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Vowel harmony

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Vowel harmony is a type of long-distance (see below) assimilatory phonological process involving vowels in some languages. In languages with vowel harmony, there are constraints on what vowels may be found near each other.



Harmony processes are "long-distance" in the sense that the assimilation involves sounds that are separated by intervening segments (usually consonant segments). In other words, harmony refers to the assimilation of sounds that are not adjacent to each other. For example, a vowel at the beginning of a word can trigger assimilation in a vowel at the end of a word. The assimilation sometimes occurs across the entire word. This is represented schematically in the following diagram:

VaCVbCVbC VaCVaCVaC (Va = type-a vowel, Vb = type-b vowel, C = consonant)

In the diagram above, the Va (type-a vowel) causes the following Vb (type-b vowel) to assimilate and become the same type of vowel (and thus they become, metaphorically, "in harmony").

The vowel that causes the vowel assimilation is frequently termed the trigger while the vowels that assimilate (or harmonize) are termed targets. In most languages, the vowel triggers lie within the root of a word while the affixes added to the roots contain the targets. This may be seen in the Hungarian dative suffix:

Root Dative Gloss
város város-nak "city"
öröm öröm-nek "joy"

The dative suffix has two different forms -nak/-nek. The -nak form appears after the root with back vowels (a and o are both back vowels). The -nek form appears after the root with front vowels (ö and e are front vowels).

Another example: Turkish araba (car) pluralises to arabalar but tren (train) pluralises to trenler.

Harmony assimilation may spread either from the beginning of the word to the end or from the end to the beginning. Progressive harmony (a.k.a. left-to-right harmony) proceeds from beginning to end; regressive harmony (a.k.a. right-to-left harmony) proceeds from end to beginning. Languages that have both prefixes and suffixes often have both progressive and regressive harmony. Languages that primarily have prefixes (and no suffixes) usually have only regressive harmony — and vice versa for primarily suffixing languages.

Features of vowel harmony

Vowel harmony often involves dimensions such as

In many languages, vowels can be said to belong to particular classes, such as back vowels or rounded vowels, etc. Some languages have more than one system of harmony. For instance, Altaic languages have a rounding harmony superimposed over a backness harmony.

In some languages, not all vowels participate in the vowel conversions — these vowels are termed either neutral or transparent. Intervening consonants are also often transparent. In addition to these transparent segments, many languages have opaque vowels that block vowel harmony processes.

Finally, languages that do have vowel harmony sometimes have words that fail to harmonize. This is known as disharmony. Many loanwords exhibit disharmony, either within a root (e.g., Turkish/Turkic vakit/waqit, "time" [from Arabic waqt], where °vak?twaq?t would have been expected) or in suffixes (e.g., Turkish saat-ler "(the) hours" [hour-PL, from Arabic sâ`a], where saat-lar would have been expected). In Turkish, disharmony tends to disappear through analogy, especially within loanwords. Suffixes drop disharmony to a lesser extent, e.g. Hüsnü (a man's name) < previously Hüsni, from Arabic husnî; müslümân "Moslem, Muslim (adj. and n.)" < °müslimân, from Arabic muslim).

Vowel harmony & umlaut terminology

The term vowel harmony is used in two different senses, explained below.

In the first sense, vowel harmony refers to any type of vowel harmony: that is, both progressive and regressive vowel harmony. When used in this sense, the term vowel harmony is synonymous with the term metaphony.

In the second sense, vowel harmony refers only to progressive vowel harmony (beginning-to-end). For regressive harmony, the term umlaut is used. In this sense, metaphony is the general term while vowel harmony and umlaut are both sub-types of metaphony. (Note that the term umlaut is also used in a different sense to refer to a type of vowel gradation.)

Vowel harmony, archiphonemes, and underspecification

See Neutralization, archiphoneme, underspecification for an explanation of archiphoneme and neutralization with an example of a Tuvan archiphoneme involved in vowel harmony.

Examples in selected languages

Vowel harmony appears in many Uralic and almost all Altaic languages.

