Hungarian neutral vowels: A microcomparison

  • Sylvia Blaho Hungarian Academy of Sciences
  • Dániel Szeredi New York University
Keywords: Hungarian, vowel harmony, antiharmony, vacillating stems, dialectal variation


In Hungarian, stems containing only front unrounded (neutral) vowels fall into two groups: one group taking front suffixes, the other taking back suffixes in vowel harmony. The distinction is traditionally thought of as purely lexical. Beňuš and Gafos (2007) have recently challenged this position, claiming that there are significant articulatory differences between the vowels in the two groups.

Neutral vowels also occur in vacillating stems. These typically contain one back vowel and one or more neutral vowels, and accept both front and back suffixes, with extensive inter- and intra-speaker variation. Based on Beňuš and Gafos’s line of argument, the expectation is that vacillating stems will display a kind of phonetic realisation that is distinct from both harmonic and anti-harmonic stems.

We present the results of an ongoing acoustic study on the acoustics of neutral vowels, partly re-creating Beňuš and Gafos’s conditions, but also including vacillating stems. To map the extent of individual and dialectal variation regarding vacillating stems, a grammaticality judgement test was also carried out on speakers of two dialects of Hungarian, crucially differing in the surface inventory of neutral vowels. We present our first findings about how this phonetic difference influences the phonological behaviour of vacillating stems.