Hungarian Phonology
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Hungarian Phonology

The phonology of the Hungarian language is notable for its process of vowel harmony, the frequent occurrence of geminate consonants and the presence of otherwise uncommon palatal stops.


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

  • ^* It is debated whether the palatal consonant pair consists of stops or affricates.[3] They are considered affricates or stops, depending on register, by Tamás Szende,[1] head of the department of General Linguistics at PPKE,[4] and stops by Mária Gósy,[3] research professor, head of the Department of Phonetics at ELTE.[5] The reason for the different analyses is that the relative duration of the friction of (as compared to the duration of its closure) is longer than those of the stops, but shorter than those of the affricates. /c/ has the stop-like nature of having a full duration no longer than those of other (voiceless) stops such as /p, t, k/ but, considering the average closure time in relation to the friction time of the consonants, its duration structure is somewhat closer to those of the affricates.[6]

Almost every consonant may be geminated, written by doubling a single letter grapheme: ⟨bb⟩ for [b:], ⟨pp⟩ for [p:], ⟨ss⟩ for [?:] etc., or by doubling the first letter of a grapheme cluster: ⟨ssz⟩ for [s:], ⟨nny⟩ for [?:], etc.

The phonemes and can appear on the surface as geminates: bridzs [brid:] ('bridge'). (For the list of examples and exceptions, see Hungarian dz and dzs.)

Hungarian orthography, unlike that of the surrounding Slavic languages, does not use há?ky or any other consonant diacritics. Instead, the letters c, s, z are used alone (, , ) or combined in the digraphs cs, sz, zs (, , ), while y is used only in the digraphs ty, gy, ly, ny as a palatalization marker to write the sounds , , (formerly ), .

The most distinctive allophones are:

  • becomes if between a voiceless obstruent and a word boundary (e.g. lopj [lopç] 'steal').[7]
  • /j/ becomes e.g. between voiced obstruents, such as dobj be [dob? b?] 'throw (one/some) in'[8]
  • may become between two vowels (e.g. tehát ['ta:t] 'so'), after front vowels (e.g. ihlet ['içl?t] 'inspiration'), and word-finally after back vowels (e.g. doh [dox] 'musty') if it is not deleted (which it often is; e.g. méh [me:] 'bee', but even then, some dialects still pronounce it, e.g., [me:x]).[9][10]
    According to Gósy, it becomes [x] (rather than [ç]) in words such as pech, ihlet, technika ('bad luck, inspiration, technology/technique'),[11] while it becomes postvelar fricative in words such as doh, sah, jacht, Allah, eunuch, potroh.[12]
  • /h/ becomes [x:] when geminated, in certain words: dohhal ['dox:?l] ('with blight'), peches ['p?x:] ('unlucky').
Phoneme Example Translation
pipa /'pip?/ 'pipe'
bot /bot/ 'stick'
toll 'feather'
dob 'throw', 'drum'
kép 'picture'
gép 'machine'
fa 'tree'
vág 'cut'
szó 'word'
zöld 'green'
só /?o:/ 'salt'
zseb 'pocket'
jó 'good'
hó 'snow'
cél 'goal', 'target'
edz? /'?d?z:ø:/ 'coach'
csak 'only'
dzsezz /dz:/ 'jazz'
ló 'horse'
tyúk /cu:k/ 'hen'
gyár 'factory'
ró 'carve'
ma 'today'
nem 'no', 'gender'
nyár /?a:r/ 'summer'


The vowel phonemes of Hungarian[13]

Hungarian has seven pairs of corresponding short and long vowels. Their phonetic values do not exactly match up with each other, so ⟨e⟩ represents and ⟨é⟩ represents ; likewise, ⟨a⟩ represents while ⟨á⟩ represents .[14] For the other pairs, the short vowels are slightly lower and more central, and the long vowels more peripheral:

  • /i, y, u/ are phonetically near-close [?, ?, ?].[13]
  • /e:/ has been variously described as close-mid [15] and mid .[13]
  • /?/ and the marginal /?:/ are phonetically near-open [æ, æ:],[13] but they may be somewhat less open [?, ?:] in other dialects.
  • /ø/ is phonetically mid .[13]
  • /a:/ and the marginal /a/ are phonetically open central [ä:, ä].[13]

The sound marked by ⟨a⟩ is considered to be by Tamás Szende[13] and by Mária Gósy.[16] Gósy also mentions a different short that contrasts with both /a:/ and /?/, present in a few words like Svájc ('Switzerland'), svá ('schwa'), advent ('advent'), hardver ('hardware', this usage is considered hyperforeign),[17] and halló (used when answering the phone; contrasting with haló 'dying', and háló 'web').

