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Hungarian Grammar - Vowel Harmony

To understand the Hungarian language better I recommend you learn about Vowel Harmony. Vowel Harmony, unique to the Hungarian language, bases a prefix or suffix for example around a certain vowel within a base word. In order to understand this concept, you first need to learn about the vowels.

DIFFERENT TYPES OF VOWEL

Low Pitched Vowels – Low pitched vowels, also known as Back Vowels, comprise of the letters (vowels) a (short a), á (long a), o (short o), ó (long o), u (short u) and ú (long u). Forget about the length of the vowels for now. Just remember the letters a, o, u, á, ó and ú are all low pitched (back) vowels.

High Pitched Vowels – High pitched vowels, also known as Front Vowels, comprise of the letters (vowels) e (short e), é (long e), i (short i), í (long i), ö (short o), ő (long o), ü (short u) and ű (long u). Forget about the length of the vowels for now. Just remember the letters e, é, i, í, ö, ő, ü and ű are all high pitched (front) vowels.

Neutral Pitched Vowels – Neutral pitched vowels, which are also classed as Front Vowels but can be used as Back Vowels, comprise of the letters (vowels) é (long e), i (short i) and í (long i). Forget about the length of the vowels for now. Just remember the letters é, i and í can also be neutral pitched (back or front) vowels.

Type Length Vowels Type Length Vowels
Back (Low Pitch) Short a o u Back (Low Pitch) Long á ó ú
Front (High Pitch) Short e i ö ü Front (High Pitch) Long é í ő ű
Back/Front (Neutral Pitch) Short i Back/Front (Neutral Pitch) Long é í

DIFFERENT TYPES OF WORD

Now you are aware of the vowels, it is equally important to be aware that a word can consist of consonants and back vowels only, consonants and front vowels only or consonants and a mixture of back and front vowels. You also have to be aware that vowel harmony only becomes active when a suffix for example is added to a single base word or compound words (i.e. two or more base words put together). Furthermore, that suffix will have to match the base word's vowel type (back or front). This in turn means there are back and front suffixes.

EXAMPLES OF BACK VOWEL ONLY WORDS

CSOMAG (PLASTER) - This is a back vowel word because it contains the o and a vowels only, which are both short vowels and both back vowels.

ORSZÁG (COUNTRY) - This is a back vowel word because it contains the o and á vowels only, which are short and long vowels respectively and all back vowels.

EXAMPLES OF FRONT VOWEL ONLY WORDS

TÖRÜLKÖZŐ (TOWEL) - This is a front vowel word because it contains the ö, ü, ö and ő vowels, which are short, short, short and long vowels respectively and all front vowels.

KÖRÖM (NAIL) - This is a front vowel word because it contains two ö vowels, which are both short vowels and both front vowels.

ÜTŐ (RACKET) - This is a front vowel word because it contains the ü and ő vowels, which are short and long respectively and both front vowels.

EXAMPLES OF MIXED VOWEL WORDS

What happens when a word contains both back and front vowels? Well, regardless of them being short or long vowels, the rule is that a word with a mixture of vowels automatically becomes a back vowel word.

FÜRDŐSZOBA (BATHROOM) - This is a back vowel word because it contains the ü and ő vowels, which are short and long vowels respectively and all front vowels, plus the naturally back vowels o and a (both short) making the entire word a mixed vowel word that then becomes a back vowel by default.

BUDAPEST - This is a back vowel word because it contains the u and a vowels, which are both short vowels and back vowels, plus the front vowel e (short) making the entire word a mixed vowel word that then becomes a back vowel by default.

EXAMPLES OF SUFFIXES

As said above, vowel harmony only really becomes active when you add a suffix to a single base word or compound words. Furthermore, that suffix will have to match the base word's vowel type (back or front). Either way, you should take note of the above grammar notes as they will help you further understand vowel harmony. In other words, you need to understand the back and front vowel types in order to understand vowel harmony. Here are some examples of vowel harmony:

MAGYAR (HUNGARIAN) - Magyar is a back vowel word because it contains two short vowels (both a). By adding the back adverbial suffix ul to it, it then becomes MAGYARUL (IN HUNGARIAN); which can then be used when asking Speak IN HUNGURIAN (BESZÉLJ MAGYARUL) for example. Forget what the word then becomes though because here you need to be aware that you could never use the front adverbial suffix ül with the back vowel word Magyar. The harmony here is between the base word (back vowel word) Magyar and the back adverbial suffix ul.

ÉTEL (FOOD) - Étel is a front vowel word because it contains one short vowel (e) and one long vowel (é). By adding the front adverbial suffix ben to it, it then becomes ÉTELBEN (IN THE FOOD); which can then be used when asking What Is IN THE FOOD (MI VAN AZ ÉTELBEN) for example. Forget what the word then becomes though because here you need to be aware that you could never use the back adverbial suffix ban with the front vowel word Étel. The harmony here is between the base word (front vowel word) Étel and the front adverbial suffix ben.

FRANCIA (FRENCH) - Francia is a mixed vowel word because it contains two short, back, vowels (a) and one short, front, vowel (i), which defaults it to a back vowel word. By adding the back adverbial suffix ul to it, it then becomes FRANCIÁUL (IN FRENCH); which can then be used when asking Speak IN FRENCH (BESZÉLJ FRANCIÁUL) for example. Forget what the word then becomes though because here you need to be aware that you could never use the front adverbial suffix ül with the mixed (now back) vowel word Francia. The harmony here is between the base word (mixed vowel word) Francia and the back adverbial suffix ul.

NOTE: When a word ends with a short vowel, such as Francia, it has its short vowel changed into its longer form (á in this case) when a plural suffix (K), object suffix (T) or adverbial suffix (such as UL) is added to it. Examples: Francia (French) plus adverbial suffix UL becomes Franciául (In French), Ruha (Dress) plus plural suffix K becomes Ruhák (Dresses) and Este (Evening) plus object suffix T becomes Estét (Evening).

EXAMPLES OF LINKING VOWELS

With words that end with a consonant, many of them will need a linking vowel before their plural suffix (K) or object suffix (T) is added. Consonants such as b, cs, d, g, gy, h, j, m and p for sure, but there are exceptions. This is because adding a T or K to a word that ends with a consonant would make the final word difficult to read and pronounce.

In general O or A is used as a back linking vowel and E or Ö is used as a front linking vowel. A, I and U are not really used that much as linking vowels. Here are some examples:

KANAL (SPOON) - To make the word SPOONS you cannot just add the object suffix T to KANAL. KANALT is not a proper word and is not the proper word for SPOONS. KANAL needs the linking vowel a added to it before adding the object suffix T, to make the proper word KANALAT (SPOONS).

CSOMAG (PACKAGE) - To make the word PACKAGES you cannot just add the plural suffix K to CSOMAG. CSOMAGK is not a proper word and is not the proper word for PACKAGES. CSOMAG needs the linking vowel o added to it before adding the plural suffix K, to make the proper word CSOMAGOK (PACKAGES). To make CSOMAGOK an object, as well as plural, you also need to add the linking vowel a and then the object suffix T to the end of it; to make CSOMAGOKAT.

EXAMPLE OF A NEUTRAL VOWEL WORD

SEGÍT (HELP) - When a word has a neutral vowel in it, such as the í in Segít, that word inherits from the default vowel type; which in this case is front because of the e, therefore making Segít a front vowel word. If you then add the front linking vowel E plus the infinitive suffix NI you get the word SEGÍTENI (You Help Me).


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