Monday, August 30, 2004

Vowel Harmony II – What is vowel harmony?

The problem with agglutinating languages is they don’t do a very good job of helping people talk quickly and easily. With all those particles to tack on, it’s hard to find a convenient way of slurring through the whole mess so that you don’t sound like a robot talking. Or at least it would be, were it not for the marvel of “vowel harmony.” Try saying this three times fast:

“I saw ye all last week.”

Did you like that “saw ye all” combination? If you’re from the Southern U.S., I’ll bet you said “y’all” without even thinking about it.

What’s wrong with “saw ye all”? Well, the “aw” of “saw” is way in the back of your mouth. You can practically feel it resonate in your throat when you say it. The “e” in “ye,” on the other hand, is at the front of the mouth. If you just say “ye,” your nose might even tickle a little because the sound resonates right underneath it. When you say “all,” you’re at the back of the mouth again. This is hard work – your breath has to go scurrying all over the place to resonate in one spot, then the next, then back again. In fact, that whole sentence –

I saw ye all last week –

goes front-back-front-back-back-front. Which is why, speaking quickly, you might say something like, “ah saw y’all last way-uck.”

Sentences like “I saw ye all last week” are to vowels what tongue twisters are to consonants. Call them breath-busters. Thing is, if you speak a language like English that sort of marches along, they’re not fun and you sound funny if you try to say them fast but they’re manageable. But if you speak a language chock full of little words and wish to ease through them, something has to be done so that speech will be fast but distinct.

Vowel harmony languages do their best to keep their particles/endings/suffixes clear and distinct while recognizing the need for easier speech. They do this with vowel harmony – regular rules for how and where to slur – modify – vowels to suit the phonetic environment.

We saw above the difficulties involved in saying “saw ye all” really fast. But “saw ya” and “saw y’all” are much easier to say. In this case, you’ve got all back vowels – vowels that resonate nearer the throat. Let’s create a system. Instead of saying “you,” we’re going to say “ye” if the vowel from the syllable before is a front vowel (resonates in the mouth just below the nose) and “ya” in the case of preceding back vowels. Here are some questions:

Saw ya that? / See ye there?
Spoke ya well? / Speak-ye kindly.
What have-ya there? / Were-ye happy?

These questions follow a sort of vowel harmony. Don’t believe me? Say “saw-ya that,” then “saw-ye that.” Betcha had to pause between “saw” and “ye”. Try flipping things with all six questions. You’ll notice that you have to pause to relocate your breath in each case, which adds time, if only half a second, to each and every utterance. Over time, this adds up.

In English, as I’ve hinted, we have a sort of vowel harmony. “I” becomes “ah” (or “ayh” if the next word has a back vowel. “You” shifts between “ya,” “you” and “yuh.” But this is all very informal and in a limited number of phonetic environments (actually, English has “consonant consonance” in greater measure – we rearrange consonants to make them easier to pronounce together, as with “dontcha,” “betcha,” “dunno,” “gonna,” etc.).

People who speak vowel harmony languages are as attuned to the problem of getting through breath-busters (rapid shifting between front and back vowels) as we are to negotiating consonant clusters. If you’re going to become a speaker of a language with vowel harmony (Finno-Ugric – eg Hungarian, Finnish, Lapp; and Altaic – Turkic and Mongolian are the most common), you’ve got something new and different, but doable, to learn. In our example, we just shifted between “ye” and “ya.” In vowel harmony languages, just about every ending has two forms like this, with rules for which one to pick. And at first it will be tricky. But pretty soon you’ll feel the difference between front and back (redo the examples if you’re still unclear on this) and you’ll start making the distinction naturally.

One word about actually learning to use vowel harmony: The suggestions in this primer draw on English to make the concept clearer to English speakers. For actually learning a vowel harmony language, the first thing you’ll need to do is to consult a decent grammar to find out which vowels change in which ways and when. Using what I’ve explained, you should be able to make some real sense out of the tables, physically sensing where the distinctions are among sounds once they’ve been shown to you, but getting to where you can do this intuitively requires practice, more than anything else, once you’ve figured out the basic idea behind what you’re doing and why.