Turkish vowel harmony is a relatively unique aspect of Turkish grammar that I was at first intimidated by. But when I dived into it, I became fascinated by how structured it is, and how it is at once elegant and easy to understand.
However, it’s an intimidating concept for most language learners. Usually, when learning any language, I tried to avoid learning grammar right off the bat. But in Turkish, I found that learning vowel harmony is unavoidable. This is because I realised that, without understanding Turkish vowel harmony, many aspects of the language will seem more complex than they actually are.
Unfortunately, I found explanations of Turkish vowel harmony to be vague or over-simplified, so I decided to put one together based on my understanding of it.
Here it is, my guide to Turkish vowel harmony — explained simply and concisely!
You might also like these other posts on Turkish vocabulary and grammar.
- Do the Unconventional and Learn Turkish: 11 Reasons
- Saying “Should”, “Must”, or “Have to” in Turkish: Meli / Mali, Gerek / Lazım, and Zorunda
- Turkish Consonant Harmony Explained Simply
- Turkish Phrases for Everyday Survival as a Tourist / Visitors
- How Hard is Turkish for English Speakers? An Analysis
What does Vowel Harmony Change?
For the Turkish language learner, the most important thing to learn is how vowel harmony changes the suffixes of Turkish words.
Turkish relies on a system of suffixes for most of its grammar. Suffixes in Turkish grammar perform a few functions, including
- Denoting plurals (the equivalent of putting an “s” or “es” on the end of most English words). For example, the plural of kedi, “cat”, is kediler.
- Performing as conjunctions, like “with”, “at”, or “in”. For example, to say “at the house”, in which “house” is ev, you say evde.
- Doing some conjugations, like the infinitive form, future form, or the “can” form (e.g. “I can go”). For example, to say “I can go”, you add a suffix to the verb stem for “to do”, git-, making gidebilirim. (There is also a consonant agreement in there, changing the ‘t’ to a ‘d’.)
See more on Turkish consonant agreement here.
If you don’t learn vowel harmony, it seems like the number of particles is very long. But in reality, the number of particles isn’t vast, and it’s just that the vowel changes within them.
See here for other aspects of Turkish Grammar that are quite interesting.
Types of Vowel Harmony
There are two kinds of vowel harmony in Turkish: two-way, and four-way. They are named this way because they either group the vowels into two groups of four, or four groups of two.
Turkish has eight vowels: a, ı, o, u, e, i, ö, and ü.
These vowels are grouped two different ways:
- Front vowels and back vowels: This defines where they come from inside the mouth.
- Rounded vowels and unrounded vowels. This is the shape your mouth makes to make each vowel.
Together, you can group Turkish vowels like this:
|Rounded||ö, ü||o, u|
|Unrounded||e, i||a, ı|
Try making these sounds with your mouth and observe the position and shape of your lips.
The general principle of vowel harmony is that words with vowels of a given class have to stay in the same natural class.
In general, the front and back classification of Turkish vowels is more dominant. Words in Turkish generally only contain vowels from one set. Secondarily, words might be further constrained in just rounded or unrounded vowels, too.
Consider these simple Turkish words you’re likely to learn in your first 100 or so words:
|“Excuse me”||Just front vowels, unrounded|
|“Sorry”||Just front vowels, rounded|
|“I don’t understand”||Just back vowels|
|“See you”||Just front vowels, rounded|
|“I’m sorry”||First word: front rounded, Second word: front unrounded|
With time and practice, you’ll develop an intuition for how Turkish words should sound, and vowel harmony will become second nature.
Two-Way Vowel Harmony (Type 1 / e-type)
The first kind of vowel harmony, called “two-way vowel harmony” (or “simple” or “e-type vowel harmony” has two forms: a or e.
When classifying a word by its vowel, you always look at the last vowel before the suffix. In a noun, this is just the last vowel. In a verb, this is the last vowel in the verb stem.
Here’s the rule:
|Last vowel before suffix is…||Form of suffix to use||Class of vowel|
|e, i, ö, or ü||e||“Front”|
|a, ı, o, or u||a||“Back”|
You don’t really need to worry about “front” or “back”, which is why I put it in the last column. The most important thing is to look at the last vowel beore the suffix, and to use the appropriate kind of suffix afterwards.
