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Review of  The Phonology of Hungarian

Reviewer: Stefan Ploch
Book Title: The Phonology of Hungarian
Book Author: Piter Siptar Miklós Törkenczy
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Subject Language(s): Hungarian
Issue Number: 12.1866

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Siptar, Peter and Miklos Torkenczy (2000). The phonology of Hungarian.
Oxford University Press, hardback ISBN: 0-19-823841-X, $99.00, xiv+319pp
(The Phonology of the World's Languages).

Reviewed by Stefan Frisch, Department of Communication Sciences and
Disorders, University of South Florida


S&T provide a comprehensive introduction to the segmental phonology of
Hungarian using a rule-based formalism. Hungarian (native name _magyar_) is
a Finno-Ugric (Uralic) language that is typologically unlike the other
members of Uralic family. The book is divided into three parts. Part I
(Background) provides an introduction to the contents of the book and an
overview of Hungarian grammar. Part II (Systems) discusses the vowel
inventory, the consonant inventory, and phonotactic constraints. Part 3
(Processes) examines morphophonological processes, including vowel harmony,
the most well-known feature of Hungarian phonology, and post-lexical
(surface) processes.

Chapter 1 (Introduction, 12 pages) gives a brief overview of previous work
on Hungarian phonology and the authors' theoretical assumptions. The authors
choose a rule-based account of Hungarian phonology, despite the recent shift
among formal phonologists toward constraint-based models. Their choice of
framework was determined by a desire to make their work accessible to the
largest number of readers and a desire to avoid the potential pitfalls of
committing to a new theoretical framework when its basic assumptions are not
yet agreed upon. The morphophonological analysis in S&T uses a blend of the
frameworks of Lexical Phonology and Government Phonology. The authors divide
the suffixes in Hungarian into two classes: synthetic and analytic
(equivalently, those that introduce + and # boundaries, or Level 1 and Level
2 suffixes). Phonological processes are divided into two corresponding
blocks, with Block 1 applying within analytic domains and Block 2 applying
to the whole word. For representation, S&T uses fairly standard Feature
Geometry, underspecification, and onset-rime syllable structure (with a
syllable appendix available for Block 2 rules).

In addition to their own (native speaker) judgments the authors make
occasional use of a dictionary corpus of Hungarian lexical items. They also
provide a great number of references to previous work on Hungarian
phonology, which in addition to being sprinkled throughout the text are
conveniently grouped into a section in the introduction. Among these
references, those interested in this book as an introduction to Hungarian
phonology might also wish to examine Hall (1944); Kenesei, Vago, and
Fenyvesi (1998); or Vago (1980).

Chapter 2 (Preliminaries, 35 pages) provides an overview of Hungarian and
Hungarian grammar. S&T analyze Educated Colloquial Hungarian, the standard
language for educated Hungarians, modulo some influence from regional
dialects. Hungarian is an agglutinating language with syllable-timed prosody
and a rich vowel system. Hungarian also has a large number of consonant
contrasts, including a full series of palatals. Brief treatments of
intonation, morphosyntax, and word order are also given, and the level of
detail is greater than what is typically found in a typological overview
(e.g. the chapter by Daniel Abondolo in Comrie, 1990).

Chapter 3 (The vowel system, 24 pages) introduces the surface phonetic vowel
system, provides a featural representation of the vowels, and sketches out
alternation patterns in vowel length and quality. Hungarian vowels have a
front/back contrast, with two levels of height for front vowels and three
levels for back vowels. There is no central series, but there is a series of
rounded front vowels, providing seven quality contrasts for short vowels.
Hungarian also has a length contrast for all vowels, though there are some
quality differences between phonologically contrastive short/long pairs. For
example, the long /a/ corresponds to the short /open-o/. The phonological
nature of the length contrast for vowels of different phonetic quality is
demonstrated in three length alternations. First, morpheme-final short low
vowels are lengthened (with a resulting change in phonetic quality) before a
suffix. Second, in some stems, final long vowels are shortened before some
inflectional suffixes. Third, in some stems, internal long vowels are
shortened before some derivational suffixes. These alternations are
sufficient to demonstrate that the vowels involves are treated as the same
phonological category despite phonetic differences in degree of height (and

