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Vowel Harmony

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Replacing the unstressed vowel in a multisyllabic word with the vowel that receives the primary stress.


Vowel harmony affects unstressed vowels. They are assimilated to the vowel within the syllable that receives the primary stress so that both vowels are the same –
they harmonize. Harmony can spread from left-to-right (progressive) or from right-to-left (regressive).


Peter /ˈpitə/ → /piti/         (progressive)

agree /əˈgri/ → /igri/        (regressive)


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This assimilatory process operates in multisyllabic words. It affects unstressed vowels, which are assimilated to the vowel within the word that receives the primary stress. Consider the following.






The word water is made up of two syllables: /ˈwɔ/ and /tə/. The first syllable receives the primary stress and the second syllable is unstressed. The schwa vowel /ə/ within the unstressed syllable harmonizes with the /ɔ/ vowel in the syllable with primary stress, giving rise to /wɔtɔ/. This example of vowel harmony is another instance of progressive assimilation, as the affected segment /ə/ follows the segment causing the assimilation /ɔ/. This is illustrated in Figure 6.

Figure 6. Progressive assimilation in vowel harmony

Figure 6. Progressive assimilation in vowel harmony.

Further examples of progressive vowel harmony include the following.












Vowel harmony need not always be progressive, however. In some instances, the affected segment precedes the segment that causes the assimilation. In such cases this is known as regressive assimilation (see Table 13). The following is an example of regressive vowel harmony.






Here we see that the affected unstressed vowel /ə/ precedes the vowel /ɔɪ/ in the syllable that receives the primary stress and which causes the assimilation. This is illustrated in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Regressive assimilation in vowel harmony

Figure 7. Regressive assimilation in vowel harmony.


Further examples of regressive vowel harmony include the following.






/ əˈgri/






Unlike reduplication which is contiguous, vowel harmony is a non-contiguous process, i.e. the segment that causes the assimilation is not next to the affected element (see Table 13 in Assimilation). In all the examples of vowel harmony above, it can be seen that the affected vowels are separated from the causal vowels by consonants.

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