Printer Friendly

Hungarian vocal music, with an introduction to Hungarian lyric diction, Part 2.

A brief sketch of opera, operetta, song, and choral literature in the Hungarian language was undertaken in Part 1 of this article (JOS 66, no. 3, January/February 2010). Rather than attempting to describe this vast repertory in any detail, the article aspired merely to raise awareness of the existence of this varied body of music literature, and to serve as a reference tool for further exploration. Part 2 provides an overview of the essential elements of pronunciation of the Hungarian language, as a point of departure toward the goal of acquiring intelligible and sensitive lyric diction skills.


Phonetic Overview

The Hungarian language is a largely phonetic language, with very little allophonic variation within phonemes. There are 24 consonant phonemes, 14 vowel phonemes, and one glide phoneme, and a strict one-to-one correspondence between phonemes and spelling, which allows for easy transcription into iPA. For this reason, this article uses phonemic notation (//) when presenting iPA transcriptions.

Digraphs, Trigraphs, and Diacritics

The Hungarian language employs 8 digraphs, one trigraph, and 9 letters with diacritic marks. These are considered separate letters from their component glyphs, and the digraphs and trigraphs are and should be considered single letter-consonants for the purpose of linguistic analysis. These letters are <cs>, <dz>, <dzs>, <gy>, <ly>, <ny>, <sz>, <ty>, <zs>.

Syllabification and Stress

There are two rules of syllabification in Hungarian: 1) the nucleus of each syllable is composed of one and only one vowel; and 2) consonants favor the onset position. in practical application, this means the following:

* All syllabic nuclei are vowels, and there are no other syllabic sounds (such as the syllabic <er> in the English word bitter).

* There are effectively no diphthongs in Hungarian, only hiatuses. Any consecutive vowels form nuclei of separate syllables.

* An intervocalic consonant forms the onset of the following syllable.

* A cluster of two consonants is split (recall that this does not apply to digraphs, which are considered single letters), with the first forming the coda of the previous syllable and the second forming the onset of the following syllable.

* A cluster of three or more consonants is split favoring the onset. The first consonant forms the coda of the previous syllable and the rest form the onset of the following syllable.

Syllabic stress always falls on the first syllable of a word. Compound words (words of many syllables broken up by a hyphen) have only a single stress at the beginning of the unit. All other stresses are considered equally unstressed with no secondary stress. Thus the following examples are divided and stressed as follows:

* Kerem szepen 'Ke-rem 'sze-pen

* Koszonom 'Ko-szo-nom (<sz> is a digraph, and is a single consonant)

* Veszprem 'Vesz-prem (splitting of three consonants)

Sometimes in common phrases phrasal stress will be employed, which treats the common phrase as a single word for the purpose of assigning stress. Thus, the phrase "Jo napot" is pronounced /'jo: na pot/. Generally, this is reflected by the composer in the metric rhythm of the text setting and is self-evident by this metric rhythm.


The consonantal phonemic inventory is presented in Table 1. Many of the sounds can be found in traditional sung languages (Italian, German, French, English), and, unless otherwise noted, a consonant is to be pronounced as in English.

* /n/ is as <gn> in Italian without gemination.

* Plosive consonants are to be articulated without aspiration.

* /t/ and /d/ are to be articulated dentally.

* Intervocalic /h/ is voiced [h], and postvocalic <h> is often deleted altogether, such as in <meh> = /me:/

* Word-final &lt;b&gt;, <d>, and <g> are not devoiced as in German, but, rather, maintain their voiced forms. hold = /hold/, not /holt/

At word junctures however, unvoiced consonants are voiced before initial voiced consonants, and vice versa. Thus,

nep + dal = nepdal /'ne:b dal/

zseb + kendo = szebkendo /'zep ken do:/

Special care must be taken for English-speakers with <s> and <sz>. Their pronunciations are contrary to English instincts. <s> is pronounced /[??]/, while <sz> is pronounced /s/. The spelling <sz> (/s/) is not to be confused with <zs> (/z/).

The orthographic to phonetic correspondence of consonants is presented in Table 2. All consonantal sounds have a one-to-one correspondence with their letter-consonants. Therefore, there are virtually no exceptions to the rules presented in the table. The Hungarian "extended alphabet," resulting from the proliferation of foreign words, clouds this simple correspondence, but is not discussed here.


