Hungarian phonology

Hungarian phonology

This article deals with the phonology and the phonetics of the Hungarian language. (Phonology studies abstract elements (phonemes) as they contrast with each other; phonetics studies the actual acoustic realizations of phonemes as speech sounds.)


This is the Hungarian consonantal system using symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

Phonological processes

Vowel harmony

As in Finnish and Turkish,
vowel harmony plays an important part in determining the distribution of vowels in a word. The primary division is between front and back vowels.

The following vowels are considered front vowels::e IPA| [ɛ] IPA| [eː] :i IPA| [i] IPA| [iː] IPA| [ø] IPA| [øː] IPA| [y] IPA| [yː]

The following vowels are considered back vowels:

:a IPA| [ɒ] IPA| [aː] :o IPA| [o] IPA| [oː] :u IPA| [u] IPA| [uː]

For the most part, words contain vowels primarily of one of the two types. Mixed category words are uncommon, but do exist, even in native words (e.g. "derekas"). Most mixed words are of foreign origin (e.g. "telefon") or consist of compound words (e.g. "pénz|tárca" [purse] ). For purposes of determining the class of suffix to use (suffixes usually have two forms, one for each of the classes of vowels) compound words take the suffix corresponding to the vowel-class of the last unit of the compound, and loanwords use the vowel-class of the last vowel.

IPA|/i/, IPA|/e:/ and sometimes IPA|/e/, while being nominally "front" vowels, are "transparent"; i.e. if they are preceded by back vowels, the word is considered a back-vowel word.

A few words which contain IPA|/i/, IPA|/i:/ and, rarely, IPA|/eː/ are counted as back-vowel words because in Old Hungarian, the words contained the IPA|/ɨ/ phoneme in their place. This sound is the same as Polish y, Russian yery, Romanian â and î, and bears some resemblance to the sound of the "e" in "roses" in some dialects of English (in those dialects where "Rosa's" and "roses" don't sound alike). In today spoken Hungarian dialects, this vowel has merged with /i/, /iː/, and, rarely, /eː/ or even /u/.

Additionally, there is another set of criteria based on vowel roundedness for mid-high front vowels.

Most of Hungarian's multitude of suffixes have multiple forms for use depending on the vowel class predominating in the stem.

Most types are:

As can be seen, the phoneme IPA|/e/ is found both in the low vowel series (IPA|/a/ - /e/), and in the mid vowel series (IPA|/o/ - /e/ - /ö/). This odd feature is solved in the old language and in dialects: there was/is an eighth short phoneme IPA|/ë/, which is just like the IPA|/e/ but it is mid, and its pronunciation is IPA| [e] , in contrast with /e/ being IPA| [ɛ] . In dialects, this phoneme is found in the mid series, and the low IPA|/e/ in the low series.

The requirement of vowel harmony means that suffixes must always be of the same sound order as the word it is attached to, so a word of high order gets high suffixes ("szekrénybe"), and a word of deep order gets deep suffixes ("házba"). Therefore, suffixes containing vowels have two or three variants, one or two with a high vowel and one with a deep vowel (in: "-ban", or "-ben"; on: "-en", "-ön", or "-on").

Words of composite order generally get deep-ordered suffixes ("békával"), except some unused archaisms and some loanwords from foreign languages ("farmerben" = "farmerban"), or old but frequently used words containing "neutral vowels" (i,í and sometimes é) ("hídon", "hídra"; "derék" ~ "derekam"). So for example the word "kartonpapír", a compound word ("karton|papír") with a composite-ordered last component ("papír"), gets deep suffixes ("kartonpapírral", "kartonpapírhoz", etc.), even though its last vowel is high.

Many suffixes have only one form. These are usually new-born suffixes ("-kor" "at the time of ...": "hatkor" "at 6 o'clock", "hétkor" "at 7 o'clock", "ötkor" "at 5 o'clock"), or they contain IPA|/i/ or IPA|/e:/ ("-i" "universal noun → adjective suffix": "budai" "somebody from Buda", "pesti" "somebody from Pest"; "-ért" "for ...": "aranyért" "for gold", "ezüstért" "for silver").

Although not part of the standard grammar and phonology of the Magyar language, it is also interesting to note the use of retroflex consonants (ones where the tongue is curled back) in the speech of some people. Certain rural (Palóc) communities in Hungary tend to speak with slight to heavy retroflexion of the /t/ and /d/ consonants. This linguistic feature is noticeable by speakers in different Hungarian dialects including Alföld, Northeast Hungarian (especially from Nógrád megye), Székely, and Jászberény, so it is not something necessarily restricted to only a certain area or county. The interesting case with users of this type of retroflexion is that they tend to pronounce virtually all of their /t/ and /d/ consonants with the retroflexed form. In the major cities of Hungary, this feature is not common and usually younger people who demonstrate this retroflexion tend to lose it by assimilation, as it is ridiculed as a sign for lack of education or backward regions origin. Nowadays, this feature is mainly found in the speech of older people from the countryside as the younger generation is using it less and less.


Stops, fricatives, and affricates have anticipatory assimilation of voicing, for example "biztos" "certain" is realised as IPA| [bistoʃ] .

ee also

*List of phonetics topics


External links

[ The Hungarian alphabet (]


title=Illustrations of the IPA:Hungarian
journal=Journal of the International Phonetic Alphabet

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