Turkish Vowels

Turkish vowels are said to be of pure quality because there are no diphthongs in Turkish (some even call it boring). That is, the position of the tongue during the articulation of the vowel is fixed from the beginning to the end (no glide motion). This sometimes becomes an issue for English speakers (especially American English) during rapid speech. These speakers inadvertently produce diphthongs because they are a common occurrence in their native tongue or a particular vowel only exists in their dialects as a part of diphthong (or both).

We will described the Turkish vowels based on three criteria (as it is generally done):

  • back or front: Refers to the part of the tongue that restricts the air flow,
  • open or close (high or low): The distance between the roof of the mouth and the highest point of
    the tongue during the articulation
  • rounded or unrounded: Describes the shape of the lips during the articulation
A open back unrounded /ɑ/

It is the same sound you hear in English words such as father, arm, and wasp.

a at adam ‘horse man’

E open mid unrounded /ɛ/

The closest examples from English are in words such as end and red. Other examples include the initial part of the /e/ sound you hear in (American) English words such as ate and flavor. Note that the actual sound in these words is the diphthong /eɪ/; try not produce the gliding sound at the end.

e el ele ‘hand to hand’

For comparison, click here and here for English pronunciations of the /e/ sound. Although, it is not the speakers’ intention in these sound clips, they nevertheless produce diphthongs (as the sound shifts or drops from /e/ to /ɪ/). Compare those to Turkish pronunciation above; you should not hear a shift in the sound (i.e., e->e).

İ close front unrounded /i/

This is very similar to the i sound in English words such as eat and feet. Please note that the letters of I (lower case ı) and İ (lower case i) represents two different sounds in Turkish.

i iş için ‘for work’

I close back unrounded /ɯ/

Unfortunately there are no English sounds that corresponds with this one. An easy way to produce this sound is to try to pronounce the u sound in kung fu, and slowly unround your lips (as if you were smiling).

ı hızını kıstı ‘reduced its speed’

Don’t forget that I and İ are two different sounds.

U close back rounded /u/

This sound is very similar to the English u sound in words such as cool and soup.

u bulutlu ufuk ‘cloudy horizon’

Ü close front rounded /ʏ/

This is another sound that does not exist in English. To produce this sound try producing the i sound in the English word beet while rounding your lips.

ü küçük üzüm ‘small grape’

O open-mid back rounded /ɔ/

Turkish O’s lie somewhere between the O in English boy and A in law.

o çok bol ‘ubiquitous’

Ö open-mid front rounded /œ/

This is the final vowel that does not exist in English. You can use the unrounded counter part, the e /ɛ/ sound to practice this one. So, try producing these /ɛ/ sound while rounding your lips.

ö göz ‘eye’

Vowel length

Vowels are lengthened under three circumstances in Turkish (Lewis, 2000). In written system, although these vowels should be written with a circumflex “^”, the practice is often not followed and falling out of use.

  • Borrowings:
    gâzi (Ar.) /gɑ:zi/
    mâlum (Ar.) /mɑ:lum/ ‘known’
    berâber (Fa.) /berɑ:ber/ ‘together’
    tesir (Ar.) /te:sir/ ‘effect’
  • Before the consonant ‘ğ’ :
    iğne /i:ne/ ‘needle’
    yağmur /jɑ:mur/ ‘rain’
    çığ /tʃɯ:/ ‘avalanche’
  • For emphasis:
    aslaa /ɑslɑ:ɑ/ ‘never’
    çook /tʃo:o:k/ ‘very much’

Charts

Two charts are included for your convenience. Study the one that is most intuitive to you. But, I suggest that you focus on the last one as it will be very useful during our upcoming lessons on vowel harmony.

IPA*
Vowel Quadrilateral

Front

Back

Close
Close-mid
Open-mid
Open

i
y
ɯ
u
ɛ
œ
ɔ
ɑ

* Based on Lewis (2000) and Kılıç (2003).

Based on Roundedness & Backness
Unrounded Rounded
Open Close Open Close
Back a ı o u
Font e i ö ü
Based on Openness & Backness
Front Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
close i ü ı u
open e ö a o

You might find this last chart more intuitive if you pair Turkish vowels based on their place of articulation and roundedness. That is, o is the rounded version of a, ü is the rounded version of i, ö is the rounded version of e…etc.

Summary

Turkish vowels of A. E, O, İ, and U should not be too difficult to produce for most English speakers. For the rest, you can use the rounded or unrounded counter parts in English to practice them. I call them counter-parts because the place of articulation for these vowels are very similar to each other and the main difference between them is the rounding of the lips. So, here is one way to practice them:

While pronouncing the English e phoneme (eight) round your lips to produce Turkish Ö
While pronouncing the English i phoneme (beet) round your lips to produce Turkish Ü
While pronouncing the English u phoneme (fu) unround your lips to produce Turkish I

Exercise

Flip the cards to match the vowels.
[h5p id=”3″]

Quiz

Take the vowel quiz.

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