My favorite pastime in Hungary was the challenge of pronouncing words. Fagylalt, gyógyfürdő, diófélék, könyv, Keszthely, üllői, Pozony, biztosáras. Reading words aloud, often sounding them out several times in a row, was a satisfying way to get a acquainted with a language that has been described as one comprising “essentially all counterintuitive consonant pairings.”
Hungarian has a 40-letter alphabet and all words have a stress on the first syllable. I remember about 12 years ago, when I was introduced to a friend of a friend, visiting Maryland from Hungary, Dénes. For the life of me, I couldn’t pronounce his name correctly, which was a great source of embarrassment. It’s as if there were a bug in my makeup as a native speaker of English, a wonderful mutt of a language, with a rather complex set of rules to guide the correct pronunciation of words (excellent overview of what I mean by that here), that made it impossible for me to do something so simple as to put the stress on the first syllable. I was guided repeatedly to say DAY-nesh, but it always came out day-NESH.
Particularly fascinating about Hungarian are not necessarily the “counterintuitive consonant pairings,” but rather the alphabet’s 14 vowels (a, á, e, é, i, í, o, ó, ö, ő, u, ú, ü, ű). In Spanish, two diacritic marks, the acute accent (´) and umlaut (¨), appear over vowels. The acute accent mainly serves as a guide to pronunciation (indicating which syllable should be stressed) and a way to differentiate between different parts of speech. (The umlaut only serves to guide pronunciation.) However, in Hungarian each vowel is a separate letter and as such has the same authority as any other letter: to change the meaning of a word.
Before going to Hungary I created some flashcards in an effort to lay a thin foundation of a few potentially useful words and phrases. A few phrases were straightforward (nagyon finom volt [that was delicious]; töltött paprika kérek [I'd like the stuffed pepper]) and not such tongue-twisters. And there were phrases I thought would be pretty important to remember, for example, “nice to meet you,” which my phrasebook indicated was örülök hogy megismertelek. Thankfully, when I was in Hungary I did have native speakers to tell me which phrases were correct, but not normal to say in conversation.
When studying Hungarian grammar before my trip, I read about long and short consonants, and about how szeretem means “I love him/her” but szerettem means “I loved him/her”; t and tt represent short and long consonants, respectively, and it’s important to pronounce them correctly, and in this case it’s important for the tense of the verb. Although there are these types of nuances in every language, I was still impressed. So, it would only be natural for me to find out, upon showing my flashcard reading örülök hogy megismertelek, that pronunciation is crucial, as örülök and őrülök are two totally different words, thanks to ö and ő being different letters. They are both eu sounds, one short (ö) and one long (ő), but thankfully I didn’t find out the hard way that örülök means “I’m glad” and őrülök means “I’m mad” (i.e., crazy).