Kyrgyz teaching materials

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Vowel harmony

How to know when to use which vowel

The basic vowel inventory of Kyrgyz

There are eight basic vowels in Kyrgyz. These can be categorised by the position of the tongue in the mouth (high/low, front/back) and the rounding of the lips (rounded, unrounded):

The vowels of Kyrgyz
front back
unrounded rounded unrouned rounded
high и ү ы у
low э ө а о

See #Other vowel characters for information about long vowels and letters like я, е, etc.

How to choose the right vowel

/I/ and /A/

Most vowels in Kyrgyz suffixes are either a high vowel (/I/) or a low vowel (/A/) underlying. However, a vowel must be specified for more than height in order to be pronounced/written/etc. E.g., /и/ is high, front, and unrounded; no vowels are simply "high"—every vowel has a specification for backness and roundness too. In Kyrgyz, the backness and roundness of vowels in suffixes come from the previous vowel. This means that /I/ can be any high vowel, depending on what vowel comes before it, whereas /A/ can be any low vowel, depending on what vowel comes before it. Lining this up with the vowel chart above, this means /I/ can be any vowel on the top row, whereas /A/ can be any vowel on the bottom row:

Which vowels /I/ and /A/ can be
front back
unrounded rounded unrouned rounded
high I и ү ы у
low A э ө а о

How to know whether a suffix has /I/ or /A/

In order to know which vowel is correct in a suffix, you must know whether that vowel is underlyingly high (/I/) or low (/A/). This depends on the suffix. For instance, the locative case suffix is -/DA/, meaning that the vowel could be /а/, /э/, /о/, or /ө/. Keep in mind that /э/ is always written as "е" after consonants, so in this case, the possible forms are "да", "де", "до", and "дө" (and also "та", "те", "то", and "тө").

Likewise, a suffix with /I/—for example the genitive case suffix -/NIн/—will always have a high vowel: either /ы/, /и/, /у/, or /ү/.

How to know which vowel to use

Fifteen out of sixteen times, you can simply choose the high vowel (for /I/) or low vowel (for /A/) that is in the same backness and roundedness columns in the above table(s) as the previous vowel in the word.

For example, the last (and only) vowel in word "көл" ‘lake’ is front and rounded. As can be seen in the table(s), /ү/ is the high front rounded vowel, so would be used for /I/, and /ө/ is the low front rounded vowel, so would be used for /A/. This means that the genitive suffix -/NIн/ would be added to "көл" with /ү/: "көлдүн", and the locative suffix -/DA/ would be added to "көл" with /ө/: "көлдө".

The one exception is when /A/ occurs after /у/. In this case, /а/ is chosen for /A/, not /о/. For example, the word "кул" ‘slave’ takes the expected genitive for "кулдун", but it takes the locative form of "кулда".

The following chart summarises which vowel to chose for /I/ and /A/ after a given vowel:

и ү э ө а о ы у
A э ө э ө а о а а
I и ү и ү ы у ы у

For example, the column "э - э - и" means that after "э" (or "ээ" or "е"), the correct /A/ vowel is "э" (or "ээ" or "е") and the correct /I/ vowel is "и". This means that "сел" ‘flood’ would be "селде" in the locative case or "селдин" in the genitive case.

The one "exception" to a regular system is highlighted in bold.

Other vowel characters

Long vowels

Long-vowel equivalents of all the vowels (with the exception of и and ы, which may not have true long-vowel equivalents) are written by doubling the vowel symbol:

The vowels of Kyrgyz
front back
unrounded rounded unrouned rounded
high (ийи) үү (ыйы) уу
low ээ өө аа оо

These behave with vowel harmony normally.

й vowels

Aside from the vowels, there are 4 vowel "letters" which are contain these sounds:

The й-"vowels" of Kyrgyz
й + э е
й + а я
й + о ё
й + у ю

This means, for example, that when you write "я" in Kyrgyz, you're just representing /йа/ (a sequence of a consonant followed by a vowel) in a different way. This means that "я" behaves like "а" for purposes of vowel harmony, etc., but that you just have to keep in mind that there's an extra "й" to deal with.

The letter "е"

The letter "е" is special, since it is always used after consonants to stand for the /э/ sound. After vowels and at the beginning of words, "э" is written for the /э/ sound, and "е" stands for /йэ/.