For example, the word ev (“house”) has an “e” as its final vowel. So to say “at the house”, you match it with evde.
Similarly, the word hamam (“bathhouse”) has an “a” as its final vowel. So to say “at the bathhouse” you say hamamda.
So, what kinds of suffixes are used in two-way vowel harmony? Here are the most common two-way suffixes:
|-lar / -ler||Plurals|
|-de / -da||“at”|
|-ebil / -abil||“can”|
|-mak / -mek||Infinitive form of verb|
The “plural” suffix is a very important one. It is one that comes up every day. One “thank you” is Teşekkür, and “thanks” is Teşekkürler!
Here are some examples of the two-way vowel harmony rules:
|English||Turkish||Last vowel||Which suffix?||English phrases||Turkish phrases|
At the house
In the city
|Ice cream||Dondurma||a||a-form||With ice cream|
|Go (verb)||Git-||i||e-form||To go|
I am able to go
I am able to work
Note in the above that the consonants sometimes change slightly, too, to accomodate the vowels. This is a separate rule of consonant agreement which we’ll consider separately.
Four-way Vowel Harmony (Type 2 / i-type)
Four-way vowel harmony has the same basic principle as two-way vowel harmony — keeping things in the same part of the mouth. But there are four rules.
|Last vowel before suffix is…||Form of suffix to use||Class of vowel|
|a or ı||ı||Back unrounded|
|e or i||i||Front unrounded|
|o or u||u||Back rounded|
|ö or ü||ü||Front rounded|
Like in two-way, in four-way harmony, you look at the last vowel in a word (or a verb stem) and choose endings that fit to it afterwards.
A lazy hack for four-way vowel harmony is that half the time, you can just use the exact vowel that’s the last vowel before the suffix. If you guess that, and mumble, you’ll probably get away with it…
Here are some of the most common 4-way harmony suffixes. You get the hang of this pretty fast as they’re so common.
|-ıyor / -iyor / -uyor / -üyor||First person continuous|
|-ı / -i / -u / -ü||Accusative marker|
|mı / mi / mu / mü||Negator / Question form|
|ım / -im / -um / -üm|
ın / -in / -un / -ün
|Possessive “My”, “Your”|
(Other possessives behave similarly)
|-lı / -li / -lu / -lü||With|
|sız / -siz / -suz / -süz||Without|
Here are some examples of Turkish four-way vowel harmony below.
|English||Turkish||Last vowel||Which suffix form?||English phrase||Turkish phrase|
|Meat||Et||e||i-form||Rice with meat|
|Milk||Süt||ü||ü-form||Coffee with milk|
|Possible||Mümkün||ü||ü-form||Is it possible?|
|Sweet||Tatlı||ı||ı-form||Is it sweet?|
|Understand||Anlamak||a||ı-form||I don’t understand|
|To think||Düşünmek||ü||ü-form||I don’t think so|
|Son||Oğul||u||u form||My son|
|Watermelon||Karpuz||u||u form||I ate the watermelon|
|Turkish round bread||Simit||i||i-form||I ate the simit|
|Apple||Elma||a||ı-form||I ate the apple|
Vowel Harmony in Practise
All of that might seem like a crazy mess of rules. How are people supposed to function in reality? Do people walk around with grids of rules in their heads?
The reality is that — no, of course they don’t. Over time, even as a relatively early learner, I’ve seen that vowel harmony seeps into your brain in two ways.
Firstly, there are just words that are common that I use in everyday life. For example, “sugar-free”. I use it in an example above. I like sugar-free soda, sometimes. So I know that “sugar-free” is “şekersiz“. There are very few things I refer to as being “without” in beginner Turkish, so that’s fine.
Similarly, at the local diner, there’s a menu classifying dishes by the base: chicken, meat (e.g. lamb / beef), or vegetables. These are foods that are described as tavuklu (with chicken), etli (with meat) or sebzeli (with vegetables). These pairings are so common that they just become natural.
Anyway, these are just some very basic examples. But they may give you hope that vowel harmony may become second nature over time.