There are two more marginal sounds, namely the long as well as the long . They are used in the name of the letters E and A, which are pronounced /?:/ and /?:/, respectively.[9]

Although not found in Budapest, some dialects contrast three mid vowels /?/, /e:/, and , with the latter being written ⟨ë⟩ in some works, but not in the standard orthography.[18] Thus mentek could represent four different words: mëntëk ['mentek] ('you all go'), mëntek ['ment?k] ('they went'), mentëk ['m?ntek] ('I save'), and mentek ['m?nt?k] ('they are exempt'). In Budapest, the first three collapse to ['m?nt?k], while the latter one is unknown, having a different form in the literary language (mentesek).

Phoneme Example
hat 'six'
a 'the letter A'
Svájc /?vajt?s/ 'Switzerland'
lát 'see'
ok 'cause'
tó 'lake'
fut /fut/ 'run'
kút 'well'
lesz 'will be'
e 'the letter E'
rész 'part'
visz /vis/ 'carry'
víz 'water'
sör 'beer'
b?r 'skin'
üt 'hit'
t?z /ty:z/ 'fire'

Vowel harmony

A Venn diagram of Hungarian vowel harmony, featuring front rounded vowels, front unrounded vowels ("neutral" vowels), and back vowels.

As in Finnish, Turkish, and Mongolian, vowel harmony plays an important part in determining the distribution of vowels in a word. Hungarian vowel harmony classifies the vowels according to front vs. back assonance and rounded vs unrounded for the front vowels.[19] Excluding recent loanwords, Hungarian words have either only back vowels or front vowels due to these vowel harmony rules.[19]

Hungarian vowel harmony[19]
Front Back
unrounded rounded
Close i i: y y: u u:
Mid ? e: ø ø: o o:
Open ? a:

While /i/, /i:/, /?/, and /e:/ are all front unrounded vowels, they are considered to be "neutral vowels" in Hungarian vowel harmony.[20] Therefore, if a word contains back vowels, neutral vowels may appear alongside them. However, if only neutral vowels appear in a stem, the stem is treated as though it is of front vowel assonance and all suffixes must contain front vowels.[19]

Vowel harmony in Hungarian is most notable when observing suffixation. Vowel harmony must be maintained throughout the entire word, meaning that most suffixes have variants. For example, the dative case marker [n?k] vs. [n?k]. Stems that contain back vowels affix back vowel suffixes, and stems that contain only front vowels affix front vowel suffixes.[19] However, the front vowel stems distinguish rounded vs. unroundedness based on the last vowel in the stem. If the last vowel is front and rounded, it takes a suffix with a front rounded vowel; otherwise it follows the standard rules.[20] While suffixes for most words have front/back vowel variants, there are not many that have rounded/unrounded variants, indicating that this is a rarer occurrence.[20]

One is able to observe the distinction when looking at the plural affix, either [-ok] (back), [-?k] (front unrounded), or [-øk] (front rounded).

Hungarian vowel harmony and suffixation[20]
Stem Gloss Description of stem Plural
asztal table Only back vowels asztal-ok
gyerek child Only neutral (front) vowels, last vowel unrounded. gyerek-ek
füzet notebook Only front vowels, last vowel unrounded. füzet-ek
ismer?s acquaintance Only front vowels, last vowel rounded. ismer?s-ök
papír paper Back vowel with neutral vowel papír-ok

As can be seen above, the neutral vowels are able to be in both front and back vowel assonance words with no consequence.

