Okay, to be honest, the term vowel harmony doesn’t sound like a grammatical phenomenon to me. It’s too nice to be a term: vowel harmony.
As if it’s something related to music, not a grammar topic.
Anyways, speaking of music, I have to make this analogy:
Talking a foreign language is like playing a guitar. You can’t play a guitar if you don’t know which string to scrum, which scale to use. You can’t keep a harmony with sounds.
And in Turkish, vowel harmony is the phenomenon that keeps the language in harmony. Rules of vowel harmony decides which scale to use.
Okay, but when will YOU need to remember vowel harmony?
Turkish is an agglutinative language, it means that new words are formed by adding suffixes to word roots. And vowel harmony rules decide which suffix need to be attached so that the harmony is sustained.
That’s it. It’s your friend.
Let’s explain the phonological rules of vowel harmony and check what other sources say about it.
Google describes vowel harmony as “the phenomenon in some languages, e.g. Turkish, for all the vowels in a word to be members of the same subclass, for example all front vowels or all back vowels.”
If you don’t know which vowels are back or front, check vowels
As you know Turkish vowels can be categorized into three subcategories: Back/Front, Open/Closed, Rounded/Unrounded.
Does vowel harmony only exist in Turkish?
Vowel harmony is a common feature of agglutinative languages with some exceptions like the Guarani Language. Vowel harmony develops in languages mainly because of the natural tendency towards a muscular economy and creating harmonious sounds with the less effort.
Yes, Turks do not want to spend energy when talking! Moving your tongue front and back to say one word, come on!
Anyways, before getting into detail I want to talk about David who is a linguist in Berkeley University. He has been creating languages (that follow phonological patterns, rules etc.) and lately created the Dothraki language for HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Some of his languages have vowel harmony systems and if you want to read his ideas about vowel harmony, you can do it here.
4-way and 2-way Vowel Harmonies
The Turkish language’s system of vowel harmony consists of two different types: major vowel harmony and minor vowel harmony.
Every source use different terms to refer Turkish vowel harmony rules. You may see people calling major and minor, but you can also see 4-way and 2-way, lastly i-type and a-type.
|Type 1||Type 2|
So, 4-way vowel harmony is the same thing with minor vowel harmony and i-type vowel harmony.
You don’t have to memorise these terms, just know the rules.
Let’s check the vowel types in another table where you can see vowel types clearly:
A-type Vowel Harmony (2-way vowel harmony or e-type vowel harmony or major vowel harmony)
This type is simply about back/front vowels. If the final vowel in a word is a back vowel, then the subsequent vowel also needs to be a back vowel.
In other words, if one of the syllable has one of a,ı,o,u, the preceding vowel has to be “a”,
if the last syllable has one of front vowels ö,i,ü,e, the suffix has to have “e”.
So do you understand now why it is called e-type or a-type vowel harmony?
Also, 2-way vowel harmony, yes, because there are only two options: a or e.
If you have a back vowel in the verb stem, suffix must have a. (Because a is a perfect back vowel). If you have one of front vowels in the verb stem, then, the suffix must have e.
Note: If you still do not know which vowels are back and which are front, go and check vowels.
Since it ends with –e, it must have the suffix –ler.
(waiting) at the door
Okay now, let’s make the pronunciations of these Turkish vowels and realize which shape your mouth taking:
First say a, then e. A – E, A – E, A – E, A –E
And realize how your mouth take shape. A (Back) and E (Front)
So next time if you don’t know which suffix to add, just make the pronunciations of each vowel subsequently and choose the one who moves your mouth less!
If you understood vowel types, you don’t need to memorise these harmony rules because you can make out by your own from the shape of your mouth!
If you’re not rushing right now, please take a pen and paper and try to write down the vowel chart by the shape of your mouth without peeking.
i-type Vowel Harmony. (4-way vowel harmony, major vowel harmony)
This type is called 4-way because you choose among 4 words: i,ı,u,ü
In the grammar topics it is shown as: (I)yor.
This means, you can choose one of these:
According to the vowel that you are attaching this suffix.
Let’s give an example:
tr. verb stem of to sleep
she is sleeping/he is sleeping/it is sleeping
Yes because u is a round and back letter, then don’t move your mouth a lot! Go with u!
If the last syllable has e or i, the subsequent vowel has to be i
lit. Without love, loveless, stony-hearted
Is she/he/it beautiful?
Kalemsiz sınava gelmiş
S/he came to exam without pencil
If the last syllable has ö or ü, the subsequent vowel has to be ü
Without a lake
City without a lake
If the last syllable has a or ı, the subsequent vowel has to be ı
Without a door
If the last syllable has o or u, the subsequent vowel has to be u
İş + siz . Since the last and the only vowel of the word (iş) is “i”, the following vowel would be “i”.
In the building
From the building
In the apartment
Okay, let’s recap:
What was vowel harmony?
New suffix changes according to the previous vowel in the stem.
Make the next suffix more like the previous ones.
So that when talking mouth shape changes less frequently?
Less effort is being spent and the meaning can be given with minimum effort.
You will see more suffixes following the same rules and, of course, some exceptions. Do NOT get discouraged if you can’t form a word correctly at the beginning. Because you need practice. you’ll get used to the phonology and form the words without even thinking as you expose yourself to Turkish more.