Orthographically doubled consonants are geminated (lengthened) in Hungarian. Digraphs and the trigraph can be geminated by doubling the first glyph in the letter. Thus:

* Mennem kell. /'men nem 'kell/

* Mennyibe kerul? /'men nibe'ke ryl/

Note that, unlike in Italian or German, this gemination does not affect surrounding vowel length (see vowels). On occasion, gemination can occur with the letterconsonants <dz> and <dzs>, though this is not necessary, and subject to individual discretion. Gemination occurs only with intervocalic double consonants. When double consonants are components of clusters, gemination does not occur. Thus,

tollszar /'tol sa:r/

hanggal /'han gal/

Some consonant clusters however behave in specific ways that do involve gemination, as follows:
<t>, <d> and <gy>      + <sz>   = /tts/   egyszera
  /'et tse ry:/
<t>, <d> and <gy>      + <s>    = /ttjv   szabadsag
  /'sa bat t[??]a:g/
<gy> +                 <z>      = /ddz/   jegyzo
  /'jed dz0:/
<d> and <gy>           + <j>    = /ddj/   adja
  /'ad dja/
<t> and <ty>           + <j>    = /ttj/   batyja
  /'ba t tja/
<n> and <ny>           + <j>    = /nnj/   anyja
  /'an nja/
<l> and <ly>           + <j>    = /jj/    folyjon
  /'foj jon/

Note that <gy> (/j/) and <ty> (/c/) assimilate to /dd/ or /tt/ in this environment.


The Hungarian vowels are summarized in Table 3. (Diacritics are seen here as acute accents, although they can also be found as vertical diacritics above the vowel.) All vowels should be sounded purely with no vowel reduction to schwa or to a glide. Diphthongs do exist in Hungarian but they are always notated orthographically with glides (<j> or <ly>) and not as separate vowels.

Other orthographic vowel clusters are not diphthongs, but hiatuses. For example, "fiaiei" ("those of his sons") is pronounced /'fi a i e: i/, and is a five-syllable word.

Vowels can be either long or short. However, unlike in languages such as Italian, the length of the vowel is completely independent of surrounding consonant length in Hungarian. Long vowels are separate phonemes from their short counterparts and must be sounded precisely. However, length does not necessarily imply stress. In Hungarian, as in Czech, vowel length and stress function independent of one another. Unlike the more common languages of vocal literature, stressed syllables do not necessarily contain long vowels and long vowels do not necessarily need to be in stressed syllables. The names Bartok and Kodaly are often mispronounced in this regard. Stress should be on the first syllable, but the vowel of the second syllable should be roughly twice the length of that in the stressed syllable:

/'bar to:k/ /'ko da:j/

Because of singers' acquaintance with Italian, French, and German, there will be a strong tendency to pronounce Hungarian short <a> too forward and bright. It is closest to the /d/ of British hot, with similar lip rounding, although the /a/ tends to prevail in transcriptions. Being a short vowel, it does not have the length of English half, and is more rounded. The long Hungarian /a:/ is more centralized, and closer to the familiar /a/ of Italian and German. The <a>s in the two composers' names above are not the same sound.

Morphological Derivation and Vowel Harmony

Hungarian has a form of morphological derivation that is quite different from the English language. In Hungarian, there exist prefixes and suffixes to establish prepositions, possessives, verb conjugations, and modifications of nouns and adjectives. The prepositional suffixes are those that require the most attention for native English speakers since there exists no equivalent in English. Most suffixes have two forms: low and high. These refer not to the dialect of the language spoken, but rather to their place within vowel harmony in Hungarian.

Vowel harmony is an ever present concept in Hungarian, though markedly different from that expressed in the languages of the Western musical canon, such as French. In French, realization of a written letter-vowel can vary depending on environment because of assimilation, but in Hungarian, all vowel changes are indicated orthographically. There are two groups of vowels: high and low. These groups roughly correspond to "forward" and "back," respectively, and are presented in Table 4 (note: "high" and "low" though standard terms in this sense, are not used in a manner that is consistent with the usual linguistic meanings of the words). The rule of vowel harmony in Hungarian is as follows: all vowels in suffixes will agree with the vowels of their respective roots. This means that root words with only high vowels will have affixes in their high forms, and root words with only low vowels will have affixes in their low forms. When there are both high and low vowels in the root, the low vowels take precedence and the low form of the affix is used. There are very rare exceptions to this rule, which are normally foreign imports (such as proper nouns).

