Are there languages without vowel reduction? That is, are there languages in which the vowels in certain syllables are not centralized and/or "de-rounded" and/or shortened because of speaking rate, stress patterns, etc.?

I've heard that Hungarian is such a language. If so, why does it lack vowel reduction?

  • 5
    Szeredi (2009 Master Thesis) says that Hungarian does have vowel reduction, but that it is a phonetic and not phonemic process. So perhaps this is a definitional question too. Commented Aug 21, 2012 at 14:28
  • 8
    Syllable-timed languages generally allot the same amount of time to each vowel, making reduction rarer. It's stress-timed languages like English that do vowel reduction big time.
    – jlawler
    Commented Aug 22, 2012 at 2:59
  • 2
    @jlawler, Japanese is mora-timed, but has vowels that are devoiced. Not sure if that qualifies as reduction, though.
    – dainichi
    Commented Aug 22, 2012 at 4:47
  • 1
    The OP asked about centralization, derounding, and shortening. Dunno if devoicing qualifies.
    – jlawler
    Commented Aug 22, 2012 at 14:48
  • 2
    Do you want the phonetic or the phonemic answer or both? Your question is a bit vague.
    – kaleissin
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 10:37

4 Answers 4


If you mean 'a vowel phoneme moving to another vowel sound in the unstressed position in a syllable-timed language', then yes. Spanish and its ancestor Latin do not have vowel reduction. If you expand your definition of vowel reduction to include derounding, shortening, devoicing, elision, ATR movement, monophthongization, and so on, then languages like Japanese would have vowel reduction. Fast speech does not count for vowel reduction—everything "reduces" when people speak quickly, but that's not a property of the phonological system.

Vowel reduction must be phonetic and not phonemic or else another word is being formed: If you had the word [bula] and it "reduced" to [bʊla], but [bʊla] was another word in the language (/ʊ/ is a phoneme), then you would be dealing with homophony.


If by vowel reduction you also mean phonetic changes, then no, there are no such languages. It's because people always stress certain syllables differently (even such languages as French, which effectively has no PHONEMIC stress on any word in isolation, it does have a phonetic stress on the level of syllables, formulae and phrases, but it's not phonemically distinct in any way). For example, Polish has no PHONEMIC vowel reduction, and all the vowels in each syllable of a given word are pronounced the same in terms of phonemics - and in terms of phonetics, they are ROUGHLY the same. People usually don't spot any difference between the "a"'s in the first and second syllables of the word "tata" (it's pronounced phonemically like this: /'ta.ta/). But because the stress is on the first syllable, only slightly slightly slightly more power is put on the vowel in that syllable, and technically speaking, the second [a] is, first of all, slightly shorter, and second of all, slightly more centralised. But Polish lacks any phonemic distinction between long and short vowels and /a/ is the only phoneme in the slot for //A//, and actually all its allophones are very very veryyyy similar to one another. So in the word /'ta.ta/ above, the first "a" is very close to the cardinal open central unrounded vowel [ä], whereas the second "a" is phonetically between [ä] and [ɐ] (the near-open central vowel). So the difference is so insignificant that nobody can really hear it even on the phonetic level, so effectively, every single allophone of the phoneme /a/ sounds actually the same to the Polish speakers. The word could thus be phonetically described like this: ['täˑ.tɐ˕] (ˑ indicates that [ä] is very slightly lenghthened, and ˕ indicates that [ɐ] is lowered). Actually, all the vowels in the Polish language have allophones which are phonetically very similar to one another, and all are close to their respective phonemic realisations. Maybe that's why Polish has only 6 vowel phonemes while English has 3 or even 4 times more vowel phonemes. Anyway, this was just to give you an example of a language which lacks a phonemic vowel reduction but still has a phonetic one (every single language has it, even the ones with allophones so close to one another as in Polish). Long story short, it is impossible NOT to have a phonetic vowel reduction because every language has prosody, which yields suprasegmentals and relative articulation (UNMARKED articulation of the same phoneme in a neutral sound environment).


Yes, there are such languages. E.g. Polish, Finnish and Spanish (not mentioning monosyllable Chinese), although Spanish shows some vowel fusion in certain clusters. Oh, and Japanese, too.

As for Hungarian, it has the classical (Proto)Fenno-Ugric CV(C) syllable structure.

The Fenno-Ugric (and Altaic) syllable structure might correspond (or not) to the syllable structures of Paleo-Asiatic languages, some of which might have both vowel and consonant harmony, a feature now survivived in peculiar consonant and/or vowel alteration patterns of Native American languages.


I've heard that Hungarian is such a language. If so, why does it lack vowel reduction?

Vowel reduction in unstressed syllables is something strongly associated with stress-timed languages.

Why? That's all speculation, one can't exactly have controlled experiments for such things, but they generally seem to have a tendency to distinguish fewer vowel phonemes in unstressed syllables and not make various contrasts that they do in stressed syllables. One could conjecture that it has to do with unstressed syllables having far shorter length in stress-timed languages, leading to vowel contrasts becoming less clear in them, or making it harder to retain such qualities as vowel length.

Hungarian, and all the languages mentioned here that do not have vowel reduction in unstressed syllables, are not stress-timed.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.