If you're learning Turkish then maybe you've heard about Turkish vowel harmony?
The word “harmony” might make you think that vowel harmony is something related to what you would learn in music class at school.
But guess what? Harmony isn’t something that exists only in music.
Languages can also have systems that make a combination of certain sounds more harmonious than others. Some languages feature vowel harmony, where certain vowels are grouped together with other vowels in its grammar rules.
Turkish is one of those languages! If you’ve just started learning Turkish, or are considering starting to learn Turkish, there’s a pretty good chance that one of your first lessons is going to be focused on Turkish vowel harmony.
In fact, vowel harmony is one of the foundations of grammar rules in Turkish. Because of this, it's critical that you nail down your understanding of Turkish vowel harmony before expressing yourself in more complex sentences.
So without further ado, read on to learn all about Turkish vowel harmony. I hope you can use this post as a simple guide to support you as you learn the basics of Turkish grammar!
But What Is Turkish Vowel Harmony?
You might first be wondering, what is vowel harmony? And why is it important in some languages?
Vowel harmony is a system that exists in some languages where certain vowels are more closely associated with other vowels in the language, or are grouped together in the same class.
For example, if a word features a certain vowel, its association with other vowels will determine which vowels can follow.
The reason why vowel harmony is important in the languages that feature it is that it acts as the foundation of some grammar rules, and is therefore key for creating new words or building sentences.
Why Is Vowel Harmony Present In Turkish?
Turkish is one of a number of languages globally that features vowel harmony. Other languages that have vowel harmony include other languages in the same language family as Turkish, such as Azerbaijani, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz.
Another well-known language that practices vowel harmony but isn’t in the same language family as Turkish is Finnish.
You might also be wondering what might make a language include a feature like vowel harmony in its grammar system.
Well, if we look at each of these languages that have vowel harmony, what brings them all together is that they are all agglutinative languages.
Agglutinative languages are languages that are heavily reliant on suffixes for adding layers of meaning to a word or a sentence. In these languages, the vowels that are used as suffixes to words can change depending on the vowel that comes immediately before it.
The Logic Of Vowel Harmony
While all of this might sound a bit complicated at first, once you jump into practicing it in Turkish and learn a few simple tricks, vowel harmony will eventually become instinctual as you begin communicating in Turkish with your peers.
At the end of the day, Turkish vowel harmony is all about what “sounds right” in your mouth or requires your mouth to make the least movements.
For example, try saying “a” and then “u”, and see how your mouth changes shape to make these sounds. Now try saying “o” and then “u”. You may have noticed that going from pronouncing “o” to “u” required a lot less movement in your mouth.
This is the crux of vowel harmony – it is all about which vowels are more in harmony with one another.
Vowel Harmony In Turkish
Now that you have a basic idea about vowel harmony, let’s dive right into learning the basics of Turkish vowel harmony.
First, there are eight vowels in the Turkish language: a, e, ı, i, o, ö, u, and ü.
There are two different ways in which these vowels can be grouped together with one another.
Type 1 Vowel Harmony – a vs. e
In the first type of vowel harmony, the vowels a, ı, o, and u are grouped together, while the vowels e, i, ö, and ü are part of another group.
What makes these vowels different from one another? The first set of vowels (a, ı, o, and u) are pronounced in the back of the mouth, while the second set (e, i, ö, and ü) are pronounced in the back.
Try sounding these out and see for yourself how these sounds sit in your mouth!
|Back vowels||Front vowels|
|a, ı, o, and u||e, i, ö, and ü|
There are a number of different suffixes in Turkish that make use of this vowel harmony.
For example, there's the suffix -lar/-ler that is used for making the plural form of any word.
In this situation, words where the last vowel used is a back vowel (a, ı, o, or u) will follow with the suffix –lar for making the word plural, while words where the last vowel used is a front vowel (e, i, ö, or ü) will follow with the suffix -ler.
