Turkish Vowel Harmony

Vowel harmony refers to a special type of relationship between the vowels in a word. In this type of relationship, all the vowels in a word are alike each other (in harmony) based on some or all of their features. The rules that describe these relationships are called vowel harmony rules. These rules dictate how words are formed in that language. In Turkish, vowel harmony is realized using two different but overlapping sets of rules: backness and roundness harmonies (or büyük and küçük ses uyumu as they are called in Turkish).

As is the case with all languages, millions of Turkish speaking children master the rules of their language including the vowel harmony rules implicitly (at least up until elementary school) with apparent ease. This, unfortunately is not a feasible and most often not a preferred option for most traditional L2 learners. They often learn them explicitly. As we mentioned previously Turkish is an agglutinative language that relies heavily on suffixes to mark semantic and syntactic roles. Most of these suffixes have variants based on these harmonic rules, and one needs to be able to identify the correct ones based on their harmonic properties (or phonemic features).
In one of the opening sections of his book, Lewis (2000) describes Turkish vowel harmony as a “process of progressive assimilation”. That is, subsequent vowels in a word change to match the features of the first one. However, I am not sure that I necessarily agree with his statement. Progressive assimilation is a phonological process that results in different surface forms than the underlying ones (e.g. /ne/ -> [nẽ]). Calling it a progressive assimilation suggests that the underlying forms are different for most Turkish words. Although, I can see the his motivation for such an explanation, and I think that it might actually be fitting in a diachronic analysis, I don’t think that is what is taking place here, at least not synchronically.

Please don’t be discouraged with the ostensible complexity of the harmonic rules as you read through the next few sections. Once we move on to suffixes, you will discover that many of them have only two variants based on backness harmony, like the plural suffix -ler/-lar, and the four variant suffixes always use the same set of vowels, close (high) vowels. But, before you proceed any further, I think that you should become very comfortable with concepts of back, front, close (high) and open (low) vowels in order to get a good grasp of the vowel harmony rules.

Backness (or Frontness) Harmony

This is an easy one. According to this rule, if the first vowel of the word is a back vowel (A, I, U, O) then all the subsequent vowels must also be back vowels; or if the first vowel is a front vowel (İ, E, Ü, Ö) then all the subsequent ones must also be front vowels (Rule#1).

Back vowels:
ocak /od͡ʒak/ ‘January’ or ‘fireplace, stove’
kırmızılar /kɯrmɯzɯlar/ n. plr. ‘(they are) red’ or ‘reds’
Front vowels:
özgür /øzgyr/ ‘free’
eski /eski/ ‘old’

Rounding Harmony

This one is little more complex. Although, there are couple of ways of describing these processes, I find Lewis‘ (2000) rules to be most straightforward, so I will present those here.

Unrounded Vowels:
The rule for unrounded vowels is pretty straightforward. If the first vowel of the word is an unrounded vowel then so are all the subsequent ones (Rule#2a).
kızgın /kɯzgɯn/ ‘angry’ or ‘heated’
kelime /kelime/ ‘word’

Rounded Vowels:
If the first vowel is a rounded vowel (Ü, Ö, U, O) then the following vowels are either rounded and close (Ü, U) or unrounded and open (A, E) (Rule#2b).

uzun /uzun/ ‘long’ or ‘tall’
özgün /øzgyn/ ‘distinct’
orman /orman/ ‘forest’

Putting it all together

I know…that is a lot of information. But, lets think about these two harmonies in little more detail. Please refer to Table 1 below for the ensuing discussions.

Front Back
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
Close i ü ı u
Open e ö a o
Table 1

Backness harmony rule should be applied first. So based on backness harmony, if the first vowel in a word is A then following vowels must be back vowels as well (Rule#1). Hence, the subsequent vowels can be A, I, U, or O (Table 2).

Front Back
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
Close i ü ı u
Open e ö a o
Table 2

Now lets apply the roundness harmony rules, one of which states that unrounded vowels are always followed by unrounded ones (Rule#2a). Thus our new short list consists of A or I. We can finally state that if the first vowel is A then the subsequent vowels could be either A or I (Table 3).

Front Back
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
Close i ü ı u
Open e ö a o
Table 3

Lets do another one. If the first vowel in the word is a Ü, then based on the backness harmony the subsequent vowels should be either an İ, Ü, E, or Ö (Rule#1). Roundness harmony states that if if the first vowel is a round vowel then subsequent vowels should be either an Ü, U or A, E (Rule#2b). Since, U and A would break the backness harmony that leaves us with Ü and E. We can finally state that if the first vowel is a Ü then the subsequent vowels could be either Ü or E.

Lets see if you can work out the list for the rest of the vowels and when you are done click on the button below to reveal the answers.

Have you noticed something interesting looking at the list above? If you haven’t look at the list once again to see if any of the vowels never appear on the right side of the list. That is right! O and Ö can only appear in the first syllable (as the first vowel) of a word (Underhill 1985).


Take the [qsm_link id=3]quiz[/qsm_link].

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