Uralic languages


  Front Neutral Back
Open ä   a
Mid ö e o
Close y i u
In the Finnish language, there are three classes of vowels – front, back, and neutral, where each front vowel has a back vowel pairing. Grammatical endings such as case and derivational endings – but not enclitics – have only archiphonemic vowels, which are realized as either A, U, O or Ä, Y, Ö, but never both, inside a single word. From vowel harmony it follows that the initial syllable of each single (non-compound) word controls the frontness or backness of the entire word. Non-initially, the neutral vowels are transparent to and unaffected by vowel harmony. In the initial syllable:

  1. a back vowel causes all non-initial syllables to realize with back (or neutral) vowels, e.g. pos+ahta+(t)aposahtaa
  2. a front vowel causes all non-initial syllables to realize with front (or neutral) vowels, e.g. räj+ahta+(t)aräjähtää.
  3. a neutral vowel acts like a front vowel, but does not control the frontness or backness of the word: if there are back vowels in non-initial syllables, the word acts like it began with back vowels, even if they come from derivational endings, e.g. sih+ahta+(ta)sihahtaa cf. sih+ise+(t)asihistä

For example:

  • kaura begins with back vowel → kauralla
  • kuori begins with back vowel → kuorella
  • sieni begins without back vowels → sienellä (not *sienella)
  • käyrä begins without back vowels → käyrällä
  • tuote begins with back vowels → tuotteeseensa
  • kerä begins with a neutral vowel → kerällä
  • kera begins with a neutral vowel, but has a noninitial back vowel → keralla

Some dialects that have a sound change opening diphthong codas also permit archiphonemic vowels in the initial syllable. For example, standard 'ie' is reflected as 'ia' or 'iä', controlled by noninitial syllables, in the Tampere dialect, e.g. tiätie but miakkamiekka.

Vowel harmony is a grammaticalized feature of phonotactics, thus it may not work as expected from pure phonology, as evidenced by tuotteeseensa (not *tuotteeseensä). Even if phonologically front vowels precede the suffix -nsa, grammatically it is preceded by a back vowel-controlled word. As shown in the examples, neutral vowels make the system unsymmetrical, as they are front vowels phonologically, but leave the front/back control to any grammatical front or back vowels. There is little or no change in the actual vowel quality of the neutral vowels.

As a consequence, Finnish speakers often have problems with pronouncing foreign words which do not obey vowel harmony. For example, olympia is pronounced olumpia. The position of some loans is unstandardized (e.g. chattailla/chättäillä ) or ill-standardized (e.g. polymeeri, autoritäärinen, which violate vowel harmony). Where a foreign word violates vowel harmony by not using front vowels because it begins with a neutral vowel, then last syllable counts. For example, Olympiassa – the initial syllable o- would require the final vowel to be , but there is an intervening -y-, so that the final -a counts.

With respect to vowel harmony, compound words can be considered separate words. For example, syyskuu ("autumn month" i.e. September) has both u and y, but it consists of two words syys and kuu, and declines syys·kuu·ta (not *syyskuutä). The same goes for enclitics, e.g. taaksepäin "backwards" consists of the word taakse "to back" and -päin "-wards". If fusion takes place, the vowel is harmonized by some speakers, e.g. tälläinen pro tällainentämän lainen.


Vowel types

Hungarian alphabetHungarian, like its distant relative Finnish, has the same system of front, back, and intermediate (neutral) vowels. The basic rule is that words with front ("high") vowels get front vowel suffixes (kézbe - in(to) the hand), back ("low") vowel words back suffixes (karba - in(to) the arm).

The only essential difference in classification between Hungarian and Finnish is that Hungarian does not observe the difference between Finnish 'ä' [æ] and 'e' [e] – the Hungarian front vowel 'e' [æ] is the same as the Finnish front vowel 'ä'.

  open middle closed
Back ("low") a á o ó u ú
  e é i í
rounded   ö ő ü ű

Behaviour of neutral vowels

Intermediate or neutral vowels are usually counted as front ones, since they are formed that way, the difference being that neutral vowels can occur along with back vowels in Hungarian word bases (e.g. répa carrot, kocsi car). The basic rule is that words with neutral and back vowels usually take back suffixes (e.g. répá|ban in a carrot, kocsi|ban in a car).

