How to form words correctly in Kazakh

From FireSpeakerWiki
Revision as of 15:43, 13 December 2011 by Firespeaker (talk | contribs) (The letters ‹у› and ‹и› are actually consonants)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to navigationJump to search

This page is a work in progress.

You may find the information here useful, but be aware that it is far from its final form. This means it hasn't been fully copy-edited either and's likely to have a lot of mistakes or factual inaccuracies.

If you have knowledge about this topic, or notice a mistake, please feel free to help out by clicking edit.

People learning Kazakh often have a hard time knowing when to use which form of a given word "ending" (i.e., morphemes) correctly, due to Kazakh's somewhat extravagant morpho-phonology, compounded by an initially unituitive orthography. This page is designed to be a primer and reference for students of Kazakh; while it may also prove useful to linguists, it's not designed for this purpose, and other materials I release will likely be of more use. (If you're a linguist interested in Kazakh, I welcome you to contact me.)

Vowel harmony

Vowel properties

Kazakh has 9 vowels, each of which can be identified by a small set of properties: its backness or frontness, its highness and diphthongal quality, and its roundness. The most important of these to be aware of for written Kazakh is the backness/frontness of the vowel, but for speaking, all of these properties are important. The following chart presents the vowels grouped by these properties.

vowel properties
vowel backness highness diphthongness roundedness
і front high monophthong unrounded
ү front high monophthong rounded
е front high diphthong unrounded
ө front high diphthong rounded
ә front low monophthong unrounded
а back low monophthong unrounded
о back high diphthong rounded
ы back high monophthong unrounded
ұ back high monophthong rounded

In the following view, the vowels are grouped by their features; this allows their features to be seen relative to one another.

vowel chart
front unrounded front rounded back unrounded back rounded
diphthong е ө о
monophthong і ү ы ұ
low ә а

Maintaining frontness and backness

Most words of Kazakh will maintain the same frontness and backness of all its vowels. That is, throughout a single word, all the vowels will be either front or back (see below for exceptions). This means that when you add endings to a word, they have to agree in frontness and backness with the previous vowel. Essentially, the two basic types of endings are "A" and "I". "A" endings alternate between ‹а› and ‹е›: the former pairs with back vowels and the latter with front vowels. "I" endings alternate between ‹ы› and ‹і›, and pairs likewise. Examples of two suffixes (the genitive case -NIŋ and the ablative case -DAn) are shown below for a mono-syllabic stem containing each vowel.

vowel example word high-vowel ending low-vowel ending
і/ы -NIŋ (genitive) а/е -DAn (ablative)
і іс ‘work’ істің істен
ү үн ‘voice’ үннің үннен
е ет ‘meat’ еттің еттен
ө өң ‘colour’ өңнің өңнен
ә ән ‘song’ әннің әннен
а алма ‘apple’ алманың алмадан
о от ‘grass’ оттың оттан
ы жыл ‘year’ жылдың жылдан
ұ құм ‘sand’ құмның құмнан

Front consonants in stems

One exception to the fact that a vowel in an ending agrees with the previous vowel occurs when an intervening consonant (that is, after the last vowel of the word) has a different frontness/backness value. The primary consonants involved in this process are ‹к› and ‹ль›, which are front consonants. For example, банк ‘bank’ with the plural suffix -лар is банктер ‘banks’, факт ‘fact’ in the plural is факттер ‘facts’, and Гоголь ‘Gogolʲ (e.g. a street)’ plus the dative suffix -ға is Гогольге ‘to Gogolʲ [street]’.


If you know even a little Kazakh, you'll find some exceptions right away to the generalisation that vowels maintain their frontness or backness throughout a word. Simple examples include as қазір ‘now’ and кітап ‘book’. While there are a lot of examples like this, almost all of them of them are borrowings from Arabic, Persian, and Russian. Also, most importantly, these words take endings based on the last vowel in the word. So қазір ‘now’ takes the front ending -гі and not the back ending -ғы to form қазіргі ‘modern’, and кітап ‘book’ takes the back ending -тар and not the front ending -тер to form кітаптар ‘books’.

