Vowel harmony

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Sound change and alternation

Vowel harmony is a type of long-distance assimilatory phonological process involving vowels that occurs in some languages. In languages with vowel harmony, there are constraints on which vowels may be found near each other. Many agglutinative languages have vowel harmony.


The term vowel harmony is used in two different senses.

In the first sense, it refers to any type of long distance assimilatory process of vowels, either progressive or regressive. 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. The term umlaut is also used in a different sense to refer to a type of vowel gradation. This article will use "vowel harmony" for both progressive and regressive harmony.


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 occurs across the entire word in many languages. 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. When the vowel triggers lie within the root or stem of a word and the affixes contain the targets, this is called stem-controlled vowel harmony (the opposite situation is called dominant).[1] This is fairly common amongst languages with vowel harmony[citation needed] and 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 (The vowel expected to be used is a but this is a front vowel, therefore the vowel must be pronounced as an α because α and o are both back vowels). The -nek form appears after the root with front vowels (ö and e are front vowels).

Features of vowel harmony[edit]

Vowel harmony often involves dimensions such as

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

Even amongst languages with vowel harmony, not all vowels need participate in the vowel conversions; these vowels are termed neutral. Neutral vowels may be opaque and block harmonic processes or they may be transparent and not affect them.[2] Intervening consonants are also often transparent.

Finally, languages that do have vowel harmony often allow for lexical disharmony, or words with mixed sets of vowels even when an opaque neutral vowel is not involved. van der Hulst & van de Weijer (1995) point to two such situations: polysyllabic trigger morphemes may contain non-neutral vowels from opposite harmonic sets and certain target morphemes simply fail to harmonize.[3] Many loanwords exhibit disharmony. For example, Turkish vakit, ('time' [from Arabic waqt]); *vakıt would have been expected.

Languages with vowel harmony[edit]


Korean Vowel Harmony
Positive/"light(Yang 陽)"/Plus Vowels

밝은모음(Balg·eun mo·eum)

ㅏ (a, /ɐ/) ㅑ (ya, /jɐ/) ㅗ (o) ㅘ (wa) ㅛ (yo) (ㆍ /ʌ, ə/)
ㅐ (ae, /ɛ/) ㅒ (yae, /jɛ/) ㅚ (oe, /ø/) ㅙ (wae, /wɛ/) (ㆉ /joj/) (ㆎ /ʌj, əj/)
Negative/"heavy(Yin 陰)"/Minus Vowels

어두운모음(Eo·du·un mo·eum)

ㅓ (eo, /ʌ/) ㅕ (yeo, /jʌ/) ㅜ (u) ㅝ (wo) ㅠ (yu) ㅡ (eu, /ɯ/)
ㅔ (e) ㅖ (ye) ㅟ (wi, /y/) ㅞ (we) (ㆌ /juj/) ㅢ (ui, /ɰj/)
Neutral(mediating 乎)/Centre Vowels ㅣ (i)

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 (sa·ram), 'person', and 부엌 (bu·eok), 'kitchen'.


non-pharyngeal i u e o
pharyngeal a ʊ ɔ

Mongolian possesses a different system of vowel harmony. The system includes both a pharyngeal harmony and a rounding harmony. In particular, the pharyngeal harmony involves the vowels: a, ʊ, ɔ (pharyngeal) and i, u, e, o (non-pharyngeal). Rounding harmony only affects the open vowels, e, o, a, ɔ.[4]

Turkic languages[edit]


Azeri Vowel Harmony
Front Back
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
Vowel e, ə, i ö, ü a, ı o, u
Two form suffix (iki şəkilli şəkilçilər) ə a
Four form suffix (dörd şəkilli şəkilçilər) i ü ı u

Azerbaijani's system of vowel harmony has both front/back and rounded/unrounded vowels.[5]


Front ä e i ö ü
Back a ı í o u é

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 the place where ı and e are written.


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 ı u
Low e ö a o

Turkish has a 2-dimensional vowel harmony system, where vowels are characterised by two features: [±front] and [±rounded]. There are two sets of vocal harmony systems: a simple one and a complex one. The simple one is concerned with the low vowels e, a and has only the [±front] feature (e front vs a back). The complex one is concerned with the high vowels i, ü, ı, u and has both [±front] and [±rounded] features (i front unrounded vs ü front rounded and ı back unrounded vs u back rounded). The close-mid vowels ö, o are not involved in vocal harmony processes.

Front/back harmony[edit]

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".

Turkish vowel harmony[6]
Nom.sg Gen.sg. Nom.pl Gen.pl. Gloss
ip ipin ipler iplerin 'rope'
el elin eller ellerin 'hand'
kız kızın kızlar kızların 'girl'
Rounding harmony[edit]

In addition, there is a secondary rule that i and ı 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", kapıdır "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).

Vowel harmony does not apply for loanwords and some invariant suffixes (such as -iyor).

