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I have been studying Hungarian and its pronunciation for a long time, using references such as the Hungarian Phonology Wikipedia page and comparing that to the General American Phonology page.

The Vowels section of the Hungarian Phonology page has the following remarks:

/ɛ/ and the marginal /ɛː/ are phonetically near-open [æ, æː]

and

/i, y, u/ are phonetically near-close [ɪ, ʏ, ʊ]

I'm trying to understand what this really means. What does it mean for a sound to be phonologically /u/ but phonetically [ʊ]?

It this just a convenience to allow the "short" vowels and "long" vowels to be notated with similar phonemes: (e.g. u and ú represented by /u/ and /u:/ instead of /ʊ/ and /u:/)?

If this is just a convenience, it would explain the remarks for /i/, /y/, and /u/, whose orthographic markers all have "long" versions (i, í); (ü, ű); (u, ú). But it would not explain the situation for /ɛ/. The phoneme associated with the "long" version of the letter for /ɛ/ is /e:/ not /ɛ:/.

Speaking of which, Hungarian is a (relatively) highly phonetic language, and e is regularly the marker for /ɛ/. The page says this is "phonetically [æ]", but (to my native GA ear) it certainly does not sound like the vowel in TRAP, BATH, or CAT. The Hungarian word fekete has three of these, and an example pronunciations can be found at Forvo .

I do note that, comparing the Hungarian Phonology page to the English Phonology page, the articulation diagram has /ɛ/ in a much lower spot in Hungarian than in English, which is consistent with the notion that the Hungarian e sounds like [æ], but that notion does not match my experience---which includes hearing thousands of native speakers.

I'm just trying to make sense of this and would appreciate any help.

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    Print symbols used for phonemes vary from one transcription system to another. For instance, the English phoneme called /o/ (the vowel in go and globe) in American phonemic systems is called /əʊ/ in British phonemic systems and /ow/ in Trager-Smith notation. One never needs all IPA symbols, and phonemes cover a multitude of allophones, so the spelling is rather arbitrary (though usually consistent). Phonemes vary; that's a fact.
    – jlawler
    May 20, 2023 at 13:24
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    Regarding the discrepancy between /ɛ/ and /eː/, it may be relevant that Hungarian historically had – and dialectally still has – both /ɛ/ and /e/. For Modern Standard Hungarian, there’s no particular reason the phoneme shouldn’t just be written /e/, but the decision to go with /ɛ/ instead may be to make it easier to talk about those dialects where /e/ is a different sound. May 21, 2023 at 2:11

2 Answers 2

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Answering a question about what a wikipedia page means is virtually impossible, because there isn't necessarily "an author", and we can't investigate the author's theory of phonetics and phonology. We could however replace wikipedia with actual scholars of Hungarian, such as Siptár & Törkenczy or Vago.

Usually, /ɛ/ means "underlying /ɛ/" and [æ] means "surface [æ]". The difference lies in the height of the vowels, ɛ being lax mid and æ being low. The obvious question to ask is, why would an author posit that something pronounced as [æ] is not also underlying /æ/. This is where phonological rules become relevant – perhaps there are rules that treat <e> as a mid vowel for some purposes and as a low vowel for other purposes. The source of the confusion you are experiencing is that this claim was simply copies from an article where the author uses just ɛ, but someone decided that that vowel is pronounced [æ]. That's not an unreasonable belief given all of the literature on Hungarian – the vowel is somewhere in that area and there simply isn't agreement on exactly where that vowel is, for all of Hungarian. (Some people hold that it's senseless to even look for an exact place where that vowel is articulated, for all og Hungarian).

So in the case of Hungarian, there is enough variation that it doesn't make sense to talk about a single pronunciation, which is what writing [æ] would be about. Even discerning the phonological behavior of that vowel is challenging, as decades of research has established. One argument that "e" is a phonological low vowel is that it, along with "a", undergoes lengthening when an affix follows.

As for the actual phonetics and referring to your Forvo link, leventenagy, gabor688 and findelka pronounce this word differently w.r.t. vowels (and not like my US dialect of English). That is partly because IPA symbols name a general region, not an exact point, and partly because no every speaker of Hungarian (or English) pronounces all words the same as all other speakers.

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  • Thanks so much! This is really helpful.
    – David R
    May 20, 2023 at 17:58
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What does it mean for a sound to be phonologically /u/ but phonetically [ʊ]?

There are various reasons why one would note a phoneme using a different symbol than the IPA symbol best matching its realization:

  • There may be a tradition in descriptions of the specific language (sometimes dating back to before IPA was widespread) to use specific symbols for specific vowel phonemes, and a symbol may be chosen to be recognizable to those familiar with this tradition.
    • A special case of this: the traditional orthography of said language may represent the phoneme in question using a symbol that doesn't match its IPA realization; often phonemic notation for given languages may give a nod to the traditional orthography in their choice of symbols.
  • There may be ease-of-use considerations that favour using an easily accessible symbol instead of a more correct symbol that's less easily entered.
    • This would likely be the case when a system uses the easily accessible /i y u/ for phonemes realized as IPA [ɪ ʏ ʊ]. Similarly for phonemic transcriptions of English that often note e.g. ring as /rɪŋ/, even though IPA [r] is an alveolar trill, and English r is generally [ɹ].
  • Sometimes a phoneme may have a number of different allophones, and any given phonemic transcription system may choose only one of these to represent it, often an older value not necessarily dominant (or even possible) for all speakers.
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  • Thanks, this is useful. It really made me feel better about the notion that in some cases phonological notation can be a bit arbitrary and selected for a broad number of reasons, even if it may clash with the phonetics.
    – David R
    May 20, 2023 at 18:05

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