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The quantity of high vowels in Hungarian speech and spelling

The quantity opposition of Hungarian vowels was fully developed by the 13th century (Bárczi 1967: 145). However, some present-day Hungarian dialects do not have such an opposition. For instance, in the larger part of Transdanubia (Western Hungary), long í, ú, and û have become short regardless of phonological position. This process of shortening probably began as early as the 16th century (cf. Bárczi 1967: 167). Shortening of the same high vowels has also been evident for centuries in some Eastern Hungarian dialects (cf. Bárczi 1967: 167). The long vs. short opposition continues vigorously in the central parts of the country.
Although Standard Hungarian pronunciation has never been codified, certain features of standard pronunciation are considered to be fairly stable. For instance, there are no diphthongs in Standard Hungarian. The short pronunciation of long high vowels is traditionally regarded as non-standard, for the following reason: Standard Hungarian has come about not by one dialect emerging as the Standard, but through the mixing of several dialects. Eastern and western dialects competed with each other for prestige since the beginning of printing in Hungary in the 16th century. Dialect prestige was tied to religion: Calvinist in the east and Roman Catholic in the west. The competition continued well into 19th-century intellectual life: the leading figure of Hungarian language reform, Ferenc Kazinczy, gave the northeastern dialect very high prestige, while one of the greatest Hungarian poets, Mihály Vörösmarty (who also edited the first dialect dictionary in 1838), added great prestige to the Transdanubian dialect. This dichotomy disappeared only after the cities of Pest and Buda were united in 1873 to create a capital of ever increasing importance. Benkõ (1955: 34) claims that the current spelling of vowels can be traced back to the central dialects spoken in the second half of the 19th century in the area between the Danube and Tisza Rivers, south of the city of Pest.
The correct spelling of long and short high vowels is one of the hardest things for Hungarians to learn, partly because of the mixing of eastern and western dialects to form Standard Hungarian. Another reason lies in the history of Hungarian spelling. Long í and ú began to be marked for length in the 17th century, and long û only after the 17th century (cf. Farkas 1971: 101). In a systematic history of Hungarian spelling as regulated by the Academy of Sciences, Szemere (1974) demonstrated that between 1832 and 1954 the spelling of high vowels as long or short varied from word to word and suffix to suffix. Until 1954, length variability was permitted in the writing of several words. An investigation of spelling dictionaries issued between 1915 and 1954 shows that while a considerable number of words, most of them monosyllabic, did not vary in spelling, the number of words whose spelling changed several times during the four decades is quite large. Since the 1930s, several proposals have been made to eliminate the spelling distinction between long and short high vowels on the grounds of uncertainties due to variability in speech. The debate was closed in 1954 when the 10th edition of the spelling rules of the Academy retained the systematic use of length (cf. Szemere 1974: 94-104). Three decades later, in 1984, the 11th edition of the Academy rules introduced very few changes in the spelling of long and short vowels - precisely in order to help stabilize the spelling of uncertain words (cf. Varga 1979: 479).
In 1961, Szemere advanced an interesting claim (see Pásztor 1983: 84): if the high vowel in monosyllabic words is followed by a single consonant, the vowel tends[*] to be long (e.g. híd 'bridge', csúcs 'peak', and tûz 'fire'); but if it is followed by two consonants or a geminate consonant, it tends to be short (e.g. cikk 'article', kulcs 'key', and küzd 'fight'). Kassai (1991: 79) called this "the natural phonetic tendency to avoid doubly long syllables", that is, syllables that contain a long vowel followed by two consonants.
Nádasdy and Siptár (1989: 10-11) have proposed an interesting dichotomy for the phonological treatment of vowel length variation. They distinguish Standard Literary Hungarian (SLH) from Educated Colloquial Hungarian (ECH). The former is described as "literary/stage/radio pronunciation", and the latter as "our own speech", that is Nádasdy's and Siptár's speech. They argue that in a phonological analysis "actually occurring ('colloquial') forms should be considered to be the norm - at least in cases where the differences are obvious - and literary pronunciation should only be mentioned for completeness' sake, if at all." They claim that the dichotomy applies to several phenomena, one of which - vowel length - is illustrated in Table 2.1:
Table 2.1: Vowel length in Standard Literary Hungarian and Educated Colloquial Hungarian
Spelling SLH ECH Gloss
  (obsolete) (=normal, unmarked)  
fiú /fiu:/ /fiu/ boy
tetû /tetü:/ /tetü/ louse
házból /ha:zbo:l/ /ha:zbol/ from the house
hegyrõl /hed yrö:l/ /hed yröl/ down the hill
vízi /vi:zi/ /vizi/ water (adj.)

(Based on Nádasdy and Siptár 1989: 11)  

Nádasdy (1985: 229) notes that "the present pronunciation is marked by considerable confusion (and liberty) in the treatment of high vowels in nonfinal position: kíván 'wish' can have /i/ or /i:/, turista 'tourist' /u/ or /u:/, hûvös 'cool' /ü/ or /ü:/." He also makes a prediction, which is an implicit statement about ongoing sound-change: "It seems that in nonfinal syllables the short pronunciation will prevail." Nádasdy also claims that when the high vowel is in wordfinal position, ECH has the following distribution: long in monosyllables, but short in polysyllables, e.g. /fü:/ 'grass' vs. szomorú /u/ 'sad'. Nádasdy and Siptár (1994: 62) state that the length of non-wordfinal high vowels is unpredictable, and whether such a vowel is short or long is given in the lexicon. As Sherwood (1988: 9) says, "Hungarian spelling is largely consistent and approximately phonemic." There is a strong tradition of spelling words as they are spoken and pronouncing them as they are written. Thus any change in the official orthography is bound to provoke vehement criticism (e.g. Nádasdy 1990). Nádasdy and Siptár (1989: 11) are aware that their decision to base their analysis on the ECH variety "will introduce a lot of uncertainty, even controversial data," into their discussion.
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Varadi Tamas