e/a and e/o/ö set


Hungarian - Hungary

Not having learnt Hungarian as a foreign language (+ lacking material about it), I would like to find out how this "set" helps to decide about choosing linking vowels in Hungarian.

To start with: what is the reason for the choice of vowels for the two possibilities? Do e.g. e/a refer to actual vowels you have to look out for in a word or the choice of linking vowels for a particular group of words or something else?

Thank you.
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    There are actually three sets: but the third, u/ü, is much better behaved, as it's confined to the first person plural (as far as I know), and is always used there. It's easier to see their use in the person inflections of verbs. We could write the indefinite present tense endings as 1sg -Ok, 1pl -Unk, and 3pl -nAk, where the capital letters represent sets. So the O means the o/ö/e set, A means the a/e set, and U means the u/ü. The specific choice is determined by the previous vowels, but a foreign learner who knows how vowel harmony works really only has to learn one ending. (And my invented notation A/O/U has the advantages of consistently using back vowels, of being easy to type because of no accents, and of avoiding the fact that e is in two sets.)

    More complicated is the plural of nouns, where a learner has to know which words take low -Ak and which high (or more accurately mid) -Ok. So könyv takes -Ak. Here we have a choice of two endings, rather than the four forms that actually occur. Personally I find it easier to think of words this way, in two groups, -Ak nouns and -Ok nouns, but other people might prefer just raw memorization of könyv ~ könyvek.

    So it's not the vowels that trigger vowel harmony (those earlier in the word), it's the vowels actually in the suffixes. And it's not specifically linking vowels, it's all suffixes, but it's just that the linking choice is complicated because it involves groups of words rather than a single easy suffix like -Unk.


    Hungarian - Hungary
    Thank you, entangledbank. I understand that shortly you couldn't sum it up better, however, from this I can't see the improvement (which surely exists) to "my" (i.e. the "classic Hungarian" method which is admittedly simplistic, so would not be linguistically comprehensive) of deciding simply according to vocal harmony.
    (I suggested to my students to memorize 2 expressions: nagy háború for the back vowels and teniszütő for the front ones, indicating that the short and long variations don't change the group, so the short o in háború indicates really that the long ó belongs here equally, etc. and then start off mainly with the a/e group. But your A/O/U notation looks even better to me.:thumbsup: Do you have something like E/I/Ö/Ü, too?)
    I certainly don't understand the reason for the U/Ü set because - seen from my angle - the u is for words of back vocal harmony and the ü is for the front... so why complicate it any further? (I know it's not as simple as that.)

    In your example of könyv, you can see that ö is a front vowel, so the "classic" front linking vowel is necessary, i.e. the e. I know that the problem remains to find out when to use ö as a linking vowel (for front vowel containing words) but as it appears more rarely, you can write it off as a speciality of words like "vödör" (which also have other tricks up their sleeves when they get the suffixes of the plural or the accusative, so needing extra explanation).

    The choice of a/o as linking vowels is more of a problem for which I haven't managed to come up with a "student-friendly" solution but this linguistic approach would provide one, I can imagine.


    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    But könyv could become könyvek or könyvök according to vowel harmony rules. The stem vowel ö allows either possibility. It depends on what the vowel of the ending is. There are two plural endings, which can be notated -Ok and -Ak. You need to know that this word is in the -Ak class, along with fog and toll and hal and tűz and many others. They don't take -Ok like the 1sg of verbs (*fogok, *halok, *tüzök), they take -Ak, thus giving the appropriate member of the a/e set: fogak, halak, tüzek.

    But other nouns do take plural -Ok (and thus have the ending -ok, -ek, or -ök as determined by vowel harmony), for example sör. The difference between sör and könyv is in which plural class they are, mid-vowel or low-vowel, that is -Ok or -Ak in my notation.


    Senior Member
    Hi. This is the way how I learnt it, and I found it very effective. One should ALREADY know vowel harmony, that is, know which vowels are front and which are back, and know that there are two kinds of agreement when you have to add a suffix:
    - one with two choices, back and front (like -ú/ű, -ból/ből and so on)
    - one with three choices, back, front unrounded and front rounded (like -hoz/hez/höz).