The suffix rules for words with both kinds of suffixes are the following:

  • The last syllable counts: sofőr|höz, nüansz|szal, generál|ás, október|ben
    • A regular exception is i/í and é (but not usually e): they are transparent for the rule, so only the other sounds will be taken into consideration, e.g. papír|hoz, kuplé|hoz, marék|hoz, konflis|hoz
  • Some words can take either front or back suffixes: farmer|ban or farmer|ben

Suffixes in multiple forms

While most grammatical suffixes in Hungarian come in either one form (eg. -kor) or two forms (front and back, eg. -ban/-ben), some suffixes have an additional form for front rounded vowels (such as ö, ő, ü and ű), e.g. hoz/-hez/-höz. An example on basic numerals:

(at, for time)
Back hat (6)
nyolc (8)
három (3)
Front unrounded
egy (1)
négy (4)
kilenc (9)
rounded öt (5)
kettő (2)

Altaic languages


Feminine (front) e ö ü
Masculine (back) a o u
Neutral i  

Mongolian is similar. Front vowels in Mongolian are considered feminine, while back vowels are considered masculine.


Tatar has no neutral vowels. The vowel é is found only in loanwords. Other vowels also could be found in loanwords, but they are seen as Back vowels. Tatar language also has a rounding harmony, but it isn't represented in writing. O and ö could be written only in the first syllable, but vowels they mark could be pronounced in place where ? and e are written.

Front ä e i ö ü  
Back a ? í o u é



Kazakh's system of vowel harmony is primarily a front/back system, but there is also a system of rounding harmony that is not represented by the orthography, which strongly resembles the system in Kyrgyz.


Kyrgyz's system of vowel harmony is primarily a front/back system, but there is also a system of rounding harmony.


  Front Back
  Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
High i ü ? u
Low e ö a o

Turkish has a 2-dimensional vowel harmony system, where vowels are characterised by two features: [±front] and [±rounded].

Front/back harmony

Turkish has two classes of vowels – front and back. Vowel harmony states that words may not contain both front and back vowels. Therefore, most grammatical suffixes come in front and back forms, e.g. Türkiye'de "in Turkey" but Almanya'da "in Germany".

Rounding harmony

In addition, there is a secondary rule that i and ? tend to become ü and u respectively after rounded vowels, so certain suffixes have additional forms. This gives constructions such as Türkiye'dir "it is Turkey", kap?d?r "it is the door", but gündür "it is day", paltodur "it is the coat".


Compound words are considered separate words with respect to vowel harmony: vowels do not have to harmonize between members of the compound (thus forms like bu|gün "this|day" = "today" are permissible). In addition, vowel harmony does not apply for loanwords and some invariant suffixes (such as -iyor); there are also a few native Turkish words that do not follow the rule (such as anne "mother" or kardeş "brother/sister" which used to obey vowel harmony in their older forms, ana and kar?ndaş, respectively). In such words suffixes harmonize with the final vowel; thus Istanbul'dur "it is Istanbul".


  unrounded rounded
high i u
non-high a ɔ
Vowel harmony is present in all Yokutsan languages and dialects. For instance, Yawelmani has 4 vowels (which additionally may be either long or short). These can be grouped as in the table below.

In vowels in suffixes must harmonize with either /u/ or its non-/u/ counterparts or with /ɔ/ or non-/ɔ/ counterparts. For example, the vowel in the aorist suffix appears as /u/ when it follows a /u/ in the root, but when it follows all other vowels it appears as /i/. Similarly, the vowel in the nondirective gerundial suffix appears as /ɔ/ when it follows a /ɔ/ in the root; otherwise it appears as /a/.

-hun/-hin   (aorist suffix)
muṭhun [muʈhun] 'swear (aorist)'
giy̓hin [ɡij’hin] 'touch (aorist)'
gophin [ɡɔphin] 'take of infant (aorist)'
xathin [xathin] 'eat (aorist)'
-tow/-taw   (nondirective gerundial suffix)
goptow [ɡɔptɔw] 'take care of infant (nondir. ger.)'
giy̓taw [ɡij’taw] 'touch (nondir. ger.)'
muṭtaw [muʈtaw] 'swear (nondir. ger.)'
xattaw [xatːaw] 'eat (nondir. ger.)'

In addition to the harmony found in suffixes, there is a harmony restriction on word stems where in stems with more than one syllable all vowels are required to be of the same lip rounding and tongue height dimensions. For example, a stem must contain all high rounded vowels or all low rounded vowels, etc. This restriction is further complicated by (i) long high vowels being lowered and (ii) an epenthetic vowel [i] which does not harmonize with stem vowels.


