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Two days ago, we contemplated the wonders of the short Polish-American surname Dzwil.  Today we turn to a much longer, but equally wondrous, Hungarian-American surname, the one in the title of this post.

For some seemingly impenetrable Hungarian surnames, it helps an English speaker to have mnemonic devices to produce a passable pronunciation.  An example is the surname of the Berkeley Sinologist, Mark Csikszentmihalyi.  Mark is the son of the Chicago, and later Claremont, psychologist and management specialist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (in Hungarian orthography that would be Csíkszentmihályi Mihály).   Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the creator of the concept of "flow", a highly focused mental state.

Mark's dissertation adviser, the late David Nivison (Stanford professor of Chinese thought), himself proudly and somewhat mischievously told me — with a twinkle in his eye — that he simply pronounced the surname thus:  Chick-sent-me-high.

In an e-mail, Mark wrote:

…as I recall it is rather close to Cheek-sent-me-hi, with a stress on the first syllable. Other Hungarians tend to swallow the "t" in sent, and their stress is much more akin to holding the syllable longer than the others.

You can hear the father's name pronounced very clearly in Hungarian here.

Here's the surname as pronounced by two different Hungarian speakers.

"Csikszentmihalyi" looks as though it must mean something, and indeed it does.  Csíkszentmihály is a village in Transylvania, which now belongs to Romania.  Adding an -i indicates somebody from that place. The name of the village comes from a church named after Saint Michael there.  Csík is the name of that region, a county. "Csík" means "band; stripe; streak" in Hungarian.

The history of the village, which goes back to at least 1333, is described in this article, which includes a photograph of the eponymous fortified church.

[Thanks to Imre Hamar and Judit Bagi]


  1. Püppi said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 1:38 am

    their stress is much more akin to holding the syllable longer than the others

    But stress has nothing to do with length in Hungarian. The main stress is almost always on the first syllable. Both long and short vowels can be stressed or unstressed, and stress has no effect on length of vowels or consonants (note that Hungarian also has long consonants). Stress and vowel length just happen to coincide in this word.

  2. Bob Ladd said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 2:58 am

    Slightly off-topic, but decidedly related to language: Having once spent a year as an exchange lecturer in Transylvania, this post made me curious about exactly where the village of Csikszentmihály is. Since (as the post points out) Transylvania is now politically part of Romania and since language is an issue there (though possibly less than it was before 1989), I wondered what Google Maps would do with a search for Csikszentmihaly. No problem: it immediately found me the village of Mihăieni, in the heavily Hungarian "Szekler" area in Eastern Transylvania. This made me curious about Google's language policy, so I searched for other non-Romanian place names in Transylvania (like Kolozsvár and Herrmannstadt) and it unerringly directed me to their Romanian equivalents.

    When you've got Google's unlimited information storage, you don't have to take a stand on any of these controversial naming issues, nor even consign older names to the dustbin of history. It will happily find outdated and/or minority place names for you anywhere in the world. Karl-Marx-Stadt, Casteddu, Canton, Bois-le-Duc, Pressburg and even Berlin (the one in Ontario that was renamed during the first world war) are all there in its files.

  3. Jeromos said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 3:03 am

    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has dropped the diacritics in his Americanised version of his name, so in some ways it doesn't matter how it would be pronounced by native Hungarian speakers.

    In the original Hungarian, rendering of the name as Cheek-sent-me-high is slightly closer, for most Hungarians, than Chick-sent-me-hi (there is a difference between í and i) but neither captures the i at the end. In general all letters are pronounced in Hungarian, so there is an audible difference between Mihály and Mihályi. Perhaps cheek-sent-me-highy is closest.

  4. Adrian said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 7:27 am

    re: Bob. Yes, it's pretty easy to Google old Hungarian/German placenames, which is handy when looking at old maps (lazarus.elte.hu/hun/maps/1910/vmlista.htm) or doing geneaology work among the diaspora. Sometimes it's a bit disconcerting when you search an obscure old name, e.g. Vojvogyen, and Google provides a page of weather websites that behave as though the name is still in use.

    Google isn't always helpful for places where the names are transcribed, e.g. India. For example, the recent story about the lost girl from Pakistan stated that her family might be from "Kabeera Dhaap", but searching for this place online is very difficult, partly because there are so many possible transcriptions.

  5. Brett said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 8:28 am

    @Jeromos: I disagree with you about the significance of dropping the diacritical marks. English-language orthography does not use diacritics, and it is a perfectly proper convention to drop them from foreign words. That does not necessarily indicate that the original pronunciation is to be abandoned. I know several American residents with foreign names, who use exclusively English orthography to write them but are emphatic about maintaining the Old-World pronunciations. For example, I knew a man who wrote his first name "Francois," but was quite picky about how people said it. (Of course, there are plenty of people who do not pronounce their names the way their ancestors would have too.)

