A Comparative Study of Vowel Harmony: Directionality vs. Dominance
(55th Meeting, 2012)
In order to further our understanding of vowel harmony, the present paper aims to take a new approach to the investigation of vowel harmony from a typological perspective. Vowel harmony is an important morpho-phonological rule and may be observed in most Altaic languages. That being said, it is not a phenomenon unique to Altaic languages; it is also found in some Uralic, African, Native American and Paleosiberian languages. Among languages with an Altaic typology, some languages are recognized as having a relatively strict type of vowel harmony, while others have lost almost all vowel harmony, with only residual traces observable.
In many languages, the vowel harmony rule operates in just one direction, from stem to suffix, and causes suffixes to have different vowels depending on the vowel harmony class of the stem. In this case, the vowel harmony trigger is always a stem vowel.
It is also interesting to note that in some languages, the vowel of the first syllable of a word does not determine the harmony class of the vowels in the following syllable, and a vowel of the stem does not trigger vowel harmony. Chukchi, a Paleosiberian language spoken in far northeastern Siberia, Russia, has vowel harmony and provides a good example of this.
Chukchi is a polysynthetic language with a very complex structure; however, no matter how complex or long a word is, the whole word follows the vowel harmony rule without exception. In Chukchi vowel harmony, unlike the Altaic type (and that of many other languages), the stem of a word does not necessarily determine the vowel harmony class of the following vowels. A word must contain either all dominant or all recessive vowels, but the neutral « can be used with both groups. If a word contains at least one morpheme with dominant vowels, then all morphemes with recessive vowels must be changed into the corresponding dominant ones (i>e, e>a, u>o), irrespective of whether they are in the stem or affix. The vowel harmony trigger is not the stem vowel, but rather the dominant morpheme of the word.
In this paper, I will first briefly outline the principle of vowel harmony in some Altaic languages. Then I will present Chukchi vowel harmony. Finely, I will compare and contrast the systems of vowel harmony in Altaic languages and Chukchi and discuss the implication of the comparison.