Consonants before vowel suffixes

When a vowel-initial suffix is added to a word ending in certain consonants, the consonant changes (to a voiced version of the consonant). This only happens after /п/ and /к/, which become /б/ and /г/ respectively. For example, "китеп" ‘book’ + the possessive suffix -/(I)м/ is "китебим" ‘my book’, and "сабак" ‘class’ + possessive becomes "сабагым" ‘my class’. No other stem-final consonants change.

The following table summarises these changes:

п б
к г

Consonant agreement

There are two basic processes that constitute "consonant agreement" in Kyrgyz (from an orthographic point of view): desonorisation (where a sonorant like /н/ or /л/ becomes a non-sonorant like /д/), and voicing assimilation (where a voiced sound like /д/ or /г/ becomes an unvoiced sound like /т/ or /к/).

Consonant archiphonemes

The basic consonant archiphonemes in Kyrgyz are /N/, /L/, /G/, and /D/. These are found, for example, in the genitive case suffix (-/NIн/), the plural noun suffix (-/LAр/), the dative case suffix (-/GA/), and the locative case suffix (-/DA/), as well as quite a few other suffixes. (See the section on vowel harmony to know what forms the /A/ and /I/ vowels should take.)

Which consonant to use

Consonant "agreement" in Kyrgyz
vowels н л г д
й, р д л г д
л д д г д
м, н, ң д д г д
voiced consonants
з, д, г, ж, б, в
д д г д
voiceless consonants
т, с, к, п, ч, ш, х, ф, щ
т т к т

This chart means, for example, that /N/ after vowels is "н", but after /л/ is "д". So the genitive suffix -/NIн/ after "алма" ‘apple’ has "н" ("алманын"), but after "кол" ‘arm’ has a "д" ("колдун").


Possessive suffixes

possessive suffixes
1st person менин -(I)м биздин -(I)бIз / —
2nd person informal сенин -(I)ң силердин -(I)ңAр
2nd person formal сиздин -(I)ңIз сиздердин -(I)ңIздAр
3rd person анын -(с)I алардын -(с)I

The 3rd person suffixes have an extra /с/ after a vowel, so "анын алмасы" ‘his apple’. All the other suffixes have an extra /I/ after a consonant, so "менин үйүм" ‘my house’. First person plural can be -/(I)бIз/ or nothing, so "биздин үйүбүз" or "биздин үй" are both acceptable forms for "our house"; however, if the genitive-case pronoun ("биздин") is not used, then the suffix must be used.

Possessive suffixes with case

In Kyrgyz, there are some irregular combinations of possessive suffixes followed by case suffixes. These occur with all cases except genitive and nominative and affect only singular 1st person, 2nd person informal, and 3rd person suffixes. The following chart provides some combinations, highlighting all of the irregular ones.

person suffixes + case suffixes
noun stem 1st person singular 2nd person singular 3rd person 1st person plural
nom. бала, үй -(I)м балам, үйүм -(I)ң балаң, үйүң -(с)I баласы, үйү -(I)б{I}з балабыз, үйүбүз
acc. -NI баланы, үйдү -(I)м-NI баламды, үйүмдү -(I)ң-NI балаңды, үйүңдү -(с)I-N баласын, үйүн -(I)б{I}з-NI балабызды, үйүбүздү
gen. -NIн баланын, үйдүн -(I)м-NIн баламдын, үйүмдүн -(I)ң-NIн балаңдын, үйүңдүн -(с)I-NIн баласынын, үйүнүн -(I)б{I}з-NIн балабыздын, үйүбүздүн
loc. -DA балада, үйдө -(I)м-DA баламда, үйүмдө -(I)ң-DA балаңда, үйүңдө -(с)I-н-DA баласында, үйүндө -(I)б{I}з-DA балабызда, үйүбүздө
abl. -DAн баладан, үйдөн -(I)м-DAн
баламдан, үйүмдөн
баламан, үйүмөн
балаңдан, үйүңдөн
балаңан, үйүңөн
-(с)I-NAн баласынан, үйүнөн -(I)б{I}з-DAн балабыздан, үйүбүздөн
dat. -GA балага, үйгө -(I)м-A балама, үйүмө -(I)ң-A балаңа, үйүңө -(с)I-н-A баласына, үйүнө -(I)б{I}з-GA балабызга, үйүбүзгө


Accusative -NI
Genitive -NIн
Locative -DA
Ablative -DAн
Dative -GA