Vowel harmony


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Prerequisites

Intro to the Turkish Alphabet

Turkish letters
Audio samples



What is vowel harmony?

This post is about one of the fundamental aspects of the Turkish language: vowel harmony. Vowel harmony is the grouping of Turkish vowels into two sets:

  1. a, ı, o, u
  2. e, i, ö, ü

The vast majority of the time, Turkish words will only contain vowels from one set. For example:

    Gidecektir – Notice that i and e are in the same vowel set.

    Yapacaktır – Both a and ı are also in the same vowel set.

    Dönüştürmek – ö, ü, and e are in the same vowel set.

    Koyacağımız – o, a, and ı are all in the same vowel set.

Vowel Harmony in Word Endings

The most important part of vowel harmony for the Turkish language learner to remember is how to choose vowels when adding endings to words. In most of the word endings in Turkish, there is at least one vowel that depends on what vowels were in the base word. The two types of vowel harmony can be called e type and i type vowel harmony.


“e type” vowel harmony

In e type vowel harmony, the word ending will choose between either an a or an e, depending on the last vowel in the word before the word ending. If the last vowel is a, ı, o or u, the vowel in the word ending will be a. Otherwise, if the last vowel is e, i, ö, or ü, the vowel in the word ending will be e. The easiest example of a word ending with e type vowel harmony is the plural form of nouns. All you have to do is add “lar” or “ler” to the end of the noun to make it plural.

    Examples with plural ending
    Araba + lar (Cars)

    Balık + lar (Fish, plural)

    Balon + lar (Baloons)

    Kutu + lar (Boxes)

    Köpek + ler (Dogs)

    Kedi + ler (Cats)

    Göz + ler (Eyes)

    Gün + ler (Days)

“i type” vowel harmony

In i type vowel harmony, the word ending will choose between i, ı, u, and ü, depending on the last vowel in the word before the word ending. Since there are four options, this type of vowel harmony is trickier than the i type. To illustrate this type of vowel harmony, we will use the first person possessive ending of nouns. The possessive ending will be explained in more detail in a later topic, but for now all you need to know is that we will be adding a single i type vowel to the end of the word, followed by the letter m.

Four options:

  1. If the last vowel is e or i, the word ending will have the i vowel.
  2. If the last vowel is a or ı, the word ending will have the ı vowel.
  3. If the last vowel is o or u, the word ending will have the u vowel.
  4. If the last vowel is ö or ü, the word ending will have the ü vowel.
    Examples with possessive ending
    Dudaklar + ım (my lips) ‑ Notice in this case that there are two word endings, so the vowel in the possessive ending is dependent on the vowel in the previous ending, “lar.”

    Kız + ım (my daughter)

    Kol + um (my arm)

    Sorun + um (my problem)

    Ev + im (my house)

    Dil + im (my tongue)

    Göz + üm (my eye)

    Düğün + üm (my wedding)

Exceptions

These two sets of vowels are used exclusively of each other in the vast majority of Turkish words. There are several contexts in which this rule of vowel harmony is broken, but some of these are very rare. Here are the categories of exceptions to the rule:

  1. Two words put together

    Some words do not follow vowel harmony because they are actually two separate words that got mashed together at some point in the progression of the Turkish language:

      Bugün (today) ‑ This word is actually comprised of two words, bu (this) and gün (day).

      Uğurböceği (ladybug) ‑ This word is a compound noun coming from the words uğur (luck) and böcek (bug).

  2. Loan words

    These words do not match Turkish vowel harmony because they were imported into Turkish from another language:

      Telefon (telephone) – Notice that e and o are from two different vowel sets, because this word was imported from English.

      İnsan (human) ‑ The i and a are from two different vowel sets, because this word was imported from Arabic.

  3. Some word endings

    While most word endings follow vowel harmony, some word endings do not:

      Oradaki (the one over there) – Ki is a word that becomes a suffix added to the ends of nouns. The i usually doesn’t change, so words like “oradaki” will appear to break the rules of vowel harmony. However, if additional endings are added after “ki”, those endings will follow the harmony from the other set of vowels (like in “oradakinden.”)

      Geliyorum (I am coming) ‑ One of the most common verb endings is the continuous present tense (‑iyor), which follows vowel harmony on the first vowel (in this case, i) but the second vowel is always o.

  4. Loan words with word endings

    Some loan words, especially from French and Arabic, do not follow vowel harmony rules when adding word endings to them:

      Saatler (hours) ‑ Note here that the base word, saat (hour) doesn’t break vowel harmony, but when adding any word endings, the vowel harmony switches to the other set of vowels.

      Meşgulüm (I’m busy) ‑ In this case, the base word, meşgul (busy) doesn’t follow vowel harmony anyway, but according to the normal rules, we would expect any word endings to match the last vowel in the word. In this case, however, it switches to the other set again.

  5. Other exceptions

    This is the rarest category, where the word is actually of Turkish origin and is not a combination of multiple words or suffixes, and yet still does not follow vowel harmony:

      Anne (mother) ‑ This word is of Turkish origin, but the a and e are not in the same vowel set. The older form of the word, “Ana,” does not break vowel harmony.

      Kardeş (sibling) ‑ Originally “karındaş” (person from the same womb), the final vowel changed from “a” to “e.”

      Elma (apple) ‑ Originally “alma” (from “almak” ‑ to take), the first vowel changed from “a” to “e.”

      Hadi (hurry) ‑ This word is also of Turkish origin and breaks vowel harmony. It is possible that it comes from an earlier expression with two words: “hay de,” which means, “say, ‘come on'”.

This lesson is a prerequisite for:

Yes or no questions

mı/mıyım/mıyız/mısın(ız)/-lar mı
Emphasis in questions

To be or not to be

-yım/yız/sın/sınız/lar
değil
Changing ç/p/t/k to c/b/d/ğ

Noun possession

-(n)ın/in/un/ün
-(s)ı/i/u/ü
benim, senin, onun

Locative case: at, in, and on

-da
nerede?
burada, şurada, orada

Existence

Var/yok
Var mı? Yok mu?
Using "yok" to mean "no"

Compound noun ending

-(s)ı
Exceptions

Beginner commands

-(no ending)/-ın
Singular and plural
Pronouns with commands
Handling irregular verbs



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