However, there are about fifty monosyllabic roots that only contain [i], [i:], or [e:] that take a back vowel suffix instead of the front vowel suffix.[21]

Irregular suffixation[21]
Stem Gloss "At" "From"
híd bridge híd-nál híd-tól
cél aim cél-nál cél-tól

These exceptions to the rule are hypothesized to have originated from the roots originally having contained a phoneme no longer present in modern Hungarian, the unrounded back vowel , or its long counterpart /?:/. It is theorized that while these vowels merged with /i/ or /i:/, less commonly /e:/ or /u:/, the vowel harmony rules sensitive to the backness of the original sound remained in place.[21] The theory finds support from etymology: related words in other languages generally have back vowels, often specifically unrounded back vowels. For example, nyíl 'arrow' (plural nyíl-ak) corresponds to Komi ? /nl/, Southern Mansi /n:l/.


The overall characteristics of the consonant assimilation in Hungarian are the following:[22][23]

  • Assimilation types are typically regressive, that is the last element of the cluster determines the change.
  • In most cases, it works across word boundaries if the sequence of words form an "accentual unity", that is there is no phonetic break between them (and they bear a common phase stress). Typical accentual units are:
    • attributes and qualified nouns, e.g. hideg tél [hid?k?te:l] ('cold winter');
    • adverbs and qualified attributes, e.g. nagyon káros [noka:ro?] ~ [non?ka:ro?] ('very harmful');
    • verbs and their complements, e.g. nagyot dob [nod?dob] ('s/he throws long toss'), vesz bel?le [v?z?b?lø:l?] ('take some [of it]').
  • There are obligatory, optional and stigmatized types of assimilation.
  • The palatal affricates behave like stops in assimilation processes. Therefore, in this section, they will be treated as stops, including their IPA notations and .

Voice assimilation

In a cluster of consonants ending in an obstruent, all obstruents change their voicing according to the last one of the sequence. The affected obstruents are the following:

  • In obstruent clusters, retrograde voicing assimilation occurs, even across word boundaries:[24]
Voiced Voiceless Undergoes devoicing Undergoes voicing Causes voicing Causes devoicing
b p dobtam ['dopt?m] 'I threw (it)' pzés ['ke:bze:?] 'training, forming' futball ['fudb?l:] 'soccer' központ ['køspont] 'center'
d t adhat ['?th?t] 's/he can give' tb?l ['he:dbø:l] 'from 7' csapda ['tbd?] pénztár ['pe:nsta:r] 'cash desk'
dz c edzhet ['?t?sh?t] 's/he can train' ketrecben ['k?tr?d?zb?n] 'in (a) cage' alapdzadzíki ['?l?bd?z?d?zi:ki] 'standard tzatziki' abcúg! ['?pt?su:?] 'down with him!'
dzs cs bridzst?l ['brittø:l] '(because) of bridge [game of cards]' ácsból ['a:dbo:l] 'from (a) carpenter' barackdzsem ['b?r?d?z?dm] ~ [b?r?d:?m] 'apricot jam' távcs? ['ta:ftø:] 'telescope'
g k fogtam ['fokt?m] 'I held (it)' zsákból ['?a:?bo:l] 'out of (a) bag' állítgat ['a:l:i:dt] 's/he constantly adjusts' zsebkend? ['pk?ndø:] 'handkerchief'
gy ty ágytól ['a:cto:l] 'from (a) bed' pintyb?l ['pibø:l] 'from (a) finch' gépgyár ['?e:b?a:r] 'machine factory' lábty? ['la:pcy:] 'socks with sleeves for the toes'
v f szívtam ['si:ft?m] 'I smoked/sucked (it)' széfben ['se:vb?n] 'in (a) safe' * lábfej ['la:pf?j] 'part of the foot below the ankle'
z sz zt?l ['me:stø:l] 'from honey' szb?l ['me:zbø:l] 'out of lime' alapzat ['?l?bz?t] 'base(ment)' rabszolga ['r?psol] 'slave'
zs s zstól ['ru:?to:l] 'from lipstick' hasba ['hb?] 'in(to) (the) stomach' köldökzsinór ['køldøino:r] 'umbilical cord' különbség ['kylømp?e:?] ~ ['kyløm?e:?] 'difference'
N/A h N/A N/A N/A adhat ['?th?t] 's/he can give'
  • [1] is unusual in that it undergoes assimilation but does not cause voicing,[24] e.g. hatvan ('sixty') is pronounced ['h?tv?n] not *['h?dv?n]. Voicing before [v] occurs only in south-western dialects, though it is stigmatized.[]
  • Similarly, causes devoicing, but never undergoes voicing in consonant clusters.[24] e.g. dohból ['doxbo:l] 'from (the) musty smell'.
  • Other than a few foreign words, morpheme-initial does not occur (even its phonemic state is highly debated), therefore it is hard to find a real example when it induces voicing (even alapdzadzíki is forced and not used colloquially). However, the regressive voice assimilation before /d?z/ does occur even in nonsense sound sequences.

