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On Emphasis and Word Order in Hungarian

The above is the title of a book (Kiefer, 1967). I found it while researching a question posted in the "Hungarian from English" course.

Emphasis and, especially, word order, definitely seem to be one of the major topics in the discussions all over the course. While trying to answer some of the questions learners posted, I established my own theory on the topic. It seems to be standing the test of times. Here are the main points:

  • Words at the front of a sentence tend to have emphasis.
  • Words (or phrases) in front of a verb (root) are emphasized. This seems to be the most emphasized position.
  • Verbs without preverbs (prefixes) are not particularly emphasized and do not provide as much (syntactic) emphasis to the word or phrase in front of them as a verb with a preverb would do. That is, the emphasis is not coded in the sentence, most of it comes from semantics, intonation. (Update: please see further explanation of this in the comments below, in reply to Bastette54's question.)
  • Verbs with preverbs attached are themselves emphasized.
  • Verbs with preverbs detached (preverb placed after the verb) are a clear indication that the word or phrase in front of them is emphasized. This is probably the most emphasized construction.

These are the general rules as I found. There are special cases, questions, negation, sub clauses, etc., which can still more or less be explained with the above rules. They can be viewed as special cases of the above rules. For example, a question with a question word:

"Ki nyitotta ki az ajtót?" - "Who opened the door?" - literally: Who opened out the door?

  • The main emphasis in a question like this is clearly on the question word itself. "Who?". "Ki?".
  • Question words must be immediately followed by the verb - seems to be an established rule.
  • Which happens to coincide with the above rule that the word in front of a verb gets the emphasis.
  • Moreover, if that verb happens to have a preverb, it most definitely will have to split, placing the preverb out of the way, behind the verb.

The pieces all fall into place.

I continue to apply these rules for any kind of sentence in the course, and they seem to work. Sometimes they may be hidden under several layers of distraction but they are always there.

So, these are my observations. And now I found this book. I have not read it. I have only read a few excerpts available online. But from what I have read, it seems to provide a very thorough, and scientific, analysis of Hungarian word order and emphasis. Of course, it goes much deeper than my superficial little rules. And even though it was written by a professor of linguistics, a great deal of it is easy to understand to anyone (Hey, if I can understand it, anyone can).

So, as a bottom line, I can fully recommend this book to anyone who wants to acquire a deeper understanding of Hungarian word order and emphasis. Even if you just read the few pages that are available online, you might achieve some enlightenment. Good luck!

On Emphasis and Word Order in Hungarian - by Ferenc Kiefer, 1967

November 4, 2016



Thanks. The hardest part of this course for me (besides the errors) is getting the word order correct.


I'm confused about this: "Verbs without preverbs (prefixes) are not particularly emphasized and do not provide as much (syntactic) emphasis to the word or phrase in front of them as a verb with a preverb would do."

I thought that if you want to emphasize something (other than the verb itself), you put it directly in front of the verb. And if there's a preverb, it's detached and placed after the verb. If you keep the preverb attached in front, then the verb itself is emphasized.

That's what I've heard many times in this course. But what you wrote sounds like the opposite. It sounds like you're saying that a verb without a prefix does not provide any special emphasis to the word/phrase in front of it. Am I misunderstanding something? I'm not sure what "semantic" emphasis means, maybe that's the key?


Thanks for the question. Obviously I wrote this article some time ago, hopefully I can explain myself a little better now. I learned a lot myself along the way.
The good news is, what I wrote still stands, and it is NOT in opposition with what you heard many times in the course. Let me see if I can make it clearer now:

Yes, there is an emphasized position in front of the verb, and yes, it is the most emphasized position in a sentence. If you place a word in that position, it will be emphasized.


But that position is not necessarily occupied!

What does it mean? It does not mean that there will be an empty hole in the sentence. So, how can it be? One obvious way is if the verb is the first word in the sentence. There is nothing in front of it. But you can have a word in front of the verb, still not taking the emphasized position. It is like that word "opts out" of being emphasized. Even if it is in front of the verb, it does not want any special attention, thank you very much. It is possible. And that is what I meant here. That is when we can say that, even though there are words in front of the verb, they are not taking the emphasis.

And here is where the preverb has an important role!