This chapter also provides a description of Hungarian vowel harmony. Harmony
is controlled by the stem of the complex word (Block 2 process), enforcing
agreement in backness between all suffix vowels and the stem final vowel.
There are, of course, complications. The front unrounded vowels appear to be
neutral to backness harmony, so the process is restricted to rounded vowels
as triggers and targets. There are a few suffixes with rounded vowels that
are unaffected, and several classes of stems with differing behavior. While
the stem final vowel is the primary influence in cases of backness harmony,
earlier vowels in the stem control harmony if the stem final vowel is
unrounded. If the stem consists only of (front) unrounded vowels,
front-vowel suffixes are usually selected, suggesting the neutral vowels are
not quite neutral, just of lesser influence. In addition to backness
harmony, Hungarian also has rounding harmony that is always controlled by
the stem final vowel, but is secondary to backness harmony. This leads to a
three-way alternation in suffixes when the stem has a final front unrounded
vowel but a front rounded vowel earlier in the stem. In this case suffix
vowels are front unrounded vowels. If the stem final vowel is unrounded but
the preceding vowel is back (rounded) a back vowel surfaces in the suffix.

Chapter 4 (The consonant system, 19 pages) lays out the consonant inventory.
Hungarian has labial, dental, palatal, and velar consonants, with stops and
fricatives at all places of articulation. Hungarian has dental and palatal
affricates, and voicing contrasts for all obstruents except the velar
fricative /x/. This fricative is phonetically realized as [h] in prevocalic
position. Hungarian also has nasals at all places, and /l, r, j/. All
obstruents are involved in a pattern of voicing assimilation within a
cluster, that is regressive (right-to-left) and applies across all prosodic
boundaries except for a pause. For example, /st#b/ -> [zdb] in a compound.
Exceptions include /x/, which does not undergo voicing but does trigger
devoicing, and [v], which undergoes devoicing but does not trigger voicing.
Sonorant consonants are inert in voice assimilation. Nasal consonants
assimilate to the place of a following obstruent in clusters.

Chapter 5 (Phonotactics, 60 pages) gives a thorough treatment of phonotactic
constraints in the Hungarian word. Tables are given that provide a complete
listing of word initial and word final clusters. Information on possible
word final clusters in monomorphemic contexts as well as with synthetic and
analytic suffixes is given. Hungarian is rich in consonant clusters,
including for example initial [ft, sv, mn] and final [kt], [ps], [vd]. S&T
account for the large number of possible clusters in three ways. The most
unusual cases involve a few analytic suffixes, and an appendix position is
invoked. For the remainder, S&T propose a Hungarian sonority hierarchy that
puts stops, fricatives, and affricates at roughly the same level, with
nasals higher and liquids higher still. As with other languages, clusters
are licensed in cases where there is a large sonority difference. In
addition, clusters with a smaller sonority difference are also licensed if
both members of the cluster are coronal.

S&T also present cases of trans-syllabic phonotactic constraints. Hungarian
has several regularities in vowel hiatus, including cases where a suffix
initial vowel deletes or a glide is inserted. Some cases of hiatus do
surface, and there are also distributional regularities on possible vowel
sequences. There are also distributional constraints on trans-syllabic
consonant sequences. For the most part, these are accounted for by the
constraints given for possible initial and final syllables. However, there
is one odd gap in that combinations where the second consonant is labial are
systematically absent.

Chapter 6 (Processes involving vowels, 19 pages) provides a detailed formal
analysis of the patterns of vowel harmony and vowel lengthening/shortening
that was presented in . S&T treats backness and rounding harmony
simultaneously, giving a nice coherence to their analysis. Though this is a
rule-based account, it has a similar flavor to an Optimality Theoretic
treatment. There are several feature-spreading rules that can all
potentially apply, and in cases where there is no direct conflict, they do.
In cases of conflict there is priority between rules. Finally, there is a
set of impossible feature combinations to constrain overgeneration (that
are, in part, phonetically motivated). A formal analysis of lengthening and
shortening is also given. The discussion then turns to exceptional cases in
vowel lengthening/shortening that related to exceptional cases in vowel
harmony. However, no concrete proposals are put forth and the issue of these
exceptions is left primarily as an open problem.

