Vowel harmony

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Vowels have different qualities that distinguish them from each other. We use words like front or back and round or unround to describe these qualities. Picture the cross-section of a mouth. The tongue slides either to the front or to the back, to the top or to the bottom, or stays somewhere in the middle depending upon which vowel sound you are making. The position of the lips can also affect the sound of a vowel. If you push them outwards when you make a vowel sound, then the vowel is considered to be round.

There are two types of vowel harmony in Tyvan, front or back and round or unrounded. This affects the choice of vowel to use in things like suffixes. In the following chart you will see all eight vowels categorized by their distinguishing qualities. They are each followed by a set of vowels that will be "harmonic" with them. You will notice in the chart that both rounded front vowels (Ү and Ө) are followed by the same set or harmonic vowels, so the high and low quality does not affect vowel harmony.

Front-back Harmony

When a person speaks a word, one can find that it is convenient and efficient to keep the tongue in the same or similar position for all the vowels within a single word. If you practice saying all the front vowels and then all the back vowels, you will notice your tongue stays near the front for the front vowels, and near the back for the back vowels. Practice saying the following front and back vowels and pay attention to the position of your tongue.

Front: И Е Ү Ө (i, e, ü, ö)

Back: Ы А У О (y, a, u, o)


Another feature for learning Tyvan vowel harmony is rounding. If you thrust your lips out, like you do when you say 'oooo', this is rounding. If you have your lips at rest or even pulled back slightly, then the vowel is unrounded. Just like above, practice saying the vowels below and try to notice the position of your lips.

Rounded: Ү Ө У О (ü, ö, u, o)

Unrounded: И Е Ы А (i, e, y, a)


With so many choices of front or back and round or unround vowels, how do you know which vowel to use? Typically all vowels within a word need to be harmonic with the preceding vowel of the word. Let's take for example making the plural of the word for book, ном. Since it contains an o, and o is a back vowel, we want only back vowels. We can consider the word ном to be a "back word". Moreover, o is a rounded vowel too, so we could also say ном is a "back rounded word". Looking at the chart below, o could be followed by any of the three back vowels, А, У, or Ы. But our choice is very easy because the plural suffix uses only one of the back vowels in the list, A. As you learn the suffixes, you should study which vowels are used in front or back and round or unround forms.

ном (nom)
-нар, -нер (-nar, -ner)
номнар (nomnar)
  Front Back
High Ү - Е Ү У - А У
Low Ө - Е Ү О - А У
High И - Е И Ы - А Ы
Low Е - Е И А - А Ы