What is vowel harmony?

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Ehesh
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What is vowel harmony?

Post by Ehesh » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 03:30

I've spent about 5 hours listening to David J Peterson explain vowel harmony on conlangery but I till have no clue what it is [:'(] [>_<] .
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by Thrice Xandvii » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 03:55

Simply put it is a system in which vowels in a given range (usually a word) must agree in one quality or another. Common types include height and rounding harmony. So, for example, if a word has an /e/ and that vowel isn't neutral in the system it could not have /u/ if the language has rounding harmony. A lot of times languages will have pairs of affixes so that they can agree with the words they attach to.

Does that make sense? Also, folks please correct me if I'm off the mark here.
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by sangi39 » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 04:06

Putting it simply, it's a long-distance assimilatory process in which the vowels in a word should* belong to the same "class" as each other.

The typical example used is Finnish, which has three "classes" of vowels, the "front" /y ø æ/, the "back" /u o ɑ/ and the "neutral" /i e/. The neutral vowels can occur in any word without restriction, as far as I can remember, but if the first syllable of a word is a front vowel, all the other vowels in that word will be front or neutral vowels, while a back vowel in the first syllable will result in all of the other vowels in the word being back or neutral (if the first vowel is neutral then the next vowel can be anything, but the moment you run into a fron or a back vowel, that's the vowel that triggers harmony).

This assimilatory process has an effect on affixes. The suffix -llA, for example, can appear as either -/llæ/ or -/llɑ/ depending on whether the word contains front vowels or back vowels respectively.

In other languages there are different kinds of harmony (front vs. back, high vs. low, retracted vs. non-retracted tongue route, rounded vs. unrounded) and some languages, like Turkish and Tuvan, have two kinds of vowel harmony working one on top of the other. In Turkish, for example, there's an underlying front /i e y ø/ vs. back /ɯ a u o/ system. If a word contains a front vowel in the first syllable, then all of the other vowels will be front vowels. Similarly, back vowels will follow in a word that has a back vowel in the initial syllable. This is basically the same as what we see above in Finnish, but without any neutral vowels. On top of this, there's rounding harmony, in which a high vowel will become rounded if the preceding vowel is rounded, e.g. if the initial syllable contains /ø/, then the next syllable, if it contains a high vowel, should have /y/. On the other hand, if the initial vowel is /a/, then the high vowel should be /ɯ/ (although I think I might be wrong on that last bit).

The "classes" of nouns tend to be symmetrical, as you may have noticed, with one "class" being identical to the other in all but a given feature (in Finnish it's just frontedness, in Turkish it's frontedness as well, but roundedness in high vowels too).

It can be a bit tricky to find a vowel harmony system that works for your conlang, but as long as you think in terms of consistent classes of vowels with a clearly distinguishing feature, you should be fine [:)]

*I would have said "must" here, but most languages with vowel harmony pick up exceptions here and there.
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by DesEsseintes » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 06:45

In my conlang the word for 'cat' is ket and the word for 'dog' is dhog. If you want to make a word plural in my conlang (when you want to say 'cats' and 'dogs') you add the suffix -eben, so 'cats' is keteben.

Here comes the vowel harmony part:

When you stick the suffix onto the word, you have to check what vowel that word has. If you look at the original word and you see an o or u in there, you change the -eben ending into -obon, so 'dogs' is dhogobon.

Two more examples:

mhan 'man' (Look! No o or u so we're safe here)
mhan + eben → mhaneben 'men'

muus 'mouse' (there's an evil u lurking in there!)
muus + eben → muusobon 'mice'

Voilà! There you have a very, very basic vowel harmony system.

If you still have no clue what vowel harmony is, do ask. [:)]

Ps. all similarities in my conlang to lexemes in natural languages are entirely coincidental.

sangi wrote:On the other hand, if the initial vowel is /a/, then the high vowel should be /ɯ/ (although I think I might be wrong on that last bit).

You're not wrong. /a/ is followed by /ɯ/.
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by Iyionaku » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 07:42

I have used a very easy example in my conlang Bath'aso. It basically had only five vowels, /ɑ ɛ i ɔ u/, with a very simple front-back harmony: /ɑ ɔ u/ are called "dark vowels", and /a ɛ i/ are "light vowels". The phoneme /ɑ/ appears as [a] adjacent to light vowels, but those are just allophones.

So if a word has dark vowels, it does not have any light vowels, and vice versa. That affects the kind of vowels that appear in suffixes.

toms (father) -> tomsktuzt (with the fathers) | dark vowels, so the plural suffix is -(k)tu
mert (grandfather) -> merttizt (with the grandfathers) | light vowels, so the plural suffix is -(k)ti

Note that the vowel gradiation is the only thing that changes; the suffix is otherwise the same. Regarding that, you can conclude that vowel harmony is generally typical for agglutinating languages that normally have this "one meaning - one suffix" rule.

This is a very easy example; some natlangs and other conlangs may have more complicated systems (sangi mentioned Turkish, for example).
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by gach » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 16:14

sangi39 wrote:Putting it simply, it's a long-distance assimilatory process in which the vowels in a word should belong to the same "class" as each other.
This is the simplest way to view it. Vowel harmony is long distance assimilation where the the quality of a vowel is affected by other vowels in the word to make them more similar with each other in one way or another. What quality or qualities get affected is a matter of choice and different languages have different types of vowel harmony. The typical types have already been mentioned above (frontness, rounding, tongue retraction etc.), including the common inclusion of neutral vowels that don't participate in the harmony themselves.

The other key thing to know in vowel harmony is which vowels in the word are the relevant ones for deciding the harmony of a single vowel. The usual way is to look at preceding vowels so that the vowel in a suffix is affected by all the vowels that have already appeared in the word. In this case the first (non-neutral) vowel in the word decides the harmony pattern of the whole word. A different possibility can be found in Chukchi which has corresponding sets of recessive and dominant vowels. A dominant vowel anywhere in the word is enough to change all the recessive vowels into their dominant counterparts, even if it's only added in the very last inflectional ending of the word.

It's also possible to add elements that block the spreading of vowel harmony or divide words into two or more harmonic parts. Think for example a language with front-back harmony spreading from the start of the word and a sort of neutral vowel /i/ that can appear anywhere but always switches the rest of the word to front harmony. If we take a harmony pair A = /a ~ e/, we could then have examples of back harmony words like /to/+/nA/ > /tona/, front harmony words like /te/+/nA/ > /tene/, and split harmony words like /tomi/+/nA/ > /tomine/.

Once you get these two things sorted, you have a working vowel harmony. You can then start to explore what sort of complications real world languages add to this. Does your language allow words that break the regular harmony pattern, for example through loaning or compounding? If yes, how do you deal with the vowel harmony when inflecting these words? Compounding can also lead to having non-harmonic affixes that don't participate in the vowel harmony even if they look like they should.

There's also reason to think about word stems that only contain neutral vowels. What sort of harmony do they trigger? Usually they will default to one of the harmony classes but you can also add interesting antiharmonic irregularities. In Finnish, for example, the neutral vowels /e i/ give you front harmony if no back vowels are present in the word stem. However, the nouns meri ("sea") and veri ("blood") take irregularly and for no apparent reason the back variant -ta of the partitive singular case ending even though all the other inflections of these words take front vowels. Thus, using the partitive -(t)A and inessive -ssA case endings and the plural -i-, you get word forms such as,

meri
"sea"

merta (irregular back variant)
mer-tA
sea-PART
"(of the) sea"

meriä
mer-i-A
sea-PL-PART
"(of the) seas"

meressä
mere-ssA
sea-INE
"in the sea"

The notation A corresponds here to the a ~ ä (= /ɑ ~ æ/) vowel harmony pair. There's no obligation to look at any of the more complicated patterns in vowel harmony, but they are an interesting direction to explore if you decide to do so.
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by sangi39 » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 20:36

In one of my conlangs, Proto-Mesit, vowel harmony and umlaut both occur within a given word (although they're both referred to as "harmony" in the main article for symmetry's sake).

0) A syllable, in its underlying form, can contain any vowel in the inventory.
1) Primary stress appears on the final syllable of a root (a stem and an optional series of derivational affixes, in a similar manner to PIE), unless the preceding syllable is heavy, in which case stress is on the penultimate syllable of the root.
2) Secondary stress appears on odd-numbered syllables across the entire word, unless they happen to be adjacent to a syllable carrying primary stress.
3) Vowels are divided into 3 sets, a) "front" /i e/, b) "neutral" /ə a/, and c) "back" /u o/.
4) Vowels are also divided in 2 further sets, a) "high" /i ə u/, and b) "low" /e a o/.
5) The frontness of the vowel in the syllable carrying primary stress must be matched by all non-neutral vowels within a word (/ə/ triggers front harmony and /a/ triggers back harmony).
6) Syllables carrying stress, both primary and secondary, must be matched in height by the immediately preceding unstressed vowel.

Since front-back harmony is triggered by primary stress, and the syllable carrying primary stress shifts during derivation, this means that you get pairs like teðí (male dog) vs. toðuθá (female dog) and gulá (woman) vs. gílat (women).

The way that vowels change and stress is place is entirely regular, working from the ground up, but it has the nice feature of giving each word a little more variety when undergoing both derivation and inflection.


There's a fair amount you can do with vowel harmony, having various triggers, multiple different vowel classes, having vowels that are sometimes neutral and sometimes aren't. The Finnish and Turkish examples are a good place to start, but there's still some experimentation that you can do [:)]
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by gach » Tue 12 Sep 2017, 21:17

gach wrote:The usual way is to look at preceding vowels so that the vowel in a suffix is affected by all the vowels that have already appeared in the word. In this case the first (non-neutral) vowel in the word decides the harmony pattern of the whole word.
After writing this, I want to add that it's also possible to have more limited forms of vowel harmony where the only thing that matters for the harmony of a vowel is the immediately preceding vowel and nothing further than that. In Laal there's vowel harmony that turns the vowels /ə/ and /o/ into /ɨ/ and /u/ when the preceding vowel is one of /i ɨ u/. The rule doesn't go any further than that and any other combinations of /ə o/ and /i ɨ u/ occurring in the same word are totally fine. Furthermore, the rule only applies to suffixes and within word roots even combinations of high vowels followed by /ə/ or /o/ are possible, as shown by the example word sugo in the Wikipedia article.

This should show that it's also possible to have simple restricted vowel harmony rules that don't penetrate the whole vowel system of a language.
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by Ehesh » Wed 13 Sep 2017, 06:10

gach wrote:
sangi39 wrote:
meri
"sea"

merta (irregular back variant)
mer-tA
sea-PART
"(of the) sea"

meriä
mer-i-A
sea-PL-PART
"(of the) seas"

meressä
mere-ssA
sea-INE
"in the sea"

The notation A corresponds here to the a ~ ä (= /ɑ ~ æ/) vowel harmony pair. There's no obligation to look at any of the more complicated patterns in vowel harmony, but they are an interesting direction to explore if you decide to do so.
I want to thank everyone for clearing this up for me. But especially sangi39's example.

One question though, Would it be to weird I make a 6 vowel conlang where vowel harmony only occurs on two vowels i >> Y?
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by DesEsseintes » Wed 13 Sep 2017, 06:27

Ehesh wrote:One question though, Would it be to weird I make a 6 vowel conlang where vowel harmony only occurs on two vowels i >> Y?
What is the vowel inventory like? Are you thinking /a e i o u y/? This vowel system is (used to be?) popular amongst new conlangers, although I couldn't tell you why.

If you want harmony to only affect /i y/ I would personally avoid having other high vowels. By that I mean, I wouldn't include /u/, because it would feel asymmetrical to me personally to have vowel harmony only affect front high vowels.

However, I could imagine a system like /a e i o y/ where there originally was rounding harmony in high vowels only (as in Turkish), and then /u/ fronted to /y/.

Alternatively, if you really want /u/, you could say that it only occurs in root syllables, and causes rounding harmony (i.e. takes /y/ affixes). I actually have something similar going on in my conlang Sōkoan.
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by Ashtăr Balynestjăr » Wed 13 Sep 2017, 06:43

You could say that /u/ was originally a diphthong, or possibly that rounding harmony originally affected both /i~y/ and /ɯ~u/, but later on /ɯ/ merged into /u/.
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by gach » Wed 13 Sep 2017, 12:13

The Laal vowel harmony could be a useful example for this since it only involves two of its mid vowels /ə o/ in the harmony. The third one /e/ is left out and at least on the surface there's no clear explanation for this. It's sensible to think that all such irregular patterns have their reasons but even in well documented languages we don't always have an idea for what these could be.* In conlanging it's of course a good idea to work out the origin or motivation of all patterns since it makes it easier to get things fit together smoothly. Both the suggestions of Des and Ashtăr are worth thinking about.

[*] See above the case of antiharmony in Finnish. The Hungarian antiharmony is another case of quirky harmony patterns that still lack full explanation.[/size]
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by Ehesh » Fri 15 Sep 2017, 00:35

DesEsseintes wrote:
Ehesh wrote: However, I could imagine a system like /a e i o y/ where there originally was rounding harmony in high vowels only (as in Turkish), and then /u/ fronted to /y/.

Alternatively, if you really want /u/, you could say that it only occurs in root syllables, and causes rounding harmony (i.e. takes /y/ affixes). I actually have something similar going on in my conlang Sōkoan.