Because if there is a preverb involved, whether it is in front, attached, or behind the verb, the emphasized position is definitely taken. It is kind of hard-coded in the sentence. Let't take an example:

"Kati megírja a levelet." - Kati writes the letter.

"Megírja" is a verb with a preverb: "meg-írja".
The preverb is attached to the verb, it definitely takes the emphasis:
"Kati MEGÍRJA a levelet."
You cannot emphasize it differently. The emphasis is "hard-coded" on the verb.

If you want to emphasize Kati, you have to change the sentence. You have to detach the preverb and place it in the back:
"Kati írja meg a levelet." - It is Kati who writes the letter.
There is a preverb, it is detached and placed after the verb. The emphasis is "hard-coded" on the word in front of the verb:
"KATI írja meg a levelet."
You cannot emphasize it differently. The emphasis is "hard-coded" on the word in front of the verb.

So, when we have a preverb, it is very clear where the emphasis lies.

But what if we do not have a preverb???

That is when we have more freedom!

"Kati írja a levelet." - Kati writes the letter.

What is being emphasized here? We have a choice:

  • It can be "Kati", being in front of the verb, taking the emphasized position

  • Or it can be that even though "Kati" is in front of the verb, the emphasized position is actually not used, this is just a neutral sentence, with a little emphasis on the verb.

So, it can be either of these two:
"KATI írja a levelet." - It is Kati who writes the letter.
"Kati írja a levelet." - Kati writes the letter.

So, this second version is just a neutral sentence, with the well-known S-V-O word order.

If I pose questions to these sentences, it may be even clearer:

"Ki írja a levelet?" - Who writes the letter?
"KATI írja a levelet" - Kati does. KATI writes the letter.

Mit csinál Kati? - What does Kati do? (Or What is Kati doing?)
"Kati írja a levelet." - Kati writes the letter.

You could even have a very different question, asking about Kati in general: "Have you seen Kati? Where is Kati? I haven't seen her since 9 o'clock!"
"Kati írja a levelet." - Kati is writing the letter. That's why she's not showing herself, she is busy writing the letter. This is just a neutral sentence, with the potentially emphasized position not utilized, even though there is a word in front of the verb.

So that is what I meant by this all. When there is no preverb, the emphasis is not "hard-coded" in the sentence. It is up to implementation, up to intonation, or semantics, to declare where the emphasis actually is. While when there is a preverb involved, it is much more well-defined.

Hope this made it a bit clearer for you.

One more thing I would like to add is that this ambiguity probably happens mostly when the subject is in front of the verb without a preverb. Because the neutral word order happens to be generally S-V-O, it can either be a neutral sentence or one where the subject is actually emphasized. It is even more clear when there is nothing else but a subject and a verb in a sentence (called a "tőmondat" in Hungarian):
"A kutya ugat." - The dog barks.
"A macska nyávog." - The cat meows.
"Az oroszlán bömböl." - The lion roars.
These are most likely just neutral sentences, without particular emphasis on the subject. They follow the neutral word order. The subjects may or may not be emphasized.
But once we insert another word in front of the verb, it will most probably be emphasized:
"A kutya gyakran ugat." - The dog often barks.
"A macska nem nyávog." - The cat does not meow.
"Az oroszlán ritkán bömböl." - The lion seldom roars.

There are several great articles on Hungarian in Wikipedia, here's one I recommend, especially the grammar section:
But the whole article is worth reading.


Hi again,

In Accusative numerals

Translate from English: Do you also like the thirtieth one. No context clue, so choices in word order:

Do YOU also Iike the thirtieth one vs Do you like the thirtieth one ALSO?

My answer: Te is a harmincadikat szeretsz? WRONG.
A harmincadikat is szereted? CORRECT

Should DUO have accepted my answer as correct or do I have a mistake in the verb form because I used te?

Köszi, egyik a sok Zsuzsiböl


Not because of "te" but because you used the indefinite conjugation ("szeretsz") with a definite direct object. In such a case, you must use the definite conjugation: "szereted".
That is the main problem, independent of the word order.
As to what "also" refers to, and what the creators had in mind, I can't be sure. I guess it is up to interpretation. But the verb form was definitely wrong.