Nasal place assimilation

Nasals assimilate to the place of articulation of the following consonant (even across word boundaries):[25]

  • only precedes a velar consonant (e.g. hang [h], 'voice'), precedes a labiodental consonant (e.g. hamvad ['hv?d], 'smoulder'), and precedes bilabial consonants.
    • before labial consonants /p b m/: színpad ['si:mp?d] ('stage'), különb ['kylømb] ('better than'), énmagam ['e:m:m] ('myself');
    • before labiodental consonants /f v/: különféle ['kylø?fe:l?] ('various'), hamvas ['hv] ('bloomy');
    • before palatal consonants /c ? ?/: pinty [pi?c] ('finch'), ángy [a:] ('wife of a close male relative'), magánnyomozó ['ma:?:omozo:] ('private detective');
    • before velar consonants /k ?/: munka ['mu?k?] ('work'), angol ['ol] ('English');
  • Nasal place assimilation is obligatory within the word, but optional across a word or compound boundary,[] e.g. szénpor ['se:mpor] ~ ['se:npor] ('coal-dust'), nagyon káros ['no'ka:ro?] ~ ['non?'ka:ro?] ('very harmful'), olyan más ['oj?m?'ma:?] ~ ['oj?n?'ma:?] ('so different').

Sibilant assimilation

  • Voiceless sibilants form a voiceless geminate affricate with preceding alveolar and palatal stops (d , gy , t , ty ):
    • Clusters ending in sz or c give [t?s:]: metszet [m?t?s:?t] 'engraving, segment', ötödször [øtøt?s:ør] 'for the fifth time', gyszer [ne:t?s:?r] 'four times', ttyszó [fyt?s:o:] 'whistle (as a signal)'; átcipel [a:t?s:ip?l] 's/he lugs (something) over', dcukor [na:t?s:ukor] 'cane-sugar'.
    • Clusters ending in s or cs give [t:]: tség [ke:t:e:?] 'doubt', fáradság [fa:r?t:a:?] 'trouble', egység [?t:e:?] 'unity', hegycsúcs [h?t:u:t] 'mountain-top'.
  • Two sibilant fricatives form a geminate of the latter phoneme; the assimilation is regressive as usual:
    • sz or z + s gives [?:]: egészség [e:?:e:?] 'health', zség [kø?:e:?] 'village, community';
    • sz or z + zs gives [?:]: vadászzsákmány [v?da:?:a:kma:?] 'hunter's game'; száraz zsömle [sa:r?øml?] 'dry bread roll';
    • s or zs + sz gives [s:]: kisszer? [kis:?ry:] 'petty', rozsszalma [ros:?lm?] 'rye straw';
    • s or zs + z gives [z:]: tilos zóna [tiloz?zo:n?] 'restricted zone', parázs zene [p?ra:z?z?n?] 'hot music'.
    • Clusters zs+s [?:], s+zs [?:], z+sz [s:] and sz+z [z:] are rather the subject of the voice assimilation.
  • If one of the two adjacent sibilants is an affricate, the first one changes its place of articulation, e.g. malacság [m?l?t:a:?], halászcsárda [h?la:?ta:rd?] 'Hungarian fish restaurant'. Sibilant affricate-fricative sequences like /t/ are pronounced the same as geminate affricate [t:] during normal speech.
  • Sibilant assimilation can be omitted in articulated speech, e.g. to avoid homophony: rozsszalma [ros:?lm?] ~ [ro?s?lm?] 'rye straw' ? rossz szalma [ros?s?lm?] 'straw of bad quality', and rossz alma [ros:lm?] 'apple of bad quality' as well.
  • NB. Letter cluster szs can be read either as sz+s [?:], e.g. egészség [e:?:e:?] 'health', or as s+zs [?:], e.g. liszteszsák [list:a:k] 'bolting-bag' depending on the actual morpheme boundary. Similarly zsz is either zs + z [z:], e.g. varázszár [v?ra:z:a:r] 'magic lock', or z + sz [s:], e.g. házszám [ha:s:a:m] 'street-number'; and csz: cs + z [dz] ~ c + sz [t?ss]. Moreover, single digraphs may prove to be two adjacent letters on morpheme boundary, like cs: cs [t] ~ c + s [t]; sz: sz [s] ~ s + z [z:], zs: zs [?] ~ z + s [?:].

