Let us get this straight: The Hungarian alphabet is EASY!
It’s way easier than the English one and also a lot more useful. You read this right. Yes, it has 40 letters (to be perfectly correct it’s 44, but we don’t really ever use “Q”, “W”, “X” and “Y”. Only in foreign words. You’ll know how to spell those.) and yes, Hungarian words look weird at first. But while the English alphabet prides itself on having only 26 letters, learning these won’t actually get you anywhere.
Why? Because English is not a phonetic language. English words are not pronounced according to the alphabet. Take the word “juice” as an example. Having learned the English alphabet and having no other knowledge of the language, you would probably pronounce “juice” as something, like “j-you-i-cee”, since you’ve learned that a u is a “you”, an i is an “I” and an e is an “ee”. 26 letters just aren’t enough to express the complex pronunciation system of the English language and even after years of studying and speaking the language fluently you probably find yourself guessing how to say words like “gouge” or “gauge” correctly and asking why “heart”, “beard” and “heard” are each pronounced differently.
As you might’ve guessed by now, the case is different with Hungarian. Its 40 letters are not a curse but a blessing and having learned these letters will enable you to pronounce each and every single Hungarian word. Correctly. Without second-guessing. These 40 letters are just the right amount of letters you need to actually represent a pronunciation system. You will need about an hour to remember all of them, which is not that much for what you get in return.
So bear with us and let’s master this weird-looking maze of letters and apostrophes together – here are our 4 easy steps to learning the Hungarian alphabet.
1. Start with the weirdest Stuff of the Hungarian Alphabet
You have all our sympathy if a word like “karácsony” freaks you out (don’t worry, it only means Christmas though…). A c behind an s is weird and so is the y behind the n. Well, these are actually the so-called ”digraphs”, but since I’m not a linguist, I just call them double-letters. The idea behind them is to express one single sound with two or three letters from the latin alphabet. This means, that c+s are actually one letter with only one possible sound. So are n+y. There are eight such double-letters and one triple-letter in the Hungarian alphabet:
That’s it. Learn these letter-combos and remember that they always, always represent the same single sound. Congratulations. You’ve conquered the hardest part of the Hungarian alphabet. “Karácsony” shouldn’t really freak you out anymore. Well, except for maybe the “á”, which takes us to the second step of…
2. Get acquainted with the Apostrophes
These weirdo little strokes are admittedly unfamiliar for the English speaker, but they are totally harmless. Their one single function is to lengthen the vocals in a word. As an example, if you see an “í”, it just means that you have to pronounce it longer, than the “i”. The only exceptions are “á” and “é” – they are spelled a bit differently, than their apostrophless cousins:
For all the rest (í, ó, ő, ű) – just hold the vocal for a bit longer and you’re good (hear pronunciation below).
By now, you have conquered everything that freaks people out about the Hungarian alphabet. All that’s left is walk in the park.
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3. Learn the Rest of the Hungarian Alphabet
Now let’s go through the rest one by one and you will see that most of what’s left is similar to what you know from English. I’ve marked those letters which are fundamentally different from what you’d expect with a.
Just like in English, we simply double long consonants in writing. If the consonant you want to double is a digraph or the trigraph, you just double the first letter of it.Let’s see a few examples for that:
And that’s it. Now you can read “karácsony”. And “csúnya”. And even “zsibbasztó”. Or ”dzsúsz” (yes – we made this one phonetic, too.) And everything else.
4. Practice the Hungarian Alphabet!
Now let’s see how far we’ve got you. Try to spell the following 15 words out loud and only listen to the pronunciation for reviewing purposes.
Congratulations! You have now mastered the Hungarian alphabet. But don’t forget though, that the real practice is to just walk through the streets of Budapest and decipher all signs you encounter. Try to read the street names, the names of the cafés and restaurants and see what’s written on the stores.
Bonus: Our Cheat Sheet for the Hungarian Alphabet
Should you get stuck somewhere, fear not: Here is our cheat sheet including all those letters and their pronunciation that you could possibly forget. We’ve created it for you with love and lots of warm colours. You can save it to your phone or print it out and take it anywhere you want. In Budapest and beyond.
And one last tip at the end:
If you are desperately looking for the Hungarian characters on your non-Hungarian keyboard, you can use this page instead, to type the missing Hungarian characters.
Have fun and don’t forget to tell us about your favourite new word that you can now spell in the comments!
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