Hi vvsey, do you post a first name?

So, by changing where to order I changed the sentence from definite to indefinite.

I will reread the section on definite and indefinite conjugations in my grammar book again.

Also I need to drill verbs even when they are not exceptions to the rule so that I don’t continue to guess by early childhood memory.

By the way my latest exercise on my own is dictating Hungarian reading to text to see if the words are what I said, with correct spelling and accent marks. Sometimes Google translate gets it wrong and I recognize it but I would say that it is about 90% accurate. :-). If you haven’t done this try it in another language.

Thanks again! Zsuzsi


I am sure that is a handful. But Hungarians do not think of those as cases. They are just various suffixes attached to nouns. Calling them "cases" makes about as much sense as calling the English "from"/"to"/"by"/"on"/"in"/etc. + noun structures "cases". That is, none. The only difference is that English uses prepositions while Hungarian uses suffixes.
A noun case is something else. Imagine that every time you used the preposition "from" you would have to put the attached noun in some arbitrary case. And so on. Those would be the cases. Many languages have that. For example: Russian. Not Hungarian though, in my opinion. The Hungarian suffixes simply carry the intended meaning, without the need for a case. That's it. You don't need to learn cases. You just learn the suffixes. Just as someone learning English must learn the meanings of those prepositions.


You didn't change the sentence from definite to indefinite, you simply used the wrong conjugation. We have a definite direct object:
"A harmincadikat" - "THE thirtieth".
It requires the definite conjugation, no matter what the word order is.
(I guess by "where to order" you meant "word order", right?)


yes, where to order was a typo from using the mike instead of typing, but I didn't notice it before posting.

About the conjugations: I am reading about that now. I like Hunlang's site: https://hunlang.wordpress.com/category/verbstensesmoods/

Also I saw a post by FarkasBendeguz about noun cases, which she called "hungarian nouns inflection for beginners :)" and it made my head spin! https://www.duolingo.com/comment/26617523

From the Hungarian Reference site I learned there are 17 cases. She listed 23 for one word, divided by singular, plural and possessive (S and PL) pronouns and then added a genetive in S and PL which is different than the word in the preceding list of cases which includes genitive.

I am sure this is more than I need to be concerned with at the moment.



What is the difference between a suffix on a noun, and a case? I haven't studied a language that has true cases, so I don't have anything to compare it to. If a language uses noun cases, does the suffix need some kind of agreement (with person or number, for example)? Hungarian possessive endings do vary, depending on the person/number of the owner, so does that make it a genuine case? Whereas prepositional suffixes such as -ban/-ben, -ra/-re, etc, don't vary, so is that why they're not real cases?

If you're wondering where I got this idea that a real case needs agreement of some kind , it's just a guess. So I won't be surprised if it's way off-base. :)


Bastette54, please don't take my word for it, because I am no expert by any standard. This is just my personal opinion. In my mind, Hungarian has no noun cases. It has suffixes, plain and simple.
The concept of noun cases is totally foreign to Hungarian. If you walk into a school in Hungary and ask the students about noun cases, they will have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. This whole "case" thing is just trying to fit Hungarian into a box that it will not fit.

Again, this is just my opinion. I find it ridiculous to talk about noun cases in Hungarian. One reason to do it anyway is to make it look more difficult than it is, and another is to be able to tell the whole wide world that... "Well, well, look at all those poor other languages with their 4-5, or none, cases.... pathetic! Real languages have at least 18 cases!" That is, some kind of a false pride, to boost our ego. :)

Anyway... A case, to me, is one of a few fixed forms of a noun, loosely related to the intended meaning. (And, to answer your question: I don't think there is a need for agreement of any kind for it to be a case.) A case in itself is not necessarily sufficient to carry the intended meaning. That is, it requires further elements. For example, prepositions.

It is hard to demonstrate this concept in English, but let's look at just one word: "he". This word can assume three forms: "he", "his", "him". Let's call them the three cases. What should they be? Well, let's call:
"he" - the nominative case
"his" - the possessive case (because it is mostly used in possessive situations)
"him" - hmmmm... what should this one be? Well, English uses this form with all kinds of prepositions - and also when it is the direct object - let's just call it the prepositional case.