Palatal assimilation

Combination of a "palatalizable" consonant and a following palatal consonant results in a palatal geminate. Palatalizable consonants are palatal ones and their non-palatal counterparts: gy ~ d , l ~ ly , n ~ ny , ty ~ t .

  • Full palatal assimilation occurs when the ending palatal consonant is j : nagyja [n:?] 'most of it', adja [:?] 's/he gives it'; tolja [toj:?] 's/he pushes it'; unja [u?:?] 's/he is bored with it', nyja [ha:?:?] 's/he throws it'; tja [la:c:?] 's/he sees it', atyja [?c:?] 'his/her father'. The cluster lyj [j:] is a simple orthographic variant of jj [j:]: folyjon [foj:on] 'let it flow'.
  • Partial assimilation takes place if an alveolar stop (d, t) is followed by a palatal gy , ty : hadgyakorlat [h:?korl?t] 'army exercises', nemzetgy?lés [n?mz:y:le:?] 'national assembly'; vadtyúk [v?c:u:k] 'wild chicken', hat tyúk [h?c?cu:k] 'six hens'.
  • Some sources[26] report that alveolar stops change into their palatal counterparts before ny : dnyak [lu:k] 'neck of a goose', átnyúlik [a:c?u:lik] 'it extends over'. The majority of the sources do not mention this kind of assimilation.
  • When the first consonant is nasal, the partial palatal assimilation is a form of the nasal place assimilation (see above).
  • The full palatal assimilation is an obligatory feature in the standard Hungarian: its omission is stigmatized and it is considered as a hypercorrection of an undereducated person. Partial palatal assimilation is optional in articulated speech.


Long consonants become short when preceded or followed by another consonant, e.g. folttal [folt?l] 'by/with (a) patch', varrtam [v?rt?m] 'I sewed'.

Intercluster elision

The middle alveolar stops may be omitted in clusters with more than two consonants, depending on speed and articulation of speech: azt hiszem [?s?his?m] ~ [?st?his?m] 'I presume/guess', mindnyájan [mi?:a:j?n] 'one and all', különbség [kylømp?e:?] ~ [kyløm?e:?] 'difference'. In morpheme onsets like str- [?tr], middle stops tends to be more stable in educated speech, falanxstratégia [f?l?n?tr?te:?i?] ~ [f?lk?tr?te:?i?] ~ [f?lks?tr?te:?i?] 'strategy based on phalanxes'.

Elision of [l]

  • assimilates to a following (e.g. balra ['b?r:?], 'to the left').[27]

/l/ also tends to be omitted between a preceding vowel and an adjacent stop or affricate in rapid speech, causing the lengthening of the vowel or diphthongization[example needed] (e.g. volt [vo:t] 'was', polgár ['po:?a:r] 'citizen'). This is considered non-standard.