Spoken Kazakh

Consonant effects

Syllable Contact


In Kazakh, the first consonant of a syllable often desonorises—that is, it changes from a sonorant (such as /l/, /m/, and /n/) to a non-sonorant (such as /t/, /d/, /b/, and /p/). The context for desonorisation in cases of syllable contact for /m/ and /l/ is when they follow [a syllable ending in] anything equally or less sonorous then them, and for /n/ is when it follows any consonant. The system is demonstrated with examples in the following table.


Syllables starting with /d/ and ending with a nasal also exhibit changing of the /d/ into an /n/.

The letters ‹у› and ‹и› are actually consonants

Kind of. In reality, these letters represent a variety of underlying sounds, and both have back and front variations.

letter after a consonant after a vowel beginning of word
у iw, ıw w w (controversial)
и iy, ıy iy, ıy
ю yiw, yıw yiw, yıw

After a vowel, ‹у› is /w/, after a consonant it's one of the two vowels plus /w/. The value of the vowel can sometimes be guessed based on orthography alone. For example, in аю ‘bear’ (where ‹ю› is ‹йу›, and ‹у› may have any of these two values after a consonant), the value of ‹у› has to be /ıw/, since vowels following /a/ should be back and not front. In cases like the verb stems ту- ‘to bear [young]’ and жу- ‘to wash’ and the nouns ру ‘tribe’ and ту ‘banner’, the value of this letter can't be predicted based on vowel harmony. However, it's still possible to assume in these words that ‹у› is /ıw/, since this is its default value in the first syllable of a word.

In fact, the front-vowel value of ‹у› and ‹ю› is only found in non-first syllables, in words like ‹еру› ‘to melt’ (‹ері+у› /eri+w/), сию /siyiw/ ‘to pee’ (/siy/ ‘pee’ + /iw/ inf).

In a word like уақыт ‘time’, the value of ‹у› could be argued to be any one of /uw/, /ıw/, or /w/. This isn't important, though. And this brings up the question of why this is all important anyway.

As for ‹и›, its default value in the first syllable of a word is as a front vowel, e.g. ‹киінеді› /kiyinedi/ ‘s/he gets dressed’, though there are some exceptions, like the verb ‹қи› /qıy/ ‘cut off’, but this is clear because of the "back" consonant ‹қ›. In older texts, sometimes ‹и› is used in first syllables with a back vowel reading, like ‹жиып› /jıyıp/ (which would modernly be spelled ‹жыйып›).

Why it matters

The reason it's important to understand the phonemic value of the Kazakh letter ‹у› is that many endings in Kazakh behave differently after vowels and after consonants.

For example, the -ның ending ‘'s’ becomes -дың after voiced non-nasal consonants. This is true after ‹у› as well: аюдың /ayıw-dıŋ/ ‘the bear's’, рудың /ruw-dıŋ/ ‘the tribe's’.

This is also true of other noun endings, such as -ы ‘his/her/its’, which surfaces as -сы after vowels.

Word stems end in voiceless consonants

The non-sonorant consonants of Kazakh paired by voicedness.
voiceless п ф т с ш ч щ к қ х һ
voiced б в д з ж г ғ

Consonants in italics are only found in Russian words or are otherwise rarely found at the end of a word (for voiceless ones).

Consonants in bold turn into their voiced counterpart when a suffix beginning with a vowel is added. For example, топ ‘group’ takes the possessive ‹ы› (see above), and becomes тобы ‘his/her/its group’.

Any "voiced" consonant found at the end of a word (usually in Russian words only) are actually voiceless (б, в, д, ж). For example, a name like Абаев ‘Abayev’, ending in ‹в›, takes the genitive suffix -тың instead of -дың: Абаевтың ‘Abayev's’.

Words with an extra vowel

In Kazakh there's a large set of words where a final voiceless consonant that would normally become voiced remains voiceless.

п → у

Combined effects