Examples (numbers in multiples of 10--the -van/ven suffix):

* Negy (four) [right arrow] negyven (forty)

* Ot (five) [right arrow] otven (fifty)

* Hat (six) [right arrow] hatvan (sixty)

* Het (seven) [right arrow] hetven (seventy)

* Nyolc (eight) [right arrow] nyolcvan (eighty)

* Kilenc (nine) [right arrow] kilencven (ninety)

Vowels, Consonants, and Technical Implications

When setting Hungarian texts, composers need to take into consideration the relatively marked characteristics of the language, and how these conditions translate into the singing voice. From a singing perspective, some of the peculiarities of the language serve as advantages and some as disadvantages. The primary advantages pertain to the vowels. Since there is no schwa in Hungarian, vowel placement and modification are much simpler than in other languages that include schwas (English being the primary example, with many variations in schwa). Also, the lack of diphthongs and triphthongs in the language creates an opportunity to sing without changing vowels through a single note, and to allow simple passage through passaggi without concern for transition between different vowels on a single note. However, the language provides some difficulties with singing, primarily with the consonants. As can be seen in the Bartok transcriptions below, there are some consonants in Hungarian that are not present in traditional art song languages and several others that are familiar but in new environments. Many of these consonants and environments require special treatment for English-speakers. Still others are familiar sounds spelled in unfamiliar ways. Some examples:

* Word-final and -initial <ny> (/n/)--The sound is generally familiar to singers from Italian, in which it appears only intervocalically. In Hungarian, this sound can appear word-initially and word-finally. Care must be taken to avoid constriction of the oral cavity during, before, and after pronouncing this consonant.

* <gy> (/j/) and <ty> (/c/)--These sounds are the plosive consonants that have the same palatal placement as /j/. Since they are likely to be unfamiliar to most singers, care must be taken not to bring too much tension into the tongue in an effort to pronounce them correctly. They should be practiced so that their articulation is natural and unobtrusive, and so that they can be used in legato lines without any considerable impediment.

* <zs> (/[??]/)--It is important that this sound is pronounced in Hungarian as a fricative and not an affricate (/d[??]), though the latter may be the instinct, especially word-initially, in order to emphasize the connection to the breath musculature.

* No relationship exists between the length of vowels and the length of their surrounding consonants. Thus, both long and short vowels can be found adjacent to a geminate or nongeminate consonant, or to consonant clusters. This gives a particular speech rhythm to Hungarian, the discussion of which is beyond the scope of the present article.

Rhythm and Translation

Generally, compositions in Hungarian follow the natural rhythm of the language (since much of Hungarian music is either folk music or folk-based). It is for this reason that the musical rhythm of Hungarian music is unique in its irregularity. Every word in Hungarian has stress on the first syllable, regardless of its length. Consider the example (S = strong, w = weak syllable)

A kek egharang vakit felettem.

w S Sww Sw Sww

If we assume the generally accepted convention of setting strong syllables on strong beats, then there are two options for a rhythmic setting of this text. The first is to establish a regular time signature and fit in the text, an option that could work well for this particular passage, since there are very few weak syllables between strong syllables. However, consider the following contrived long word:



(Translation: "for your repeated pretending to be undesecratable")

While this is an extreme case, it illustrates an important distinction between Hungarian and more familiar sung languages. In more familiar languages, a word of this length would be broken up with secondary stress on other syllables; however, in Hungarian, all syllables after the first in every word are equally weak. Compare this example to the English gibberish word from Mary Poppins:



Polysyllabic English words create a pattern of strong and weak syllables that can be set to a relatively regular beat pattern. (This word is in fact set to a 2/4 polka rhythm in the musical.) In contrast however, it would not be true to the Hungarian language pattern to employ a regular time signature and artificially assign secondary stress to certain syllables of the first example. In this case, it is preferable to use the second solution for musical setting: adapting the rhythm of the music to that of the text, and varying the time signature as the text requires. This so-called "additive" rhythm is a technique made known to the world by Bartok for this very reason. Since each syllable must be equally weak, generally (though not always), the weak syllables are set to equal rhythm. Thus, a possible setting for the example word is 17/8 with each syllable set to an eighth note and no secondary stress. "Tuplets" are common in Hungarian music for this exact reason (for example, a five-syllable word set to a quintuplet). It is extremely difficult and contrived to assign any English phrase of text to such a rhythmic pattern. This is why English poetic translations from Hungarian that are designed to be sung with the text sound unnatural to English speakers. Like with Czech and English, the intrinsic rhythms of each language are so different from each other that translations sound awkward. Because of this, it is important to sing Hungarian repertoire in Hungarian and not in English translation.

Example (Bartok--Ot dal, #1, bars 3/4)

Az en szerelmem | nem sapadt eji hold

English: My love bears no resemblance | to the moon The first five syllables are set to a quintuplet (stress on "my"), followed by a triplet (stress on <-sem-> of "resemblance") and a dotted eighth/sixteenth (stress on "to") and a quarter note ("moon"). Thus the rhythmic transcription would be:

MY love bears no reSEMblance TO the MOON This "bears no resemblance" to the natural rhythm of the English language.