Chapter 7 (Processes involving consonants, 38 pages) presents several cases
of assimilation in consonants, including palatalization of dentals that
precede palatals, affrication of /t/ and /j/, and place assimilation for
adjacent strident consonants. As in the previous section, an attempt is made
to unify these processes under a single rule of place assimilation. The
authors are only partially successful, however. This chapter also presents a
straightforward formal analysis of voicing assimilation and nasal place

Chapter 8 (Processes conditioned by syllable structure, 84 pages) is
primarily concerned with cases of vowel/zero alternation. Such alternations
can be found with stem final vowels, suffix initial vowels, or
stem-internally in consonant clusters. In the formal analysis the authors
present a representational distinction between full vowels and defective
vowels. Defective vowels can be filled and surface or be deleted. The
quality of the defective vowel is partially phonologically conditioned and
there are a large number of intricacies that are not amenable to a brief
summary such as this. This chapter also contains a brief treatment of total
assimilation of suffix initial [v] to the stem final consonant in some
suffixes and the [h]-[x] alternation discussed above.

Chapter 9 (Surface processes, 19 pages) describes cases of variation in
phonetic implementation that are primarily related to speech rate, register,
or inter-speaker variability. The authors discuss surface variability in
vowel length, cases of liquid deletion with compensatory vowel lengthening,
fortition in cases of vowel hiatus, and degemination/cluster simplification

Critical Evaluation:

Overall, this is a lovely combination of language description and analysis
that is extremely well written. I think the authors fully achieved their
goal of producing a work that is accessible to a wide audience. In addition,
the later chapters in the book contain detailed formal analysis that make
quite clear the strengths (and weaknesses) of the authors' proposals. I
think the organization, which begins with a more descriptive treatment and
proceeds to deeper levels of formal detail make the book extremely
accessible, as people of different interest level/background can get as much
detail as they wish. It is also a book of noticeably excellent quality.
There were no typographic errors and the figures and tables are quite well
done. My one complaint would be the very spare use of phonetic transcription
for the vowel system. I found this to be particularly bothersome in tables
with feature descriptions or summaries of phonological patterns where it
would have been easy to include both orthographic and transcription labels.
Most example forms are also given orthographically, putting the burden on
the reader to determine the relevant phonological form. More consistent use
of transcription was employed in discussing the consonants.

This book also serves its purpose as a member of the phonology of the
world's languages series. The overview of the Hungarian phonological system
is comprehensive, covering several areas of the phonology in detail. A great
deal of useful data and analysis is provided, including some cases where
lexical counts are given based on their dictionary corpus. The presentation
is complete and detailed enough for me to use the section on phonotactics in
my own research. Given my own interest in lexical corpus research, I would
like to have seen more data given along these lines (e.g. as in another book
in the Oxford series, Hammond 1999, though S&T is less narrowly focused than
Hammond 1999). Regardless, this book is a rich resource for researchers;
especially those interested in applying the newer frameworks to complicated
data. In addition, the patterns presented appear to contain a degree of
gradiency that are becoming a growing topic of research for both formal and
functional phonologists (see for example, Ringen and Heinamaki 1999 and the
references therein for research along these lines with relevant analysis and
discussion). Therefore I think this book would also be of interest to
functional phonologists, as the authors provide several cases where there
are both broad patterns and problematic exceptions that are difficult to
handle completely in a formal account.

Comrie, Bernard (1980). The world's major languages. Oxford University
Press, Oxford.
Hall, Robert A. (1944). Hungarian grammar. Linguistic Society of America,
Hammond, Michael (1999). The phonology of English. Oxford University Press,
Kenesei, Istvan, Robert M. Vago, and Anna Fenyvesi (1998). Hungarian.
Descriptive Grammar Series. Routledge, London.
Ringen, Catherine and Orvokki Heinamaki (1999). Variation in Finnish vowel
harmony: An OT account. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 17, 303-337.
Vago, Robert M. (1980). The sound pattern of Hungarian. Georgetown
University Press, Washington.

For more information on the reviewer, see