And now let's imagine that all nouns in English have these three forms. How would that look like? Let's take a noun: "book":
"book" - nominative
"books" - possessive
"bookm" - prepositional
These would be the three cases, and there would be related rules as to when to use them. For example, if you want to use a preposition, you have to use the prepositional case. So "with the book" would be:
"with the bookm" - the noun in the prepositional case.

But there is no prepositional case in English. You just pick a preposition, throw it in front of the noun and are done:
"with the book".

Let's look at Russian. It has 6 cases. Nominative, Accusative, Possessive, Dative, Instrumental and Prepositional. You have to learn the six cases of every noun. It is pretty easy actually. But then you are not done. Because you still have prepositions. For example, when you want to say "with the book", you have to pick the preposition that actually means "with", plus you have to pick the noun case that goes with that specific preposition. In the case of "with", it would be the Instrumental case. So it would be:
"with" + "book" in Instrumental case.

With a different preposition, you might need a different case. "To the book" would be:
"to" + "book" in Dative case

"About the book" would be:
"about" + "book" in Prepositional case.

And so on, and so on.

So, you have a whole bunch of prepositions, and possibly other words that could be in a relationship with a noun, and you learn which noun case each of them require. Some of them may be used with various cases, resulting in different meanings.

Now back to Hungarian. There are no cases. If you want to express "with the book", you just pick the suffix that means "with" and stick it to the end of the noun. So, it would be:

"book"-"with": "könyv-vel".

There is no case to learn here. Once you know the translation of "with", you can express it in Hungarian, without ever having to know anything about cases. Because there is no case involved. The suffix in itself carries all the required information.

Now, there is this recent post about all those various inflections of a noun:
I consider it mainly a joke. That is, don't you dare learn it like that. :)

It is like.... well... there was this commercial a few years back, about a hamburger company. And they were boasting about the 1024 different ways you can have your hamburger. That is, there are 10 ingredients, and you can say yes or no to each: Bun-yes/no, patty-yes/no, tomato-yes/no, etc. All the possible permutations will give you 1024 varieties (my personal favorite: no on all).
Anyway, you would not need to learn all the permutations to be able to order your hamburger. Right? You just know what you want, put those elements together, and there you go, you have your hamburger.
That is how it is with the language, too.

Of course, of course, I know that my "theory" can be argued with, and disagreed with, big time. Of course we can talk at least about a nominative case in Hungarian, and maybe an accusative and a possessive. But I am not even sure about those. To me, those are all just suffixes, carrying the complete information.

Hungarian is complicated enough without mentioning cases. I just don't see the need for them. English is so simple in this aspect, you just place all the elements next to each other, without modifying any of the words, most of the time. That is what makes it so easy to learn, and so fitting for so many purposes in the world. For example, programming, signage, etc. I can't imagine a programming language based on Hungarian. It would be a nightmare.

Anyway, there is still a lot of challenge left in Hungarian for English speakers, without cases. The English prepositions and other elements of the language are so versatile (or too versatile), each of them maps to several different suffixes in Hungarian. And this is one of the most difficult things to learn in another language. We say one thing all the same in our language, and are suddenly forced to learn to make an "arbitrary" distinction between two or more seemingly identical situations. The most obvious example of this is the distinction between the nominative and the accusative, which does not exist in English.

This is the table. - Ez az asztal.
I see the table. - Látom az asztalt.
Why? Why? Why? Well, why indeed. :)

Well, I am not sure if I helped here or not but, anyway, thanks for giving me the chance to vent on Hungarian "cases". :)

I think the bottom line is this: a case is a broader concept, it is like a "category", with many possible uses. (Consequently, it needs further specification, eg. prepositions.) A suffix, on the other hand, has one very specific meaning. That is why we have so many of them, quite naturally. But attaching a specific suffix to a noun does not turn it into a "case". You can say that one certain noun with a certain suffix would be expressed with a certain "case" in another language. But that is the most I am comfortable saying about Hungarian.

  • 1044

Great!!! Thanks.

Will try to get the book.


Some more stuff on word order and parts of a sentence:

Structure and word order of a Hungarian sentence

And one more attempt at explaining this all:

Once more on Hungarian Word Order?

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