There are also a few native modern Turkish words that do not follow the rule (such as anne "mother" or kardeş "sibling" which used to obey vowel harmony in their older forms, ana and karındaş, respectively). In such words, suffixes harmonize with the final vowel; thus İstanbul'dur "it is İstanbul".

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; Müslüman "Moslem, Muslim (adj. and n.)" < *müslimân, from Arabic Muslim).

Uralic languages[edit]


Vowel types[edit]
Front e é i í ö ő ü ű
Back a á - - o ó u ú

Hungarian, like its distant relative Finnish, has the same system of front, back, and intermediate (neutral) vowels but is more complex than the one in Finnish, and some vowel harmony processes. The basic rule is that words including at least one back vowel get back vowel suffixes (karba – in(to) the arm), while words excluding back vowels get front vowel suffixes (kézbe – in(to) the hand). One vowel words including only the neutral vowels i, í or é are unpredictable (not in case of e which surely gets front vowel suffix).

One essential difference in classification between Hungarian and Finnish is that standard Hungarian (along with 3 out of 10 local dialects) does not observe the difference between Finnish 'ä' [æ] and 'e' [e] – the Hungarian front vowel 'e' [æ] is pronounced as the Finnish front vowel 'ä' [æ]. 7 out of the 10 local dialects have the vowel ë [e] which has never been part of the Hungarian alphabet, and thus is not used in practice.

Behaviour of neutral vowels[edit]
open middle closed
Back ("low") a á o ó u ú
  e é i í
rounded   ö ő ü ű

Unrounded front vowels (or Intermediate or neutral vowels) can occur toghether with either back vowels (e.g. répa carrot, kocsi car) or rounded front vowels (e.g. tető, tündér), but rounded front vowels and back vowels can occur together only in words of foreign origins (e.g. sofőr = chauffeur, French word for driver). The basic rule is that words including at least one back vowel take back vowel suffixes (e.g. répá|ban in a carrot, kocsi|ban in a car), while words excluding back vowels usually take front vowel suffixes (except for words including only the vowels i or í, for which there is no general rule, e.g. liszt|et, hid|at).

Some other rules and guidelines to consider:

  • Compound words get suffix according to the last word, e.g.: ártér (floodplain) compound of ár + tér gets front vowel suffix just as the word tér when stands alone (tér|en, ártér|en)
  • In case of words of obvious foreign origins: only the last vowel counts (if it is not i or í): sofőr|höz, nüansz|szal, generál|ás, október|ben, parlament|ben, szoftver|rel
    • If the last vowel of the foreign word is i or í, then the last but one vowel will be taken into consideration, e.g. papír|hoz, Rashid|dal. If the foreign word includes only the vowels i or í then it gets front vowel suffix, e.g.: Mitch-nek ( = for Mitch)
    • There are some non-Hungarian geographical names that exclude vowels at all (e.g. the Croatian island of Krk), in which case as the word does not include back vowel, it gets front vowel suffix (e.g. Krk-re = to Krk)
  • For acronyms: the last vowel counts (just as in case of foreign words), e.g.: HR (pronounced: há-er) gets front vowel suffix as the last pronounced vowel is front vowel (HR-rel = with HR)
  • Some 1-syllable Hungarian words with i, í or é are strictly using front suffixes (gép|re, mély|ről, víz > viz|et, hír|ek), while some others can take back suffixes only (héj|ak, szíj|ról, nyíl > nyil|at, zsír|ban, ír|ás)
  • Some foreign words that have fit to the Hungarian language and start with back vowel and end with front vowel can take either front or back suffixes (so can be optionally considered foreign word or Hungarian word): farmer|ban or farmer|ben
Suffixes with multiple forms[edit]

Grammatical suffixes in Hungarian can have one, two or three forms:

  • one form: every word gets the same suffix regardless of the included vowels (e.g. -kor)
  • two forms (most common): words get either back vowel or front vowel suffix (as mentioned above) (e.g. -ban/-ben)
  • three forms: there is one back vowel form and two front vowel forms; one for words of which last vowel is rounded front vowel and one for words of which last vowel is not rounded front vowel (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)


A diagram illustrating vowel harmony in Finnish.
Finnish vowel harmony and case agreement exemplified by mahdollisissa yllättävissä tilanteissa ("in possible unexpected situations"): mahdollinen takes -ssa, yllättävä takes -ssä and tilanne, with a neutral vowel first but a back vowel second, takes -ssa.

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 U, O, A, which are realized as either back [u, o, a] or front [y, ø, æ] 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 be realized with back (or neutral) vowels, e.g. pos+ahta+(t)aposahtaa
  2. a front vowel causes all non-initial syllables to be realized 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+(t)asihahtaa 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 → tuotteessa
  • 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.

... as evidenced by tuotteessa (not *tuotteessä). Even if phonologically front vowels precede the suffix -nsa, grammatically it is preceded by a word controlled by a back vowel. 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 often pronounced olumpia. The position of some loans is unstandardized (e.g. chattailla/chättäillä ) or ill-standardized (e.g. polymeeri, sometimes pronounced polumeeri, and 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 generally counts, although this rule is irregularly followed.[7] Experiments indicate that e.g. miljonääri always becomes (front) miljonääriä, but marttyyri becomes equally frequently both marttyyria (back) and marttyyriä (front), even by the same speaker.

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", which gives e.g. taaksepäinkään (not *taaksepäinkaan or *taaksepainkaan). If fusion takes place, the vowel is harmonized by some speakers, e.g. tälläinen pro tällainentämän lainen.

Some Finnish words whose stems contain only neutral vowels exhibit an alternating pattern in terms of vowel harmony when inflected or forming new words through derivation. Examples include meri "sea", meressä "in the sea" (inessive), but merta (partitive), not *mertä; veri "blood", verestä "from the blood" (elative), but verta (partitive), not *vertä; pelätä "to be afraid", but pelko "fear", not *pelkö; kipu "pain", but kipeä "sore", not *kipea.

Helsinki slang has slang words that have roots violating vowel harmony, e.g. Sörkka. This can be interpreted as Swedish influence.


Standard Estonian has lost its vowel harmony, the front vowels occurring only in the first (stressed) syllable. However vowel harmony exists in Võro, a dialect of South Estonian.


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.

Unrounded Rounded
High i u
Low a ɔ

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 is some evidence for vowel harmony according to vowel height or ATR in the prefix i3/e- in inscriptions from pre-Sargonic Lagash (the specifics of the pattern have led a handful of scholars to postulate not only an /o/ phoneme, but even an /ɛ/ and, most recently, an /ɔ/)[8] Many cases of partial or complete assimilation of the vowel of certain prefixes and suffixes to one in the adjacent syllable are reflected in writing in some of the later periods, and there is a noticeable though not absolute tendency for disyllabic stems to have the same vowel in both syllables.[9] What appears to be vowel contraction in hiatus (*/aa/, */ia/, */ua/ > a, */ae/ > a, */ue/ > u, etc.) is also very common.

Other languages[edit]

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

Other types of harmony[edit]

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[edit]

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 [tsˤ, tsʰˤ, tsʼˤ, sˤ, zˤ]. Whenever a consonant of this class occurs in a word, all preceding vowels must be flat vowels.

[jətʰeɬtsˤʰosˤ] 'he's holding it (fabric)'
[ʔapələsˤ] 'apples'
[natʰákʼə̃sˤ] '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'
[tetʰǽskʼɛn] '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.

Syllabic synharmony[edit]

Syllabic synharmony was a process in the Proto-Slavic language ancestral to all modern Slavic languages. It refers to the tendency of frontness (palatality) to be generalised across an entire syllable. It was therefore a form of consonant–vowel harmony in which the property 'palatal' or 'non-palatal' applied to an entire syllable at once rather than to each sound individually.

The result was that back vowels were fronted after j or a palatal consonant, and consonants were palatalised before j or a front vowel. Diphthongs were harmonized as well, although they were soon monophthongized because of a tendency to end syllables with a vowel (syllables were or became open). This rule remained in place for a long time, and ensured that a syllable containing a front vowel always began with a palatal consonant, and a syllable containing j was always preceded by a palatal consonant and followed by a front vowel.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ van der Hulst & van de Weijer (1995:496)
  2. ^ van der Hulst & van de Weijer (1995:496–498)
  3. ^ van der Hulst & van de Weijer (1995:499–500)
  4. ^ Svantesson, Jan-Olof, et al. "The Phonology of Mongolian"
  5. ^ Öztopçu, Kurtuluş (2003). Elementary Azerbaijani (2. printing ed.). Santa Monica, Calif. ; İstanbul: [Simurg]. pp. 32, 49. ISBN 975-93773-0-6. 
  6. ^ Examples from Roca & Johnson (1999:150)
  7. ^ Ringen, Catherine O.; Heinämäki, Orvokki (1999). "Variation in Finnish Vowel Harmony: An OT Account". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 17 (2). doi:10.1023/A:1006158818498. 
  8. ^ Smith, Eric J M (2007). "Harmony and the Vowel Inventory of Sumerian". Journal of Cuneiform Studies 57. 
  9. ^ Michalowski, Piotr (2008). "Sumerian". In Woodard, Roger D. The Ancient Languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Aksum. Cambridge University Press. p. 17. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Derek Nurse, Gérard Philippson, The Bantu languages, Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-7007-1134-1
  11. ^ Lojenga, Constance Kutsch. "Two types of vowel harmony in Malila (M.24)" (PDF). SIL, Leiden University. 
  12. ^ a b Lloret (2007)


  • 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; Barbieri, Francesco, Proceedings of the XXXIII Incontro di Grammatica Generativa, pp. 15–35 
  • Roca, Iggy; Johnson, Wyn (1999), A Course in Phonology, Blackwell Publishing 
  • 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, 14 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.
  • van der Hulst, Harry; van de Weijer, Jeroen (1995), "Vowel Harmony", in Goldsmith, John A., The Handbook of Phonological Theory, Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics, Blackwell Publishers, pp. 495–534 

External links[edit]