Here are a couple of examples below:
- Ev → Ev-ler (House → Houses)
- Abla → Abla-lar (Sister → Sisters)
- Köprü → Köprü-ler (Bridge → Bridges)
- Kedi → Kedi-ler (Cat → Cats)
- Pantalon → Pantalon-lar (Pants → Pants pl.)
- Koyun → Koyun-lar (Sheep → Sheep pl.)
- Okul → Okul-lar (School → Schools)
Another suffix that makes use of this first type of vowel harmony is the -mak/-mek suffix, which is used for the infinitive form of Turkish verbs (such as “to go”, “to run”, or “to drink”).
- Git-mek (to go)
- Yap-mak (to do)
- Çalış-mak (to work)
- Koş-mak (to run)
- Gel-mek (to come)
- Ör-mek (to knit)
- İç-mek (to drink)
The key in both of these is that the suffix used is determined based on the vowel that comes directly before it.
There are other suffixes in Turkish that make use of the first type of vowel harmony. For instance, there’s the –da/-de suffix, which adds the meaning “at” to different words.
Using the words that we practiced with earlier, here are a few examples of what this might look like:
- Ev-de (at home)
- Okul-da (at school)
Type 2 Vowel Harmony – ı/i/u/ü
In the second type of vowel harmony, there are four groupings of vowels:
- a and ı
- e and i
- o and u
- ö and ü
This grouping is for suffixes that make use of the vowelsı, i, u, or ü. So depending on what vowel comes before the suffix, you will use a version of the suffix that uses one of those four vowels.
The rule for this vowel harmony is that:
- If the vowel before the suffix is either an a or ı, then the suffix will use ı.
- If the vowel before the suffix is either an e or i, then the suffix will use i.
- If the vowel before the suffix is either an o or u, then the suffix will use u.
- If the vowel before the suffix is either an ö or ü, then the suffix will use ü.
To put it simply:
|Preceding vowel||Suffix vowel|
As is the case with the first type of vowel harmony, there are many important suffixes that make use of the second type of vowel harmony. There's the suffix –sız/-siz/-suz/-süz for adding the meaning “without” to a word.
For example, if you add this suffix to the word et (meat), then the word becomes etsiz (without meat). If you want to order a coffee without milk, then you’d add this suffix to the word süt (milk) for it to become sütsüz (without milk).
Then there is also the suffix -lı/-li/-lu/-lü, which you add to the end of words to add the meaning “with” to a word. If you want to say that your food is salty, then you’d add the suffix to the word tuz (salt) to say tuzlu (salty).
The -lı/-li/-lu/-lü suffix is also a useful one to learn right away in Turkish because it's also used for describing what country you come from.
- İngiltere (England) → İngiltere-li (English)
- Amerika (America) → Amerika-lı (American)
- İsveç (Sweden) → İsveç-li (Swedish)
- Tunus (Tunisia) → Tunus-lu (Tunisian)
Next Steps For Learning Turkish Vowel Harmony
Now that you have a basic idea of Turkish vowel harmony, you have a foundation on which you can build new words and sentences, and express yourself in Turkish!
Whether you’re learning how to count, conjugate Turkish verbs, or make nouns possessive, you’re bound to encounter Turkish vowel harmony. There really is no escape from learning it if you want to master Turkish!
While it might seem complicated, there are fortunately a few reasons why it shouldn’t take you very long to master vowel harmony.
For starters, it's completely systematic and there are no exceptions to the vowel harmony rules that could trip you up!
And second, Turkish vowel harmony is all about what sounds or feels right when you pronounce different sounds in your mouth. So if you're in doubt about which type of suffix should come after a word, simply try sounding it out to see what feels right!
After all, native speakers of Turkish don’t learn Turkish vowel harmony by studying grammar rules. It’s something that comes to them instinctually! So don't let the fear villain stop you from trying out Turkish vowel harmony when you speak Turkish.
And what better way is there to practice something that is as instinctual as vowel harmony than learning Turkish through stories?