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Consonant Harmony

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A target consonant assumes the place of articulation of a trigger consonant across an intervening vowel.


Consonant harmony takes place in CVC syllables where the two consonants are different. One of the consonants triggers the other to assume its place of articulation. This results in a CVC syllable in which the two consonants are now the same – they have harmonized. Harmony can spread from left-to-right (progressive) or from right-to-left (regressive).


coat /kəʊt/ → /kəʊk/        (progressive)

top /tɒp/ → /pɒp/             (regressive)


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Conceptually, consonant harmony represents  the counterpart process to vowel harmony: of course, with this process it is consonants that are affected and not vowels. As with vowel harmony, consonant harmony is also a non-contiguous process, i.e. the segment causing the assimilation is at a distance from the affected element: the consonants being separated from each other by vowels. This phonological process is particularly complicated because there are several constraints that influence which consonants may be assimilated, how these assimilations are effected and the direction of influence. To make it easier to understand the broad principles of consonant harmony we will restrict our discussion to a consideration of how this process operates in monosyllables: specifically, CVC syllables. In addition, we will only discuss situations in which both consonants within the CVC syllable are plosives.

The general pattern of consonant harmony is that a target consonant assumes the place of articulation of a trigger consonant. Of course, this takes place across the intervening vowel in the CVC sequence. Consider the following word constructed of two plosive consonants separated by a vowel.






Here, the alveolar consonant /d/ is the target and the velar /g/ is the trigger which causes the preceding /d/ to assimilate to the same place of articulation as itself. As the trigger /g/ is a velar consonant, the target consonant /d/ assimilates to the same velar place of articulation and is realized as velar /g/. We see also that when a target assumes the place of articulation of a trigger, the voicing and manner of production of the target typically remain unchanged – it is only the place of articulation that assimilates. In our example, the target /d/ is a voiced plosive and so we would expect these features to remain unchanged when it assimilates to the trigger. In fact, this is the case: the newly assimilated sound is also voiced and plosive. This is summarized in Figure 8.

Figure 8. Assimilation of place in consonant harmony

Figure 8. Assimilation of place in consonant harmony.

The example of dog /dɒg/ → /gɒg/ results in a monosyllable consisting of two velar consonants, i.e. the consonants have harmonized – hence the name of this process, consonant harmony. In addition, because the trigger is a velar consonant this is known as velar harmony.

In the next two sections we will look at examples of consonant harmony triggered by either a velar consonant or a labial consonant, i.e.

NEXT>> Velar Harmony