  6. Adrian said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 8:33 am

    While I'm at it, another example just popped up: a man's been murdered for allegedly stealing a cow, and the news item states he was from "Uchekon Moiba Thongkhong". Good luck googling that. Journalists seem incapable of, or uninterested in, providing the usual transcriptions of south Asian placenames.

  7. Jongseong Park said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 8:45 am

    Following up on what Brett said, Francois (usually spelled without the cedilla) is also a fairly common name in Afrikaans and is always pronounced the quasi-French way. I have never seen the c in Francois pronounced as a hard /k/.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 9:07 am

    Brett: I don't think it's quite true anymore, ever since computers replaced typewriters, that "English-language orthography does not use diacritics." British publications use them more than American ones, but even in the US they are now widely used in Spanish words; the city of San Jose, California, for example, is now officially San José. And the San Francisco Chronicle uses them consistently with names like Sánchez or López, even when the family referred to has been in the US since before 1900, when such accents were not standard in Spanish.

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 9:08 am

    And then there gratuitous diacritics, as in latté.

  10. Adrian Morgan said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 9:13 am

    I remember the first time I heard someone (online) use swallow a sound to mean omit it. A very confusing usage that, for me, conjured up the thought of some kind of simultaneous articulation in the back of the throat…

  11. Theophylact said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 9:40 am

    And, of course, the New Yorker insists on using the diaeresis in "coöperate".

  12. Michael Leddy said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 10:21 am

    The back cover of Finding Flow (1997) gives this pronunciation: "chick-SENT-me-high."

  13. Victor Mair said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 10:43 am

    David Knechtges, the University of Washington scholar of Chinese literature, once told me a mnemonic for how to pronounce his name. He said, "Make it sound like 'connect us'." I wasn't altogether convinced that was the best way to do it, but, hey, it's his name, so he should know.

    When the Hakka polymath, Jao Tsung-I, whom I have mentioned in several posts (most recently here), said Knechtges' name, it came out sounding something like a slurred "Connecticut".

    Søren Egerod, who I think had the best understanding of the interrelationships within the Sinitic group of languages, was a Danish linguist. Before I met him, I always pronounced his name more or less the way it looks, something like Soeren Eggerod. About 25 years ago, I was at a big academic conference in Taiwan. When he introduced himself to me, it sounded as though he were choking on his own name. What he did with the "g" was especially amazing, as though he were swallowing it. I didn't even connect what he said with the name of the linguist whom I so admired. Since I couldn't comprehend what he said, I looked at his name tag and almost fell over when I saw "Søren Egerod".

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 11:00 am

    That certain US publications may use certain diacriticals as a matter of house style does not make it anything more than an eccentric minority variation in AmEng. Frankly, it's no better evidence of actual AmEng orthography than the eccentric reformed spellings used for a significant chunk of the 20th century by the Chicago Tribune. I would be curious to know whether the SF Chronicle's usage of e.g. Sánchez rather than Sanchez is customized to the individual preference of the particular person referenced (the way some papers have historically tried to understand whether the specific woman being referenced prefers Mrs. SURNAME or Ms. SURNAME), or whether they impose the accent on people who do not use it themselves. Which strikes me as akin to taking a surname whose spelling has obviously been Anglicized by the particular family or bearer and restoring its "correct" spelling.

  15. BZ said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 1:05 pm

    @Adrian Morgan,
    Oddly enough, swallowing is exactly the metaphor used in Russian. There is even a kids song urging them not to swallow parts of words when talking.

  16. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

    With the SF Chronicle the use of Spanish accents seems to the default; a few months ago there was a story about the death of a New Mexican writer from an old NM family, who did not use the accent on the title pages of his books, but got one free from the Chron. Oddly, though, the paper's editorial-page editor is John Diaz, not Díaz.

  17. TonyK said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

    @Michael Leddy: That's strange. "chick-SENT-me-high" is definitely wrong from a Hungarian perspective: the stress is on the first syllable here, as in all Hungarian words. (Püppi says the main stress is _almost_ always on the first syllable, but I don't know of any counterexamples; in any case, Csíkszentmihályi is not one.)

  18. George said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 5:02 pm

    @Bob Ladd That's very interesting about Google Maps, and it even works across alphabets. Enter "Munkács" and it will immediately take you (correctly) to Мукачево in Ukraine.

  19. John Swindle said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 4:07 am

    It's not a number? But if it were, how many hundred Michaels would that be?

  20. Jongseong Park said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 5:52 am

    @TonyK, it would hardly be the first time that anglicized pronunciations have failed to respect the stress patterns of the original language, from Osaka to Amsterdam, from Ligeti to Sharapova.

  21. bobbie said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 12:43 pm

    It is important to note (as mentioned above) that Hungarians put their surname **first, followed by their given ("first") name. As a genealogist, I have come across many ships' manifests where the surname and given name are reversed, for Hungarians, as well as for many other nationalities.

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