Sample IPA transcription of Hungarian

A comparison of the following transcriptions with the discussion above will facilitate the learning process. In addition, these examples reflect phrasal characteristics of the language, especially the tendency to carry final consonants onto the following word--a feature that promotes good legato singing. Stresses are applied only to the first syllable of polysyllabic words. The behavior of phrasal stress and prosodic considerations of poetry are beyond the scope of this introductory article. (See example on top of following page.)

A written transcription of course cannot replace direct auditory acquaintance with any language. In addition to the many fine recordings available of vocal works sung in Hungarian, listening to a recording of Liszt's melodrama, A holt kolto szerelme, with the substantial narration in Hungarian, provides a particular opportunity to hear the spoken tongue in the context of a formal poetic recitation.
Bartok--Ot dal (5 Songs), Op. 15.

   1. "Az en szerelmem"

   Az en szerelmem nem sapadt eji hold,
   Mely elmerengve nez a vizbele,
   Az n szerelmem forro deli napfeny,
   TeremtA erAvel, tuzzel tele.

   Az en ajkamon forro csok a rozsa,
   Az en szememben gyujto tuzek egnek,
   Az en testemben orok ifjan langol pogany
   Szerelmes mamora a vernek.

   2. "Nyar"

   Szomjasan vagyva varom a szellAt,
   A kek egharang vakit felettem.
   Rajta rnyat hiaba kerestem,
   A nap megolvasztott minden felhAt.
   Nyitott szajjal szivtam a napsugart,
   A Mngolo eg szinte ramszakadt ...
   Es a lombos, suru, zold fak alatt
   A rohano nyar egy percre megallt.



Banhidi, Zoltan, Jokay Zoltan, and Denes Szabo. Learn Hungarian, 5th ed. Budapest: Tankonyvkiado, 1965.

Benko, L., and S. Imre, eds. The Hungarian Language. The Hague/ Paris: Mouton, 1972.

[International Phonetic Association]. Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Magdics, Klara. Studies in the Acoustic Characteristics of Hungarian Speech Sounds (Indiana University Publications, Uralic & Altaic series 97). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.

Olsson, Magnus. Hungarian Morphology and Phonology. Lund: Lund University Press, 1992.

Siptar, Peter, and Miklos Torkenczy. The Phonology of Hungarian (The Phonology of the World's Languages). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

Stephanides, Eva H., ed. Contrasting English with Hungarian (Studies in Modern Philology 2). Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1986.

Vago, Robert M. The Sound Pattern of Hungarian. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1980.


Fekete, Laszlo. Magyar kiejtesi szotar. Budapest: Gondolat, 1992 (dictionary of pronunciation).

Magay, Tamas. Idegen nevek kiejtesi szotara. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1986 (dictionary of pronunciation).

Magay, Tamas, and Laszlo Kiss. NTCs Hungarian and English Dictionary. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC Publishing Group, 1996.

Magay, Tamas, and Laszlo Orszagh. A Concise Hungarian-English Dictionary, 2nd ed. Oxford/Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990.


Bellman, Jonathan, ed. The Exotic in Western Music. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

Kroo, Gyorgy. "Hungarian Music since 1945," in Bence Szabolcsi, A Concise History of Hungarian Music, 2nd ed. Budapest: Corvina Press, 1974.

Strimple, Nick. Choral Music in the Twentieth Century. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 2002.

Varga, Balint Andras, ed. Contemporary Hungarian Music in the International Press. Budapest: Editio Musica Budapest, 1982.

Wachsmuth, Karen. Bibliography of Twentieth-Century Hungarian Choral Music (American Choral Directors Association monographs 13). Lawton: American Choral Directors Association, 2002.

Willson, Rachel Beckles. Ligeti, Kurtag, and Hungarian Music during the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Leslie De'Ath is a Canadian vocal coach, pianist, and conductor. He is Professor in the Faculty of Music at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, where he has taught since 1979. There he is Music Director of the Opera Program, teaches studio piano, and instructs performance literature and diction courses. His research interests, in addition to lyric diction and phonology, focus on unusual vocal and piano repertoire.

He is presently at work on research/recording projects of the complete piano music of Cyril Scott (on the Dutton Epoch label) and Florent Schmitt. Mr. De'Ath is the regular keyboard player with the Canadian Chamber Ensemble and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, and has been a featured soloist with both groups on many occasions--in concert, on tour, and on CD. He has had a wide-ranging career as a vocal accompanist, chamber player, and vocal concert series administrator.