I was thinking in /a e i o u y/ and maybe /ɜ/. I want 7 vowels. But Im worried that if I get vowel harmony i'm gonna screw it up [xP]
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by sangi39 » Fri 15 Sep 2017, 15:35

Ehesh wrote:
DesEsseintes wrote:
Ehesh wrote: However, I could imagine a system like /a e i o y/ where there originally was rounding harmony in high vowels only (as in Turkish), and then /u/ fronted to /y/.

Alternatively, if you really want /u/, you could say that it only occurs in root syllables, and causes rounding harmony (i.e. takes /y/ affixes). I actually have something similar going on in my conlang Sōkoan.

I was thinking in /a e i o u y/ and maybe /ɜ/. I want 7 vowels. But Im worried that if I get vowel harmony i'm gonna screw it up [xP]
Hmmm... I don't think having vowel harmony there would be such an issue. What you could say is that at an earlier stage you had /i y u e ø o a/, with /i e a/ as neutral vowel, /y ø/ as front vowels and /u o/ as back vowels with front-back vowel harmony similar to Finnish. Then you could have /ø/ merge into /e/.

If, for example, you have a suffix that has /o/ in words with back vowels, the front vowel equivalent would be /e/ (similarly back /u/ vs. front /y/), but some suffixes, i.e. those containing older /e/ originally, will always have /e/, no matter whether a word is "front" or "back" (this could actually lead to some dialectal variation where one dialect always has /e/ in such suffixes while another, through analogy, shows /e/~/o/ harmony in such suffixes, e.g. /puko-le/ > /pukole/ in one dialect vs. /pukolo/ in another)
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by Porphyrogenitos » Mon 18 Sep 2017, 05:53

DesEsseintes wrote:
Ehesh wrote:One question though, Would it be to weird I make a 6 vowel conlang where vowel harmony only occurs on two vowels i >> Y?
What is the vowel inventory like? Are you thinking /a e i o u y/? This vowel system is (used to be?) popular amongst new conlangers, although I couldn't tell you why.

If you want harmony to only affect /i y/ I would personally avoid having other high vowels. By that I mean, I wouldn't include /u/, because it would feel asymmetrical to me personally to have vowel harmony only affect front high vowels.

However, I could imagine a system like /a e i o y/ where there originally was rounding harmony in high vowels only (as in Turkish), and then /u/ fronted to /y/.
Hm, why do you say that? Having /a e i o u y/ and harmony affecting only the pair /u y/ seems very natural to me.

I think the most likely scenario, though, is that it would only be rightward harmony (or perhaps leftward if the language was prefixing) - and maybe it would be blocked by an intervening non-high rounded vowel (i.e. /o/). So if a language had a certain set of words, and we applied this change to them, it would look like this:

/ikapalu/ > /ikapaly/
/umati/ > /umati/
/asitomu/ > /asitomu/
/apiluma/ > /apilyma/
/isufo/ > /isyfo/

And so under the resulting system, all instances of /u/ right of an /i/ would become /y/, unless an /o/ intervened. So a suffix -ku would look like this:

ikapaly-ky
umati-ky
asitomu-ku
apilyma-ky
isufo-ku
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by DesEsseintes » Mon 18 Sep 2017, 06:34

Porphyrogenitos wrote:
DesEsseintes wrote:
Ehesh wrote:One question though, Would it be to weird I make a 6 vowel conlang where vowel harmony only occurs on two vowels i >> Y?
What is the vowel inventory like? Are you thinking /a e i o u y/? This vowel system is (used to be?) popular amongst new conlangers, although I couldn't tell you why.

If you want harmony to only affect /i y/ I would personally avoid having other high vowels. By that I mean, I wouldn't include /u/, because it would feel asymmetrical to me personally to have vowel harmony only affect front high vowels.

However, I could imagine a system like /a e i o y/ where there originally was rounding harmony in high vowels only (as in Turkish), and then /u/ fronted to /y/.
Hm, why do you say that? Having /a e i o u y/ and harmony affecting only the pair /u y/ seems very natural to me.
If I understood OP correctly he didn't want /u y/ to form a harmonising pair, but /i y/.
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Re: What is vowel harmony?

Post by Porphyrogenitos » Mon 18 Sep 2017, 17:02

DesEsseintes wrote: If I understood OP correctly he didn't want /u y/ to form a harmonising pair, but /i y/.
Oooh, okay. Well, hm, that could happen too, I think - just have /u/ extend rounding harmony rightward to all other high vowels (i.e. /i/), perhaps blocked by /e/. Eventually it would become phonemic after words started appearing with just /y/ and no /u/ - like if a word /ukil/ became /ukyl/ and then after initial vowel dropping became /kyl/.
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