How to form words correctly in Kazakh
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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.)
- 1 Vowel harmony
- 2 Consonant effects
- 3 Combined effects
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.
In the following view, the vowels are grouped by their features; this allows their features to be seen relative to one another.
|front unrounded||front rounded||back unrounded||back rounded|
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)|
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’.
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
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.