In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hungarian Vowel Harmony

  • Introduction
  • Works of Comprehensive Descriptive Coverage
  • Roundness Harmony

Linguistics Hungarian Vowel Harmony
Miklós Törkenczy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0134


Vowel harmony is the phonological requirement that vowels must agree in their specifications for some designated feature(s) (e.g., backness, roundness, height, tongue root) within a prosodically or morphologically defined domain (e.g., root, stem, syllable, phonological word). If the domain of harmony is larger than the root, it results in alternations (typically, harmonically alternating affixes). Hungarian displays two kinds of vowel harmony, a pervasive front/back (palatal) harmony and a more limited roundness (labial) harmony. The latter never occurs independently of the first type of harmony. Both kinds of harmony are stem-controlled and directionally left-to-right; that is, the relevant harmonic properties of the stem determine those of the harmonically alternating suffixes. There are suffixes that show two-way alternation (back ~ front) and suffixes that show three-way alternation (back ~ unrounded front ~ rounded front). The domain of harmony is the word, which does not include prefixes and certain suffixes. Consonants neither initiate nor block harmony. Front/back harmony can apply long-distance, skipping neutral vowels, which are thus transparent. There are four neutral vowels (/iː, i, eː, ɛ/) representing different degrees of neutrality, the gradience manifesting itself chiefly in the variability of transparency: /iː, i/ are fully transparent, there is some variation between transparency and opacity with /eː/, and there is massive variation with /ɛ/ (this is referred to as the “height effect” in the literature, cf. Hayes and Cziráky Londe 2006, cited under Gradience, Variation, Transparency, the Height Effect, and the Count Effect). More than one neutral vowel is also less transparent than a single one (this is referred to as the “count effect,” cf. Hayes and Cziráky Londe 2006, cited under Gradience, Variation, Transparency, the Height Effect, and the Count Effect). It is generally assumed that in a harmony system with neutral vowels, those vowels of the inventory are the neutral ones that cannot harmonically alternate, since they lack their harmonic counterparts. Hungarian is interesting or problematic in this respect because, of the four neutral vowels, /eː, ɛ/ are involved in harmonic alternations in suffixes. On the other hand, almost all of the suffixes that do not alternate harmonically have one of the neutral vowels (except /ɛ/). The neutral vowels (which are phonetically front) can also regularly combine with back vowels within the root. Hungarian has front/back anti-harmony: some neutral-vowel roots consistently take an anti-harmonic back suffix alternant rather than the front one, while others (the majority of similar roots) behave in the way required by front/back harmony (and take a front suffix). Roundness harmony has none of the intricacies of front/back harmony: it does not apply in roots, there are no long-distance transparency effects, and it shows no variation. It is also restricted in height: while the source of roundness harmony can be a rounded vowel of any height, the suffixal target vowel is never high. Roundness harmony interacts with another process (Lowering) that results in the suspension of roundness harmony after inflectional suffixes and some roots (and may result in four-way suffix alternations).

Works of Comprehensive Descriptive Coverage

Hungarian vowel harmony (henceforward HVH) has received considerable attention in the phonological literature, but most works concentrate on some aspect(s) of it. The following publications offer comprehensive coverage and descriptive detail (with or without a formal analysis in some theoretical framework chosen). Abondolo 1988, Olsson 1992, Rebrus 2000, Siptár and Törkenczy 2000, and Vago 1980 discuss Hungarian (morpho)phonology generally, including vowel harmony, while Rebrus, et al. 2012 and Törkenczy 2011 focus specifically on HVH. Rebrus and Törkenczy 2019 contains the most detailed and comprehensive description of HVH to date.

  • Abondolo, Daniel. 1988. Hungarian inflectional morphology. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó.

    A book on Hungarian nominal and verbal inflection; the terminology and the formalism are idiosyncratic, but it contains a descriptively thorough discussion of vowel harmony.

  • Olsson, Magnus. 1992. Hungarian phonology and morphology. Travaux de l’Institut de Linguistique de Lund 26. Lund, Sweden: Lund Univ. Press.

    A rule-based analysis of Hungarian (morpho)phonology (intended to be a criticism of Vago 1980). It has a chapter on HVH.

  • Rebrus, Péter. 2000. Morfofonológiai jelenségek. In Strukturális magyar nyelvtan. Vol. 3, Morfológia. Edited by Ferenc Kiefer, 763–947. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó.

    A government phonology approach to Hungarian morphophonology. It has a very detailed discussion of vowel harmony.

  • Rebrus, Péter, Péter Szigetvári, and Miklós Törkenczy. 2012. Dark secrets of Hungarian vowel harmony. In Sound structure and sense: Studies in memory of Edmund Gussmann. Edited by Eugeniusz Cyran, Henryk Kardela, and Bogdan Szymanek, 491–508. Lublin, Poland: Wydawnictwo KUL.

    An essentially descriptive paper focusing on vowel harmony phenomena that are rarely discussed in the literature and are potentially problematic for the available analyses that encode harmonic behavior in underlying representations.

  • Rebrus, Péter, and Miklós Törkenczy. 2019. Magyar harmónia: A dolgok állása. Általános Nyelvészeti Tanulmányok 31:233–333.

    A comprehensive, very fine-grained description of HVH (both roundness harmony and front/back harmony). It includes a detailed account of variation (lexical variation and vacillation) and the relationship between the morphological and phonological properties co-determining harmony. The paper presents an optimality theoretic and harmonic grammar analysis of the phonological and morphological phenomena determining variation and harmony. (Translated as “Harmony in Hungarian: The current state of play”).

  • Siptár, Péter, and Miklós Törkenczy. 2000. The phonology of Hungarian. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A derivational, autosegmental, lexical phonology approach to Hungarian phonology, with two descriptively thorough chapters on vowel harmony.

  • Törkenczy, Miklós. 2011. Hungarian vowel harmony. In The Blackwell companion to phonology. Vol. 5. Edited by Marc van Oostendorp, Colin J. Ewen, Elizabeth Hume, and Keren Rice, 2963–2990. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    A very detailed theory-neutral review of the facts, the analytic issues, and the literature. Also discusses other phonological processes that interact with vowel harmony.

  • Vago, Robert M. 1980. The sound pattern of Hungarian. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Press.

    A rule-based, abstract, derivational analysis of Hungarian phonology with a treatment of vowel harmony covering the basic pattern.

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