Vowel harmony

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In linguistics, a language is said to possess vowel harmony (also metaphony) when it has a phonological rule that requires all vowels in a word to belong to a single class. Such a language defines at least two contrasting classes of vowels based loosely on criteria like roundedness or frontness. Some vowels may be considered neutral, i. e. belonging to all classes.

Linguists typically distinguish vowel harmony from Umlaut, a similar phenomenon that also adjusts the front or back status of words and affixes. In Umlaut, at least historically, the place of articulation of a vowel in an affix used in inflection alters the vowels in the root it is attached to. In vowel harmony, the place of articulation of the (main) vowel in the root requires that the other vowels (in inflectional and derivational affixes) be adjusted to match it.

A related but much less widespread phenomenon is consonant harmony.

Vowel harmony appears in almost all Uralic and Altaic languages. Some have speculated that the vowel harmony of the northwestern Finno-Ugric languages influenced the phonological phenomenon of Umlaut that most of the living Germanic languages display.


Uralic languages


Missing image
A Venn diagram of the Finnish vowel harmony system.The front vowels are in blue, neutral in green and back in yellow
Front y
Neutral e i
Back a o u

In the Finnish language, there are three classes of vowels -- front, back, and neutral, where each front vowel has a back vowel pair. From vowel harmony it follows that the initial syllable of each single (non-compound) word controls the frontness or backness of the entire word. A back vowel in the initial syllable causes all non-initial syllables to realize with back (or neutral) vowels. Otherwise, all non-initial syllables are realized with front (or neutral) vowels. Non-initially, the neutral vowels are transparent to and unaffected by vowel harmony.

For example

  • kaura begins with back vowel → kauralla
  • kuori begins with back vowel → kuorella
  • sieni begins without back vowels → sienell (not *sienella)
  • kyr begins without back vowels → kyrll
  • tuote begins with back vowels → tuotteeseensa

Vowel harmony is a grammaticalized feature of phonotactics, thus it may not work as expected from pure phonology, as evidenced by tuotteeseensa (not *tuotteeseens). Even if phonologically front vowels precede the suffix -nsa, grammatically it is preceded by a back vowel-controlled word.

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/chttill ) or ill-standardized (e.g. polymeeri, autoritrinen, 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, Wikipediassa — the initial syllable -pe- of the second word would require the final vowel to be -, but because it isn't, the process degrammaticalizes, becoming pure phonotactics.

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, and declines syys·kuu·ta (not *syyskuut). There are also some rare exceptions that violate vowel harmony, most notably tllainen ("(something) like this") that is used in written and formal Finnish. In everyday use, the word would be pronounced tllinen.


Back ("low") a o u
Front ("high"), unrounded
e i  
Front ("high"), rounded ő ű  

Hungarian, 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 (kzbe in the hand), back ("low") vowel words back suffixes (karba in the arm). The only essential difference in classification between Hungarian and Finnish is that Hungarian does not observe the difference between Finnish '' [æ] and 'e' [e] — the Hungarian neutral vowel 'e' [æ] is the same as the Finnish front vowel ''.

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 (eg. rpa carrot, kocsi car). Words with neutral and back vowels can usually take only back suffixes (eg. rp|ban in a carrot, kocsi|ban in a car), but in some cases they can take either front or back suffixes (eg. farmer|ban or farmer|ben, in jeans).

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 rounded vowels (such as , ő, and ű), e.g. hoz/-hez/-hz. See an example on basic numerals:

(at, for time)
Back hat (6), nyolc (8),
hrom (3)
-kor -ban -hoz
Front unrounded
(the neutral ones)
egy (1), ngy (4),
kilenc (9)
-ben -hez
rounded t (5),
kettő (2)

Altaic languages


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

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


Front e i
Back a ı o u

Tatar has no neutral vowels. The vowel is found only in loanwords.


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 ı u
Low e a o

Turkish has a 3-dimensional vowel harmony system, where vowels are characterised by three features: [front], [high], [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. Trkiyede "in Turkey" but kapıda "at the door".

Rounding harmony

In addition, there is a secondary rule that i and ı tend to become and u respectively after rounded vowels, so certain suffixes have additional forms. This gives constructions such as Trkiyedir "it is Turkey", kapıdır "it is the door", but gndr "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|gn "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"). In such words suffixes harmonize with the final vowel; thus İstanbuldur "it is İstanbul".


Main Article: The Korean Language

Korean Vowel Harmony
Positive (양성모음) ㅏ (a) ㅑ (ya) ㅗ (o) ㅛ (yo)
ㅐ (ae) ㅘ (wa) ㅚ (oe) ㅙ (wae)
Negative (음성모음) ㅓ (ŏ) ㅕ (yŏ) ㅜ (u) ㅠ (yu)
ㅔ (e) ㅝ (wŏ) ㅟ (wi) ㅞ (we)
Neutral (중성모음) ㅡ (ŭ) ㅣ (i) ㅢ (ŭi)

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 -(ŭ) 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 (Buŏk), which means kitchen.

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

Other languages

This phenomenon has been documented in Telugu, several Bantu languages, Akan languages, Nez Perce, Coeur dAlene, Yokutsan languages, Maiduan languages, Utian languages, Takelma, Coosan languages, Dusun languages, and Nilotic languages.

See also

eo:Vokala harmonio fr:Harmonie vocalique ko:모음조화 nl:Vocaalharmonie ja:母音調和 nn:vokalharmoni tt:Snharmonizm zh:元音和谐律


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