There are three classes of vowels in Korean: positive, negative, and neutral. These categories loosely follow the front (positive) and mid (negative) vowels. Traditionally, Korean had strong vowel harmony; however, this rule is no longer observed strictly in modern Korean. In modern Korean, it is only applied in certain cases such as onomatopoeia, adjectives, adverbs, conjugation, and interjections. The vowel ㅡ(eu) is considered a partially neutral and a partially negative vowel. There are other traces of vowel harmony in modern Korean: many native Korean words tend to follow vowel harmony such as 사람 (saram), which means person, and 부엌 (Bueok), which means kitchen.

Korean Vowel Harmony
Positive/"light"/Yang Vowels ㅏ (a) ㅑ (ya) ㅗ (o) ㅛ (yo)
ㅐ (ae) ㅘ (wa) ㅚ (oe) ㅙ (wae)
Negative/"heavy"/Yin Vowels ㅓ (eo) ㅕ (yeo) ㅜ (u) ㅠ (yu)
ㅔ (e) ㅝ (wo) ㅟ (wi) ㅞ (we)
Neutral/Centre Vowels ㅡ (eu) ㅣ (i) ㅢ (ui)

Proponents of Korean as an Altaic language use the existence of vowel harmony in Korean to support their argument.


Modern Japanese and all historically recorded forms of Japanese lack clear evidence of vowel harmony, but some consider that such a process must have existed at one time. However, a consensus has not been reached. See the articles on Old Japanese and Jōdai Tokushu Kanazukai for more information.

Other languages

Vowel harmony occurs in some degree in many other languages, such as

Other types of harmony

Although vowel harmony is the most well-known harmony, not all types of harmony that occur in the world's languages involve only vowels. Other types of harmony involve consonants (and is known as consonant harmony). Rarer types of harmony are those that involve tone or both vowels and consonants (e.g. postvelar harmony).

Vowel-consonant harmony

Some languages have harmony processes that involve an interaction between vowels and consonants. For example, Chilcotin has a phonological process known as vowel flattening (i.e. post-velar harmony) where vowels must harmonize with uvular and pharyngealized consonants.

Chilcotin has two classes of vowels:

  • "flat" vowels [ᵊi, e, ᵊɪ, o, ɔ, ə, a]
  • non-"flat" vowels [i, ɪ, u, ʊ, æ, ɛ]

Additionally, Chilcotin has a class of pharyngealized "flat" consonants [ʦˤ, ʦʰˤ, ʦ’ˤ, sˤ, zˤ]. Whenever a consonant of this class occurs in a word, all preceding vowels must be flat vowels.

[jətʰeɬʦˤʰosˤ] 'he's holding it (fabric)'
[ʔapələsˤ] 'apples'
[natʰák’ə̃sˤ] 'he'll stretch himself'

If flat consonants do not occur in a word, then all vowels will be of the non-flat class:

[nænɛntʰǽsʊç] 'I'll comb hair'
[tetʰǽsk’ɛn] 'I'll burn it'
[tʰɛtɬʊç] 'he laughs'

Other languages of this region of North America (the Plateau culture area), such as St'át'imcets, have similar vowel-consonant harmonic processes.

Languages with vowel harmony


See also


  • Jacobson, Leon Carl. (1978). DhoLuo vowel harmony: A phonetic investigation. Los Angeles: University of California.
  • Krämer, Martin. (2003). Vowel harmony and correspondence theory. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Li, Bing. (1996). Tungusic vowel harmony: Description and analysis. The Hague: Holland Academic Graphics.
  • Lloret, Maria-Rosa (2007), "On the Nature of Vowel Harmony: Spreading with a Purpose", in Bisetto, Antonietta & Francesco Barbieri, Proceedings of the XXXIII Incontro di Grammatica Generativa, 15-35
  • Shahin, Kimary N. (2002). Postvelar harmony. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub.
  • Smith, Norval; & van der Hulst, Harry (Eds.). (1988). Features, segmental structure and harmony processes (Pts. 1 & 2). Dordrecht: Foris. ISBN 90-6765-399-3 (pt. 1), ISBN 90-6765-430-2 (pt. 2 ) .
  • Vago, Robert M. (Ed.). (1980). Issues in vowel harmony: Proceedings of the CUNY Linguistic Conference on Vowel Harmony, 14th May 1977. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins.
  • Vago, Robert M. (1994). Vowel harmony. In R. E. Asher (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (pp. 4954-4958). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

External links

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vowel_harmony

Published - December 2008

Information from Wikipedia is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

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