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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Little Close Harmony

Sounds of a language ‘echoing’ each other

As we are speaking, sounds are influencing each other. A given suffix may have several forms depending upon the nature of a vowel or consonant it is attached to. A simple example of this in English is the three forms of the plural -s, the choice of which is automatically decided by the last consonant of the word pluralized. In cats dogs foxes, the similarity in spelling conceals the fact that there are three different pronunciations (which native speakers are normally unaware of):catS dogZ foxIZ.This kind of ‘echoing’ of a neighboring consonant or vowel is something that happens in all languages. To illustrate how vowels influence each other, let’s make up some examples in English. Suppose we consider the common suffix -ness. You can see that in feckless and petless it has the same vowel as the main word. But now imagine that instead of pathless, windless, needless, gutless, formless we pronounced and wrote pathlass, windliss, needleess, gutluss, formloss, where the suffix has a number of forms depending on the vowel of the word it’s attached to. This imaginary example is a rough analogy to the sort of adjustment of sounds that is part of the grammar of some languages. In Turkish we find a particularly striking system whereby vowels influence each other’s ‘color’ all through the word. Turkish is what is called an agglutinating language, meaning that each of the string of syllables added to a word is easily recognizable and has a single meaning, as if each grammatical syllable were ‘stuck on’ in sequence. Turkish has eight vowels -i ï ü ue a ö o- for the moment, don’t be concerned with what these vowels sound like, just note that there are 8 different ones. This is the same way these vowels are spelled in the standard Turkish orthography, with the exception of ï which is spelled i without the dot.Suppose we take the four short words zil ‘bell’, kïz ‘girl’, gül ‘rose’ and pul ‘stamp’. Now we’ll add the suffix -imiz ‘our’, and watch what happens:zilimiz ‘our bell’kïzïmïz ‘our girl’gülümüz ‘our rose’pulumuz ‘our stamp’The ‘our’ suffix turns out to have not just one but four separate forms, and it looks as if the vowels involved are echoing each other completely. This kind of ‘echoing’ or ‘harmonizing’ is called vowel harmony, and even though something like it occurs in many languages of the world, in linguistic textbooks the most famous example is Turkish.It may look as if a suffix simply echoes whatever vowel is in the root word, but not surprisingly, it is rather more complicated than this. Look at some other examples, the words ev ‘house’, at ‘horse’, göz ‘eye’ and dost ‘friend’, adding the same suffix for ‘our’ -evimiz ‘our house’atïmïz ‘our horse’gözümüz ‘our eye’dostumuz ‘our friend’It appears that the suffix is not reproducing the exact same vowel of the root syllable after all. Yet it does seem to be echoing or harmonizing something of this vowel. One further complexity is that the suffix harmonizes with the vowel just before it, in other words it does not reach back to the root syllable. Suppose we take the pluralizing suffix, which has just the two forms -lar and -ler depending on what precedes:zillerimiz ‘our bells’ evlerimiz ‘our houses’kïzlarïmïz ‘our girls’ atlarïmïz ‘our horses’güllerimiz ‘our roses’ gözlerimiz ‘our eyes’pullarïmïz ‘our stamps’ dostlarïmïz ‘our friends’We might almost say that the -lar/-ler suffix ‘resets a switch’, requiring a different set of vowels following it. Look back at what suffix vowels are required following the same vowels in the words ev and at above, and you’ll see that exactly the same choice is made here. For the form of the possessive suffix in the second and third lines, we don’t get -ümüz and -umuz. Can you see why not?Turkish vowel harmony presents many other complexities which we can’t go into here, but this much ought to be enough to illustrate that it is indeed a very striking feature of the ways words are formed in this language. For those who want to see the relatively straightforward phonological explanation, here are a few technical details. Each vowel is uniquely defined by just three phonetic dimensions called features, the plus or minus showing whether the vowel has that particular feature or not. The eight vowels of Turkish can be labeled like this - i ï ü u e a ö oHI + + + + - - - - BA - + - + - + - +RO - - + + - - + + Where HI = high (so -HI means ‘lower vowel’)BA = back (so -BA means ‘front vowel’)RO = roundedThe height of suffix vowels does not change to harmonize with the root vowel, which is why the low vowels in ev at göz dost do not cause the high vowels in -imiz (etc.) to change height. It is only front/back and rounded/unrounded that harmonize. Low vowels with rounding (ö and o) can occur only in the first syllable.

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