Doesn't matter) or Nyugodtan ("As you please").

Tessék - a multi-purpose word

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The word Tessék is frequently used. Depending on the context, it can take different meanings. It is often used when handing something to someone else, offering a seat, or placing food on another's plate, for example. In this usage, it translates as "Here you go." It can also mean "For you," and also "Go ahead," and when answering the phone, it means "Yes?" or "Pardon?" (asking back). It is also used informally as "excuse me, can you repeat that" if formed as a question.

Sounds part 2

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Vowel harmony

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Vowel harmony is a critical concept in Hungarian. Words are sorted into two categories: back vowel and front vowel, corresponding to the area of the mouth responsible for creating each sound. Front vowels are further subdivided to rounded and unrounded categories, based on mouth shape.

Back vowels a, á, o, ó, u, ú
Front rounded vowels ö, ő, ü, ű
Front unrounded vowels e, é, i, í

A helpful tip for memorizing vowel harmony is that all the back vowels are used in the word "auto" (minus the accented long vowels, of course).

Why is it so important to remember this?

It is needed when you attach suffixes to words. Hungarian is an agglutinative language, which means that many things are expressed using suffixes. These suffixes can have one, two or three forms, and you have to choose based on the rule called vowel harmony. One-form suffixes are good things, as they are the same for all words. Unfortunately, they are rare. A more representative example is the pair of suffixes -ban/-ben, corresponding to the English preposition "in". Here, the vowels of a word determine which one of the pair we use: if a word has only front vowels (front word, like kert), the ending will be the one with front vowels (kertben). If the word has only back vowels (back word, like ház), we use the back vowel ending (házban). Quite simple.

But what if there are both kind of vowels in one word (mixed word)? Then the last vowel is examined. If it is a back vowel or a front rounded vowel, then it wins, and the whole word is taken to be like the last vowel. For example parfüm has the front rounded vowel ü as last, so it becomes parfümben, terror has the back vowel o as last, so it becomes terrorban.

If the last is a front unrounded vowel (e, é, i or í), then things become more intricate. In most cases these front unrounded vowels are transparent in mixed words. This makes taxi become taxiban since the i is transparent and a is back. But with martini, both martiniban (based on the a) and martiniben (based on the i) are correct, since the two i's together are not so transparent anymore so they may or may not win.

As said before, some suffixes have three forms like -hoz/-hez/-höz (meaning the English preposition "to"). Here, we have separate endings for back (-hoz), front unrounded (-hez), and front rounded vowels (-höz).

house ház to the house a házhoz
child gyerek to the child a gyerekhez
you ön to you önhöz

Stress: Unlike in English, in Hungarian the stress is always on the first syllable of a word. Syllables: Vowels are syllable makers even if they stand alone, and they are pronounced separately, not as a diphthong: ká-vé, te-a, fi-ú-nak.

Subject pronouns

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Unlike English, Hungarian has a formal "you" and informal "you". The informal you (te) is used for friends, people your age or younger, and children. The formal you (ön, maga) is used for people older than you and people you do not know.

The subject personal pronouns in Hungarian are:

én I mi we
te you (singular, informal) ti you (plural, informal)
maga, ön you (singular, formal) maguk, önök you (plural, formal)
ő he/she ők they

Cultural note:

The two formal forms, ön and maga, originate from the custom that was in practice until around 1945, namely that family members called each other maga (even wife and husband or children, except these latter were little children) and strangers should have been addressed with ön. Only close friends of the same sex and social class, lovers and children between themselves addressed each other with te. Nowadays this custom is not in practice anymore, and it is quite a general phenomenon to address even strangers with te form, except you want to show respect (e.g. with older people). In this case ön is preferred, for some people consider maga as impolite, which it is not, but until you get to know the Hungarian culture a bit closer, it is "safer" to use ön.


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Names are written (and said) in the reverse order as in English. The surname (vezetéknév) comes first and then the givenname (keresztnév). Hungarian names are reversed when used in an English context. English names aren't reversed when used in Hungarian context. A lot of Hungarian names have English equivalent. (These names came mostly from western influence in the middle ages.)

Widespread Hungarian surnames: Kovács (Smith), Szabó, Szűcs, Varga, Takács. Names that don't have English equivalents: Levente, Piroska.

Hungarian male givennames
Official form nickname English equivalent
László Laci Leslie
István Pista Stephen
András Bandi Andrew
József Józsi Joseph
Dávid - David
Tamás Tomi Thomas
János Jancsi John
György Gyuri George
Miklós Miki Nicholas

Hungarian female givennames
Official form nickname English equivalent
Anna Panni Ann
Mária Mari Mary
Judit Jutka Judith
Annamária Annamari Annamaria
Piroska Piri (literally: Little Red Riding Hood; or rather little red)
Edit Edi Edith
Virág Flora (literally: flower)
Flóra Flora (literally: flower)
Katalin Kata, Kati Cathrine

Few examples: Kovács László, Szabó István, Takács Anna

Word order

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In Hungarian there's no fixed word order like in English or German. Words can be arranged in almost every possible order, but the emphasis (so the intention of the sentence) will differ. (The emphasis is usually at the beginning of a sentence, but it's not always trivial for non-native speakers to decide where the emphasis is. For native speakers, different word orders have different meanings.) Adjectives and nouns, and other compound expressions, of course, cannot be separated.

feláll stand up
szék chair
én I
-ra/-re on

Felálltam a székre. = I stood up on the chair.
A székre én álltam fel. - ( There's strong emphasis on "én" and there's a weak one on "A székre". Usually "én" and other personal pronouns are omitted. We only put it, if it's important to emphasize. )
A székre álltam fel. = I stood up on the chair (and not on something else, like the table).
Felálltam én a székre.

As a rule of thumb, we can say that usually the emphasis is on the beginning of the sentence.

In a long sentence the verb or the subject almost never occurs at the end of the sentence. It's therefore hard to translate synchronously from a language such as German to Hungarian, because in German the verb follows the subordinate clauses.

Lessons: 1234Vocab