A reference guide to Hungarian grammar, designed with English-speakers in mind

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Vowels and vowel harmony in Hungarian

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There are 14 vowels in Hungarian.

Vowel harmony is a key feature of the Hungarian language. It means that many word endings have two or three different versions, each to be applied under different conditions. These conditions are based upon which vowels are present in a word, and will be explained here.

Parity and symmetry of vowels

Like so many parts of Hungarian, even the alphabet exhibits parity or symmetry. For every short vowel there is a short and a long version. Here are some sound files to help you.

Short: a e i o ö u ü
Long: á é í ó ő ú ű
Compare öő üű

Hear all 14 vowels (mp3)

Back vowels

These vowels have a deeper note and are made using the back of the mouth.
They are:
a, á, (i), (í), o, ó, u, ú

Front vowels

Front vowels are higher-pitched and created at the front of the mouth. They can be further split two groups, long and short.

The front vowels are:

  • e, é, (i), (í), ö, ő, ü, ű

These are then split into short and long groups:

  • short front: e, (i), ö, ü
  • long front: é, (í), ő, ű

Letters i and í

These are intermediate and generally do not contribute to whether a word is overall front or back. On their own they are considered back vowels, e.g. ír becomes írok and not írek. In a sord such as segít, the í dos not contrbute, and it's the e that classes this as a short-front word.

Categorising a word

The vowels in a word must be considered to determine the word's overall harmonious status.

Simply, if a word contains only back vowels, it is considered a back-vowel word, and takes the back-vowel endings. Such a word is három three.

If a word contains only front-vowels, it is a front-vowel word. Example: repül (to) fly.

If a word contains both front and back, the last vowel generally gives the class. béka frog, a back-vowel word.

If a word contains short- and long-front vowels, generally the last vowel will give its class.
Example: kettő two is a long-front word.

This task of categorisation will soon become second nature, don't worry if it seems confusing at first. It won't be confusing soon, and even if you make a mistake in the selection of an ending you'll still be perfectly understood.

One-, two- and three-fold endings

Whenever one sees a two-fold ending, such as -ja/je, this means at the choice between the two is the choice between front and back vowels. Both long- and short-front vowel words are clumped together as front vowel words.

When one see a three-fold choice of endings, such as -ok/ek/ük, the choice is between back, short-front and long-front vowel words.

  • lát becomes látok I see
  • szeret becomes szeretek I like
  • ül becomes ülök I sit

One-form endings of course apply to all classes of words. An exaple is -ért, the causal-final case.

  • az + ért = azért for that reason, therefore
  • ez + ért = ezért for this reason, herefore

The whole alphabet

See the main page on the Hungarian alphabet.

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