The Trouble with Hungarian Fricatives

January 20, 2011

People who are easily-bored need not continue reading.

Orthographically, Hungarian doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. When it comes to alphabets, internal consistency is king; creating an easy-to-remember and -use alphabet depends on following a consistent pattern of symbol-to-sound mappings, Hungarian doesn’t do that.

Hungarian uses some strange (a relative term, of course) digraphs and single letters to represent a series of fricatives. Consider the following table, note that the leftmost character is the IPA transcription of the sound, while the character(s) in parentheses is the Hungarian transcription:

(Click the table to see it larger)

Clockwise from upper-left, the sounds are as follows: “z” sound like in “zulu”, “zh” sound like in “pleasure”, “sh” sound like in “shout”, “s” sound like in “sierra”.

The first thing you’ll undoubtedly notice is how by default, an “s” represents a “sh” sound. That’s not where my gripe begins though, the symbol-to-sound mapping of an alphabet can be entirely arbitrary, for all I care, they could write “t” and mean “ɮ” (a voiced alveolar lateral fricative… it’s a weird sound) as long as it’s internally-consistent!

As you can see, Hungarian uses a digraph to convey a voiceless alveolar fricative, a digraph to convey a voiced palato-alveolar fricative, a single graph to convey a voiced alveolar fricative, and a single graph to convey a voiceless palato-alveolar fricative. The only thing these digraphs have in common is that they’re fricatives, they’re similar neither in location of articulation or voicing. Likewise, the single characters share no similarities aside from being fricatives either. Why not relate them in groups when they have so much in common?

If it were up to me, I would do something like this: z (zs), ʒ (z), s (sz), ʃ (s). That way, both palato-alveolar fricatives (regardless of voicing) are single characters and the alveolar fricatives are both digraphs. But alas, it was not up to me.

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