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Vowel Harmony

A characteristic feature of the Mongolian language is that of vowel harmony, a feature which is also common in Turkish and to a lesser extent in Manchurian as well. The concept of vowel harmony is extremely straightforward, and simply means that a word can only contain either back vowels (a, o, u) or front vowels (e, ö, ü), but not both at the same time, with the exception only of a certain limited amount of words, the majority of which are foreign. The vowel i is considered neutral and can therefore occur in both front and back voweled words, but when i occurs in all syllables the word is considered to be front voweled. Vowel harmony also affects two other sets of letters, γ/q and g/k, with the former occurring only in back-voweled words and the latter only in front-voweled words.

Examples of back vowel words

Back voweled word can only contain the back vowels a, o and u or the neutral vowel i, and cannot contain the consonants g and k (except when k is followed by the letter i).

čaγan
(white)
aγulan
(mountain)
noyan
(prince)
soyul
(culture)
ama
(mouth)
ulaγan
(red)
balai
(stupid)

Examples of front vowel words

Front voweled word can only contain the front vowels e, ö and ü or the neutral vowel i, and cannot contain the consonants γ and q (except in a small and limited number of words).

beleg
(gift)
nökör
(comrade)
tümen
(ten thousand)
sedkil
(thought)
ner-e
(name)
edüge
(now)
ünen
(truth)

Examples of front and back-voweled words containing 'i'

Front neutral vowel i can occur alongside all vowels (back and front) and all consonants.

imaγan
(goat)
nidün
(eye)
jirγal
(bliss)
yirtinčü
(universe)
irgen
(people)
joriγ
(intention)
qoni
(sheep)

Examples with 'i' in all syllables

When i occurs in all syllables the word is regarded as front vocalic and any suffixes/case markers joined to the word must also be front vocalic.

bičig
(writing, book)
bilig
(wisdom)
čikibči
(ear-muffs)
ilbiči
(magician)

Back vowel words with 'γ' and 'q'

Only back-voweled words can contain the consonants γ and q, with the exception of a limited number of words (see below)

qaγan
(khan)
γajar
(place)
qoitu
(north)
ijaγur
(origin)

Front vowel words with 'g' and 'k'

Only front-voweled words can contain the consonants g and k, with the exception of a limited number of words (see below) and when k is followed by the letter i.

kümün
(person)
ger
(home, ger)
kejiy-e
(when?)
köbegün
(boy, son)

Examples of words which violate vowel harmony

A very small number of nouns break from the rules of vowel harmony, these are mainly words of foreign origin.

türkestan
(Turkestan)
kunda
(jasmin)
(Sanskrit)
guoši
(teacher)
(Chinese)