Andrew Rethazi holds an Honours Bachelor of Music in Voice Performance from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, and is currently working on a Masters of Music in Voice Performance and Literature from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. He also holds an ARCT in Piano Performance from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Ontario. His anticipated doctoral study will focus on his interest in the intersection of language structure with music and its application to vocal repertoire. Mr. Rethazi has been actively involved in the arts communities of Toronto, Hamilton, and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. He is the founding chairperson of the Waterloo Region chapter of Student NATS and the founding pianist for Ricochet Piano Trio, which has competed and performed nationally in Canada. He is also in the process of beginning a new opera company in Waterloo that will focus on the accessibility and sustainability of chamber opera in a minimalist setting.
Table 1. Consonantal Inventory in Hungarian.

               Bilabial   Labiodental   Dental/    Post-
                                        Alveolar   Alveolar

Nasal          m                        n
Plosive        p      b                 t      d
Fricative                 f         v   s      z   [??]   3
Affricates *                            ts    dz   [??]  d3
Trill/Flap                                   r/r
Lateral                                        l

               Palatal   Velar   Glottal

Nasal             [??]    [??]
Plosive        c  [??]   k   g
Fricative                        h
Affricates *
Glide                j

* See discussion on affricates.

Table 2. Consonants and their sounds.

Letter    Sound        Comments

B/b       /b/

C/c       /ts/         Dental, with no aspiration

Cs/cs     /t[??]/      No aspiration.

D/d       /d/          Dental, with no aspiration.

Dz/dz     /dz/

Dzs/dzs   /d3/

F/f       /f/

G/g       /g/

Gy/gy     /[??]/       Voiced palatal plosive consonant. Same place
                       ofarticulation as <ny> and <ty>

H/h       /h/

J/j       /j/

K/k       /k/          No aspiration.

L/l       /l/

Ly/ly     /j/

M/m       /m/

N/n       /n/          When before <k> or <g>, becomes [[??]].

Ny/ny     /[??/

P/p       /p/

R/r       /r/,/[??]/   /[??]/ when intervocalic, otherwise /r/.

S/s       /[??]/

Sz/sz     /s/

T/t       /t/          Dental, no aspiration.

Ty/ty     /c/          No aspiration. Voiceless palatal plosive
                       consonant. Same place of articulation as
                       <ny> and <gy>

V/v       /v/

Z/z       /z/

Zs/zs     /3/

Table 3. Vowels and their sounds.

Letter   IPA    Description

A/a      /a/    Cardinal Vowel 5. Some regional variation in

A/a      /a:/   Rough correspondence to Cardinal Vowel 4, though its
                exact placement is slightly farther back and higher.
                It is also lengthened.

E/e      /e/    Cardinal Vowel 3.

E/e      /e:/   Cardinal Vowel 2 lengthened. This vowel is higher
                than Italian /e/ but lower than German /e/.

I/i      /i/    Cardinal Vowel 1.

I/i      /i:/   Cardinal Vowel 1 lengthened.

O/o      /o/    Cardinal Vowel 7.

O/o      /o:/   Cardinal Vowel 7 lengthened.

O/o      /o/    Placed between the mixed vowels /oe/ and /o/
                (Cardinals 2 and 3, rounded). The o symbol is used in
                this writing for clarity and consistency though
                either symbol may be used.

O/o      /o:/   The above vowel lengthened.

U/u      /u/    Cardinal Vowel 8.

U/u      /u:/   Cardinal Vowel 8 lengthened.

U/u      /y/    Cardinal Vowel 1 rounded.

U/u      /y:/   Cardinal Vowel 1 rounded and lengthened.

Note: There is regional variation as follows:

1. <a> is in some rural dialects pronounced with a slight rounding
of the lips.

2. The exact placement of <e> has regional variation. In Budapest
there is very little difference aside from length between <e> and
<e>; however, in the country, there is a more marked difference.

Table 4. Low and high vowels.

Letter   IPA    Vowel Tvpe

A/a      /a/    Low
A/a      /a:/   Low
E/e      /s/    High
E/e      /e:/   High
I/i      /i/    High
I/i      /i:/   High
O/o      /o/    Low
O/o      /o:/   Low
O/o      /o/    High
O/o      /o:/   High
U/u      /u/    Low
U/u      /u:/   Low
U/u      /y/    High
U/u      /y:/   High
COPYRIGHT 2010 National Association of Teachers of Singing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:De'Ath, Leslie; Rethazi, Andrew
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:4EXHU
Date:Mar 1, 2010
Previous Article:Cells that maintain your vocal fold tissues.
Next Article:When "proper" is dead wrong: how traditional methods fail aspiring artists.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |