Harmonic Phonology



Harmonic phonology

In phonology, an approach which recognizes three levels of representation working in parallel: morphophonemic (‘M-level’), word/ syllabic tactics (‘W-level’), and phonetic (‘P-level’). Each level is characterized by a set of well-formedness statements (‘tactics’) and a set of unordered ‘intra-level’ rules which collectively define the paths an input representation has to follow I order to achieve maximum conformity to the tactics. This maximal well-formedness is called ‘harmony’. The levels are related by ‘inter-level’ rules. The approach avoids the traditional conception of the organization of a generative grammar in which each level of representation is seen to precede or follow another (as would be founding the ordered steps within a derivation).


(1) A term used in phonology to refer to the way the articulation of one phonological unit is influenced by (is ‘in harmony’ with) another unit in the same word or phrase. An analogous notion is that of assimilation. The two main processes are consonant harmony and vowel harmony. In the typical case of vowel harmony, for example, such as is found in Turkish or Hungarian, all the vowels in a word share certain features – for instance, they are all articulated with the front of the tongue, or all are rounded. The subsets of vowels which are affected differently by harmonic processes are harmonic sets. Disharmony (or disharmonicity) occurs when a vowel from set A is used (e.g. by suffixation) in words which otherwise have set B, thus forming a harmonic island (if transparent) or a new harmonic span (if opaque). The span within which harmony operates (usually the word) is the harmonic domain
(2) in optimality theory, the measurement of the overall goodness of a form given a constrain ranking.

Vowel Harmony

Vowel harmony is a type of long-distance assimilatory phonological process involving vowels in some languages. In languages with vowel harmony, there are constraints on what vowels may be found near each other.
Harmony processes are "long-distance" in the sense that the assimilation involves sounds that are separated by intervening segments (usually consonant segments). In other words, harmony refers to the assimilation of sounds that are not adjacent to each other. For example, a vowel at the beginning of a word can trigger assimilation in a vowel at the end of a word. The assimilation sometimes occurs across the entire word. This is represented schematically in the following diagram:







  (Va = type-a vowel, Vb = type-b vowel, C = consonant)

In the diagram above, the Va (type-a vowel) causes the following Vb (type-b vowel) to assimilate and become the same type of vowel (and thus they become, metaphorically, "in harmony").
The vowel that causes the vowel assimilation is frequently termed the trigger while the vowels that assimilate (or harmonize) are termed targets. In most languages, the vowel triggers lie within the root of a word while the affixes added to the roots contain the targets. This may be seen in the Hungarian dative suffix:










The dative suffix has two different forms -nak/-nek. The -nak form appears after the root with back vowels (a and o are both back vowels). The -nek form appears after the root with front vowels (ö and e are front vowels).
Another example: Turkish ev-ler-imiz "our houses" (house-{PL}-{1PL POSS}) vs. dam-lar-ımız "our roofs" (roof-{PL}-{1PL POSS}).
Harmony assimilation may spread either from the beginning of the word to the end or from the end to the beginning. Progressive harmony (a.k.a. left-to-right harmony) proceeds from beginning to end; regressive harmony (a.k.a. right-to-left harmony) proceeds from end to beginning. Languages that have both prefixes and suffixes often have both progressive and regressive harmony. Languages that primarily have prefixes (and no suffixes) usually have only regressive harmony — and vice versa for primarily suffixing languages.
Vowel harmony often involves dimensions such as

In many languages, vowels can be said to belong to particular classes, such as back vowels or rounded vowels, etc. Some languages have more than one system of harmony. For instance, Altaic languages have a rounding harmony superimposed over a backness harmony.
In some languages, not all vowels participate in the vowel conversions — these vowels are termed either neutral or transparent. Intervening consonants are also often transparent. In addition to these transparent segments, many languages have opaque vowels that block vowel harmony processes.
Finally, languages that do have vowel harmony sometimes have words that fail to harmonize. This is known as disharmony. Many loanwords exhibit disharmony, either within a root (e.g., Turkish/Turkic vakit/waqit, "time" [from Arabic waqt], where °vakıtwaqıt would have been expected) or in suffixes (e.g., Turkish saat-ler "(the) hours" [hour-PL, from Arabic sâ`a], where saat-lar would have been expected). In Turkish, disharmony tends to disappear through analogy, especially within loanwords. Suffixes drop disharmony to a lesser extent, e.g. Hüsnü (a man's name) < previously Hüsni, from Arabic husnî; müslümân "Moslem, Muslim (adj. and n.)" < °müslimân, from Arabic muslim).

Related Reading

Harmonic Phonology(word)

Definitions form David Crystal, A Dictionary of Linguistics & Phonetics:

Last Updated 06/12/08