Vowel harmony

Vowel harmony is a pretty name for a pretty concept that promises to be your first true challenge in learning Hungarian. English has nothing like it but it is crucial to understand vowel harmony right from the beginning; without it, you won’t be able to make a plural, conjugate verbs, or do anything even slightly complicated. It is easy to learn - it’s just a slightly different way of thinking about words and vowels.

In the Preface we mentioned that Hungarian is a language that continually ‘glues’ configuration words and their endings together. What we didn’t mention is the vowel harmony that occurs while adding these endings. In a nutshell, vowel harmony is the mechanism used to maintain the same or similar quality of vowel sound throughout individual words in Hungarian - no matter how many endings are attached to a word. The process involves first determining what kind of vowels are in the root-word and, second, choosing the ending that best matches the quality of those vowels. First, you need to know how to classify the vowels before you can make them harmonize.

Hungarian vowels are classified according to front vs. back vowels and rounded vs. unrounded vowels. These terms come from describing the tongue position in the mouth and the roundedness of the lips, respectively. The following lists the vowels according to these characteristics:

Back vowels: a á o ó u ú

Front unrounded vowels: e é i í

Front rounded vowels: ö ő ü ű

1     Field of discourse: This is an abstract term for ‘what is going on’ that is relevant to the speaker’s choice of linguistic items. Different linguistic choices are made by different speakers depending on what kind of action other than the immediate action of speaking they see themselves as participating in. For example, linguistic choices will vary according to whether the speaker is taking part in a football match or discussing football; making love or discussing love; making a political speech or discussing politics; performing an operation or discussing medicine.


2     Tenor of discourse: An abstract term for the relationships,between the people taking part in the discourse. Again, the language people use varies depending on such interpersonal relationships as mother/child, doctor/patient, or superior/inferior in status. A patient is unlikely to use swear words in addressing a doctor and a mother is unlikely to start a request to her child with I wonder if you could ... Getting the tenor of discourse right in translation can be quite difficult. It depends on whether one sees a certain level of formality as ‘right’ from the perspective of the source culture or the target culture. For example, an American teenager may adopt a highly informal tenor with his/her parents by, among other things, using their first names instead of Mum/Mother and Dad/Father. This level of informality would be highly inappropri­ate in most other cultures. A translator has to choose between changing the tenor to suit the expectations of the target reader and transferring the informal tenor to give a flavour of the type of relationship that teenagers have with their parents in American society. What the translator opts for on any given occasion will of course depend on what s/he perceives to be the overall purpose of the translation.

3     Mode of discourse: An abstract term for the hungarian intensive course district 20 role that the language is playing (speech, essay, lecture, instructions) and for its medium of transmission (spoken, written).3 Linguistic choices are in­fluenced by these dimensions. For example, a word such as re is perfectly appropriate in a business letter but is rarely, if ever, used in spoken English.

Different groups within each culture have different expectations about what kind of language is appropriate to particular situations. The amusement and embarrassment often engendered by children’s remarks to perfect strangers testifies to this; more seriously, people unused to highly ritualized situations like committee meetings and job interviews may find it difficult to make their points, and may even

Equivalence at word level 17

be ridiculed because their language appears inappropriate hungarian language course district 19 to other participants. A translator must ensure that his/her product does not meet with a similar reaction. S/he must ensure that the translation matches the register expectations of its prospective receivers, unless, of course, the purpose of the translation is to give a flavour of the source culture.

1.1 “Oh, so you’re a translator - that’s interesting!”

An opening gambit at a social or business gathering is for the person next to you to ask what you do. When the person finds out your profession the inevitable response is,


a'practical guide for translators

“Oh so you’re a translator - that’s interesting” and, before you have chance to say anything, the next rejoinder is, “I suppose you translate things like books and letters into foreign languages, do you?”. Without giving you a chance to utter a further word you are hit by the fatal catch-all, “Still, computers will be taking over soon, won’t they?”. When faced with such a verbal attack you hardly have the inclination to respond.

Regrettably, an overwhelming number of people - and these include translation agency district 9 clients - harbour many misconceptions of what is required to be a skilled translator. Such mis­conceptions include:

•      Asa translator you can translate all subjects

•      If you speak a foreign language ipso facto you can automatically translate into it

•      If you can hold a conversation in a foreign language then you are bilingual

•      Translators are mind-readers and can produce a perfect translation without having to consult the author of the original text, irrespective of whether it is ambiguous, vague or certified Hungarian certificate translation badly written

•      No matter how many versions of the original were made before final copy was approved or how long the process took, the translator needs only one stab at the task, and very little time, since he gets it right first time without the need for checking or proof-reading. After all, the computer does all that for you.

The skills clusters that the translator needs at his fingertips are shown on Page 5.

1.2 Finding a "guardian angel"

The Institute of Translation and Interpreting runs a "guardian angel" scheme where, as a fledgling translator, you can be put in touch with an established practitioner working into the same language as yourself and who will take a friendly interest in you. The following gives you an idea of the kind of help you can expect.

A guardian angel will provide practical, down-to-earth advice websitetranslation hungarian in the light of his experience, on the telephone or in person. You might sit in a freelance translator's office for an afternoon and observe his approach to his work. The kind of points on which he can advise will be:

•      The presentation of your work, reasonable deadlines, whether to insert translator's notes, how literal or how free your translations should be; what rates you can expect or demand; word, line or page counts.

•      What is the minimum equipment you need to start up in the profession? Which dictionaries and reference books are really useful and worth buying (and which are not)? Is it worth advertising your services and, if so, how?

•      Producing a good job application; job interview techniques; telephone manner; invoicing your work.



•      Helpful, kind and honest feedback on the quality of a piece of work you have done, recognising your strengths and advising what you can do about any limitations you may have.

A guardian angel cannot employ you or find you work directly, but he should be able to help to acquire a more realistic idea of what the work entails. He can also be supportive and positive in appraising your good and not-quite-so-good points and suggesting ways of overcoming your initial difficulties.

The Alphabet
Written Hungarian uses the Roman Alphabet. Sounds not found in this alphabet are indicated in the case of consonants by a combination of letters, and in the case of vowels by two dots or acute accents above the letter. Some letters have a sound value different from that in the Roman Alphabet.
The spoken language free of dialect variations serves as the standard for the written language. The numerous consonant assimilations in pronuncia­tion are rarely shown. The standard spelling clearly indicates the structural elements in a word, its base, formative, modifying and flexional suffixes.
The first syllable of a word, including compound words, is always stressed, although this is not indicated in the written language.
The length of a sound is shown in vowels by acute accents above the letter, a, e, 6, u, etc. In consonants length is shown by doubling: bb, pp, kk, etc.
The traditional order of the Hungarian Alphabet is as follows:—




c cs d


dzs e







[tse:] [t/e:] [de:]

[dze:] [d3e:] [e]







* j k









[h] [je:] [ka:]


[si ipsilon]




0 6



p r s


t ty




[0] [0:]



[pe:] [sr] [sj]


[te:] [tje:]




U V                             2                ZS
[y:]     [ve:] [ze:]       [3c:]


The letters, q, w, x, y may also occur in foreign words and names.
Certain archaic letters occur in family names:—                                                                               1
aa, aa = a                               eo, ew     = 6, o                    00     06 = o                    y = ;
eh, ts — cs                            cz = c                                    th = t                               w = v
* The Hungarian names of the letters in phonetic transcription are given in square brackets. The sound value of the phonetic symbols see in the next chapters.