    Now, the choice of linking vowel happens to work this way:
    - adjectives use the two-choice kind, with a/e: alacsonyak, kékek, szűkek
    - nouns use the three-choice kind, with o/e/ö: ablakok, székek, bűnök. So, nothing strange about vödör: it follows the rule.

    It's all very simple till here. One has only to learn the exceptions to this rule. These are the ones I remember:
    - adjectives of nationality use o/e/ö: görögök, japánok
    - adjectives in -talan/telen use o/e/ö: láthatatlanok, zajtalanok
    - a small handful of others use o/e/ö: nagyok, szabadok
    - those built with the -alom/elem suffix use a/e: irodalmat
    - a sizable :eek: list of others use a/e: díjat, fület

    That's it. (it's possible that there are more exceptions described by rules, like the -atlan/etlen one, which I don't remember or which I never knew)

    Your “nagy háború/teniszütő” trick is something that should be very clear before learning this scheme about linking vowels! So it's not the same thing: this is about choosing the right linking vowel when you already know vowel harmony.

    This approach has a few more benefits, because there are some more regularities connected to whether a noun is a/e or o/e/ö.
    For example, nouns that drop a vowel (like tükör where the ö disappears in the declension: tükre) use o/e/ö (so you know it's tükrök and not tükrek) – with very few exceptions like ajak -> ajkak. There's a lot of exceptions everywhere, but these simple rules help get it right almost always.
    Nouns that shorten their last vowel are always a/e, with no exceptions as far as I know. So tűz -> tüzök or madár -> madarot are not possible.
    Nouns in -n, -j, -ny, -r, -l, -s, -sz, -z, -ly, and logic would tell me -zs as well but I'm not sure about it, form their accusative with -t only if they're o/e/ö. So if ou have szőröm (o/e/ö), it must be szőrt; but if you have váram (a/e), it must be várat.

    Wow! This served to bring some old things back to memory! :)

    Zsanna, do you find it easy and/or logical and/or much more complicated or silly than it should be?


    Hungarian - Hungary
    @ entangledbank: Thank you, again. Just a quick remark:
    ...But other nouns do take plural -Ok (and thus have the ending -ok, -ek, or -ök as determined by vowel harmony), for example sör. The difference between sör and könyv is in which plural class they are, mid-vowel or low-vowel, that is -Ok or -Ak in my notation.
    The trouble is that if you have to learn a list of words to know which belongs to which category, I don't really see the linguistic idea (or advantage) behind it. I would have thought that linguistics could provide an explanation for certain phenomena that can help understanding the "rules behind". But I cannot really see it in this case.
    Last edited:


    Hungarian - Hungary
    @ frugnalio: Thank you for all this explanation!:thumbsup:
    I find it very useful to compare the different approaches (and, I hope, so do a lot of language learners). I may come back with more specific questions about the linguistics behind it later on.
    If you introduce linguistics into language learning, it will surely seem more complicated to start with but I always thought that (for "consenting" adults at least:D) it may be worth the effort because you can gain time with it later. So the (initial) complication in itself wouldn't deter me.
    Still, in this case, I don't have the impresson that linguistics provides a great improvement. (Of course, I would have to gather more information about it to be able to judge really.)


    Senior Member
    So, I'm curious to know what your approach is.
    It's true that the best method depends on the situation. It's very different if you are learning from a teacher in a class of learners, or from a teacher in a one-to-one way, or by yourself. I studied by myself using books and the internet before going to Hungary, and I found what you call the "linguistic" approach very useful. But I'm also pretty sure that I wouldn't use such a method if I were to teach a class of students.


    Senior Member
    Do you find it easy and/or logical and/or much more complicated or silly than it should be?

    As a native speaker, your whole post is Greek to me, the only thing I know is that your examples are all correct so you must have the usage down pretty well.