Vowel harmony is a unique feature of the Hungarian language. In a nutshell vowel harmony means that not every vowel harmonizes with every other vowel. We distinguish between two types of vowels: “low pitched vowels” (literal translation of “mély magánhangzó”) and “high pitched vowels” (literal translation of the Hungarian expression “magas magánhangzó”). Low pitched vowels are called back vowels in English grammar books and high pitched vowels are called front vowels (these terms are based on where the vowels are formed in the mouth). I find the Hungarian terms more expressive than the English for learners because when you utter the respective vowels they indeed sound low pitched or high pitched. Low-pitched vowels are: a, á, o, ó, u, ú. High pitched vowels are: e, é, i, í, ö, o, ü, ű.
There are three types of Hungarian words: 1. words that have only low pitched vowels (called “low-pitched words”) 2. words that have only high pitched vowels and (called “high-pitched words”) 3. words that have both low pitched and high pitched vowels. Vowel harmony comes into play when we add endings to the words. (Hungarian language operates with endings instead of prepositions.) Each ending has two (or three) types: a high pitched and a low pitched version. For example, the adverbial ending that we attach to language names has two versions: “ul” and “ül.” “Ul” is the low pitched version and “ül” is the high pitched version. Depending on what kinds of vowels there are in the word, the ending will be either the low pitched version or the high pitched version (sometimes there are two types of high-pitched endings; one only for words with rounded vowels). If the word has any low pitched vowels (that is, low pitched words and mixed words [type 1 and 3]), it will get the low pitched ending. If the word has only high pitched vowels, it will get the high pitched ending. You can remember what endings you put after mixed words by imagining the low pitched vowels as dominant; they are the “stronger.”
Compound words: When you attach an ending to a compound word, you only consider the last part in the vowel harmony rule. For example, if the first part of the compound is a low-pitched word and the second is a high-pitched one, the ending will be high-pitched because you conform to the last part of the compound.
A few examples: the word “magyar” has two vowels, both are “a”. “A” is a low pitched vowel, thus the word “magyar” is a low pitched word. As a result, the adverbial ending will be “ul” and not “ül.” “Török” is a high pitched word because “ö” is a high pitched vowel. The adverbial ending thus will be “ül.” “Francia” is a mixed word because it has “a” (low pitched vowel) and “i” (high pitched vowel). It will get, as a result, the low pitched ending “ul.”
a) Which category do the following words belong: 1. low-pitched words (back vowel words) 2. high-pitched words (front vowel words) or 3. mixed words?
b) Which ending do they require: low pitched or high pitched endings?
asztal [table], szék [chair], ágy [bed], vonat [train], konyha [kitchen], lakás [apartment], kristály [crystal], füzet [notebook], ceruza [pencil], toll [pen], rádió [radio], televízió [television]
Check your answer here.
- Which ending do the following language names require: “ul” or “ül”?
spanyol, portugál, finn, koreai, kínai, olasz, arab, skót, görög, ukrán, orosz, lengyel, szlovák, szlovén, cseh, német, svéd, norvég, japán
Check your answer here.
You can check the meaning of these language names at the appendix.
Hungarian language has only three tenses: one past, one present and one future tense. In this unit you have encountered sentences where the verbs were in the present tense. In the sentences “I don’t speak Hungarian” (“Nem beszélek magyarul”) and “Do you speak English?” (“Beszélsz anolul?”) the verb speak is conjugated in the present tense. In the following you can see the endings we attach to the verbs in the present tense. You can see that sometimes there are more than one version for an ending due to the vowel harmony rule.
|én||verb + ok e.g. mutat + ok|
|verb + ek e.g. beszél + ek|
|verb + ök e.g. köt [knit] + ök (after verbs where the last vowel is a rounded vowel: “ö” or “ü”)|
|te||verb + sz e.g. beszél + sz|
|verb + sz e.g. mutat + sz|
|ő||verb + — e.g. beszél|
|verb + — e.g. mutat|
same as the third person e.g. beszél, mutat
There are verbs which do not strictly follow the conjugation outlined above.
Conjugate the following verbs in the singular.
áll [stand], táncol [dance], vár [wait], kap [get, receive], szeret [love, like], lát [see]
Click here to check your answers.
Definite and Indefinite Conjugation
Hungarian language has an interesting phenomenon in conjugation. When
we conjugate a transitive verb (one that has an object) we have to be
aware whether the object of the verb is definite or indefinite because
the endings are different depending on that. What makes it easier is
that the definite endings differ from the indefinite endings systematically
(the same way in every tense and mode). We have not yet defined what
we mean by definite and indefinite objects. We call the object of the
verb definite when the object is a specific object, that is, it is defined
by the context or there is only one such an item. The definite object
is preceded by the definite article: “the.” We call an object
indefinite when it is not specified by the context. The indefinite object
is preceded by the indefinite article: “a” or “an.” The
conjugation of verbs with indefinite objects follows the conjugation
outlined above, which is also the conjugation of intransitive verbs.
To see the conjugation of verbs with definite objects click here (LINK
not ready yet).