Standard Hungarian prefers hiatus between adjacent vowels. However some optional dissolving features can be observed:

  • An optional weak glide [j?] may be pronounced within a word (or a compound element) between two adjacent vowels if one of them is i [i], e.g. fiaiéi ['fi?ie:i] ~ ['fijj?ij?e:j?i] ('the ones of his/her sons'). This, however, is rarely transcribed.
  • Adjacent identical short vowels other than a and e may be pronounced as the corresponding long vowel, e.g. zoológia ['zo.olo:?i?] ~ ['zo:lo:?i?] ('zoology').
  • Adjacent double i is always pronounced as single short [i] in the word endings, e.g. Hawaii ['h?v?i]. This reduction is reflected in the current orthography when the adjective-forming suffix -i is added to a noun ending in i. In this case suffix -i is omitted also in writing. e.g. Lenti (a placename) + -i -> lenti 'of Lenti'.


The stress is on the first syllable of the word. The articles a, az, egy, and the particle is are usually unstressed.[28]


  1. ^ a b c Szende (1994:91)
  2. ^ Laminal dental, apart from the sibilants, which are laminal denti-alveolar.
  3. ^ a b Gósy (2004:74)
  4. ^ "Szende". Archived from the original on 2008-06-19. Retrieved .
  5. ^ "Gósy Mária".
  6. ^ Gósy (2004:136)
  7. ^ Siptár & Törkenczy (2007:205)
  8. ^ Gósy (2004:77, 130)
  9. ^ a b Szende (1994:93)
  10. ^ Balázs Sinkovics, Gyula Zsigri: A H-ra vonatkozó megszorítások történeti változásai in A nyelvtörténeti kutatások újabb eredményei vol. 4, JATE Press, 2005
  11. ^ Gósy (2004:77, 161)
  12. ^ Gósy (2004:161)
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Szende (1994:92)
  14. ^ Short a is slightly rounded in the standard language, though some dialects exhibit an unrounded version closer to (Vago (1980:1)).
  15. ^ Krá? (1988:92)
  16. ^ Gósy (2004:62, 67-70)
  17. ^ Gósy (2004:66-67)
  18. ^ Vago (1980:1)
  19. ^ a b c d e Rounds (2001:10)
  20. ^ a b c d Rounds (2001:11)
  21. ^ a b c Vago (1976:244)
  22. ^ Miklós Törkenczy: Practical Hungarian Grammar. A compact guide to the basics of Hungarian Grammar. Corvina, 2002. pp. 9-12. ISBN 963-13-5131-9
  23. ^ A magyar helyesírás szabályai. 11.kiadás, 12. lenyomat. Akadémiai Kiadó, 1984-2000. pp. 26-30. ISBN 963-05-7735-6
  24. ^ a b c Vago (1980:35)
  25. ^ Vago (1980:33, 36)
  26. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. Retrieved .CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  27. ^ Vago (1980:36)
  28. ^ Rounds (2009:8)


  • Gósy, Mária (2004), Fonetika, a beszéd tudománya ('Phonetics, the Study of Speech'), Budapest: Osiris, ISBN 963-389-666-5
  • Krá?, Ábel (1988), Pravidlá slovenskej výslovnosti, Bratislava: Slovenské pedagogické nakladate?stvo
  • Rounds, Carol (2001), "Vowel harmony", Hungarian : An Essential Grammar, Routledge, ISBN 9780415226127
  • Rounds, Carol (2009), Hungarian: An Essential Grammar (2nd ed.), New York: Routledge, ISBN 978-0-203-88619-9
  • Siptár, Péter; Törkenczy, Miklós (2007), The Phonology of Hungarian, The Phonology of the World's Languages, Oxford University Press
  • Szende, Tamás (1994), "Illustrations of the IPA: Hungarian", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 24 (2): 91-94, doi:10.1017/S0025100300005090
  • Vago, Robert M. (1980), The Sound Pattern of Hungarian, Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press
  • Vago, Robert M. (1976), "Theoretical Implications of Hungarian Vowel Harmony", Linguistic Inquiry, 7 (2): 243-63, JSTOR 4177921

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