Vowel mutation in Turkish
One of the most basic concepts essential to the Turkish language is vowel harmony - that is, changing vowels in words so that the language flows more smoothly. Vowel harmony can be one of the most intimidating parts of Turkish for beginners but with a little practice, quickly becomes second nature.
As you probably know by now, Turkish creates most of its meaning by adding suffixes to words. These suffixes, though, don't have a single form; they have several different forms from which you have to pick. How do you know which one to pick? By looking at the final vowel of the stem and choosing the one that best matches it. If you're adding multiple suffixes, remember that each new suffix must harmonize with the suffix immediately before it.
There are two primary types of vowel harmony. We'll call them i-type and e-type vowel harmony, and each has its own set of rules.
e-type Vowel Harmony
In cases of e-type vowel harmony, you must choose between two forms of the suffix: the one that uses e or the one that uses a.
The rule is as follows:
- If the last vowel in the word is a, ı, o, or u: use the a form.
- If the last vowel in the word is e, i, ö, or ü: use the e form.
One trick to remember this: a comes after the a-undotted vowels. e comes after the e-dotted vowels.
As an example, take -ler, the suffix that makes words plural. -ler follows e-type vowel harmony so can take two forms: -ler and -lar. Now take the word kadın (woman) and make it plural. Find the last vowel in kadın and see that it is ı. Following e-type harmony, we know that the a form follows ı, so we use -lar: kadınlar (women).
Some more examples using -ler:
-ler is just one suffix that uses e-type harmony. There are many others, some of which are included below. The important thing to remember is that if a suffix follows e-type harmony, it has two forms: an a form and an e form.
|Suffix||Meaning||e Example||a Example|
i-type Vowel Harmony
In cases of i-type vowel harmony, you must choose between four different forms of the suffix, each containing i, ı, u, or ü respectively. The rule is as follows:
- If the last vowel in the word is e or i: use the i form.
- If the last vowel in the word is a or ı: use the ı form.
- If the last vowel in the word is o or u: use the u form.
- If the last vowel in the word is ö or ü: use the ü form.
As an example, take -siz, the suffix meaning "without." -siz follows i-type harmony so can take four forms: siz, sız, suz, or süz. Now let's form the word for "without a book." The word for book is kitap. We see that the final vowel is a, so according to the i-type rule, we use the ı form of the suffix. The word is therefore kitapsız: without a book.
Some more examples using -siz:
|kedi||kedisiz||without a cat|
|telefon||telefonsuz||without a telephone|
|söz||sözsüz||without a word|
-siz is just one suffix that follows i-type harmony. There are many others, some of which are included below. Having four different choices for a single suffix may seem overwhelming at first, but with a little time, the correct choices become intuitive and immediate. In the meantime, you will be understood even if you use the wrong vowel.
|Suffix||Meaning||i Example||ı Example||u Example||ü Example|
Notice how in the last example, -ince, the final vowel changes according to e-type harmony. Some suffixes (ince, meli, elim) have multiple vowels that must be harmonized, but they are relatively few and easy to pick up once the above two rules of vowel harmony have been mastered. As a final note, a few suffixes (ken, ki) do not harmonize at all. Whenever learning a new suffix, be sure to take note of how it harmonizes.
A Technical Explanation
Turkish vowel harmony rules are based on three different variables, each affecting the way you physically form the different vowel sounds with your tongue and mouth. These are:
- Front/Back - where you place your tongue in your mouth
- Open/Closed - how much space you leave between your tongue and the roof of your month
- Rounded/Unrounded - whether or not you round your lips
Each vowel sound is a unique combination of the above three factors. This table shows which combinations produce which sounds:
The vowel harmony rules are such that words in Turkish require the least amount of oral movement as possible. That is, if a word starts in the back of the mouth, Turks like to keep it there. If a word begins rounded, Turks like their suffixes to be rounded as well.
The e-type endings, then, harmonize to keep the entire word (with its suffixes) in the front or back of the mouth. If the final vowel in the stem begins with a back-of-the-mouth vowel, then the back-vowel a is used. Otherwise, the front-vowel e is used.
The i-type endings do the same, but also harmonize to keep the entire word rounded or unrounded. If the final vowel in the stem begins with a front-rounded vowel, the suffixes take the front-rounded-vowel ü, and so on.