O.M.G. It’s Vowel Harmony: A Peek into Hungarian Phonology

Magyarul, or commonly known as Hungarian, is the official language of Hungary as well as one of the 24 official languages in the EU. It is an agglutinative language: most of the grammatical information is glued to a word as suffixes. For example, the English phrase in London is represented in Hungarian as Londonban, with the locative suffix -ban denoting the state of being in the metropolis – the lack of functional words like prepositions in Hungarian is made up for by adding suffixes. Hungarian and its distant relative Finnish are similar, in that one of the most prominent features of the language is vowel harmony. Vowel harmony is the fancy technical term for a process in which sounds – typically vowels – become more like other vowels in the same word. Now, this phonological process gets to say which ‘version’ of a given suffix is glued to a stem (basically this means a word).

Before we get to know vowel harmony a little bit better, we shall look at the sounds that constitutes Hungarian vowels. As a starter, Hungarian alphabets for the most part has the same characters as English, only Hungarian has some extra vowels, namely á, é, í, ó, ö, ő, ú, ü, ű, and some extra consonants, namely cs, gy, ly, ny, ty, sz, zs. Since we are looking at vowel harmony here, we are kind of only interested in the vowels; we are going to skip the consonants (sorry!). The vowels can be classified according to length, roundedness, as well as the horizontal and vertical position of the tongue when you’re producing it.

The accented vowels (e.g. á, é, í) are longer in length, and the ones without accent are shorter (e.g. a, e, i). Based on the position of your tongue in your mouth when you are producing them, they can be grouped as follows (the names for the groups are pretty self-explanatory): the ones that require you to move your tongue to the back of your mouth are called back vowels, and the ones that are produced at the front of your mouth are called front vowels. Front vowels that require you to round your lips in production are called front rounded vowels; the ones that don’t are called front unrounded vowels.

 

Front Back
unrounded rounded
High i í ü ű u ú
Mid e é ö ő o ó
Low

a á

If you fancy some International Phonetic Alphabet (the kind of alphabets you see in dictionaries), here’s a one-to-one correspondence of the sounds to the letters in the table above:

  Front Back
unrounded rounded
High i iː y yː u uː
Mid ɛ eː ø øː o oː
Low ɒ aː

 

Now that we understand what kinds of vowels there are in Hungarian, we are able to decipher the way suffixes are attached to a stem word. The rules and steps in which they apply are as follows:

  1. Look at the final vowel of the dictionary entry form of the word. If the final vowel is a back vowel, add the back vowel variant; if it’s a front one, add the front vowel variant.
  2. For the purposes of this rule, the following three vowels do not count: i / í / é.

If one of these three is the last vowel of the stem, it has to be ignored and we have to move to the next vowel to the left, repeating if necessary, until RULE 2 or RULE 3 above can be applied.

  1. If after crossing off the vowels in this way there are no vowels left, the assumption is that the word is a front vowel word, as in Bécs ‘Vienna’: Bécs-be ‘to Vienna’. There are, however, some exceptions to this assumption, many of which are frequently used monosyllabic words with í, g. híd ‘bridge’ and also ír ‘write’, iszik ‘drink’. These are all back vowel words while Bécs, which is not an exception from the assumption, is a front vowel word.
  2. In the case of compounds, only the second constituent needs to be taken into account; e.g. árvíz: árvíz-ben ‘in the flood’.
  3. If the vowel directly preceding the suffix is one of ö / ő / ü / ű, the stem is a front rounded vowel stem.

In such cases, check if the suffix that is added comes in two or three forms. If it has two variants, add the front vowel variant. If it has three, add the variant containing a front rounded vowel.

Without further ado, let’s look this glossary below for some Hungarian words and suffixes to see how vowel harmony works in action:

Stem Meaning Suffix Meaning
folyó river -ban/-ben in
cipő shoe -ról/-ről about
étterem restaurant -on/-en/-ön on
kikötő port -nak/-nek for

To say “in the river” in Hungarian, first we have to figure out the class of the final vowel. For folyó “river”, it’s the back vowel ó. The suffix for “in” is either -ban or -ben. Since the stem is a back vowel word, it’s the back vowel suffix that is attached to it. So, simply combine the suffix -ban “in” to the stem folyó “river”, and you get get folyóban, meaning “in (the) river” in English literally. Here are some examples:

Hungarian Meaning
folyóban in (the) river
cipőről about shoe(s)
étteremben in (the) restaurant
kikötőnek for (the) port

I guess that’s it. Sziásztok (see ya)!

-Ryan Law

Advertisements