Mongolian Vowel Harmony and Palatalization
Faculty Mentor: Dirk Elzinga, Linguistics
The Mongolian language is spoken by approximately 3,000,000 people in the East
Asian nation of Mongolia. The language exhibits vowel harmony, a rare phenomenon
where the vowels in a single word must belong to matching categories. Mongolian
grammars traditionally classify the seven vowels as either “male” or “female,” as well as
rounded or unrounded. The “male” vowels are pronounced with a retracted tongue root
(RTR), sounding “darker,” while “female” vowels are pronounced with an advanced
tongue root (ATR), sounding “lighter.” The vowel /i/ is considered neutral, neither male
nor female, but its presence tends to change the pronunciation of male vowels. This
effect is known as palatalization, but palatalization in Mongolian is not consistently
described or understood. The purpose of our research was to closely analyze these
changes in vowel sounds, as well as to analyze the ways that these changing vowel
sounds affect vowel harmony in suffixes.
Analysis of palatalization in Mongolian required the collection of new audio recordings.
These recordings needed to be of high audio quality to eliminate noise in computerassisted
analysis tools. The recordings needed to be from reliable, native speakers of
the standard dialect of Mongolian as spoken in Ulaanbaatar to remove dialectal
variations. The recordings also had to include specific combinations of sounds in order
to efficiently focus on palatalization. I speak Mongolian and have experience in the
country, so I used the ORCA funding to help finance a month of research in Mongolia in
order to personally make new recordings.
I found interested participants by word of mouth. I met with participants for a few
elicitation sessions of twenty to forty minutes each. In elicitations, I presented the
participant with a PowerPoint containing lists of words in Mongolian with certain vowels
and combinations of vowels. I chose words that were representative of all patterns of
vowels, some with and some without palatalization that occur naturally in the language,
based on a thorough review in a dictionary I presented participants in total with four
batteries of words; the first three contained both words and phrases, while the fourth
was a comprehensive word list. This word list included all standard vowels, with and
without palatalization, in various positions in long and short words. The recordings
contain high-quality audio of Mongolians reading these words into a professional
Analysis is performed in Praat, a standard software suite for phonetic analysis. After
annotating recordings and dividing the files, sorted by word, I was able to begin phonetic
analysis. Vowels can be classified by their formants, which are resonant frequencies in the
sound wave formed by the shape of the mouth during pronunciation.
The collected data gives useful evidence of the palatalizing changes in the RTR vowels.
One particular topic of research was the difference between long monophthongs
followed by a palatalizing sound and diphthongs, which are inherently palatalized. The
data showed that the vowel sounds in words with diphthongs and those with palatalized
long vowels had converged; for each of the three RTR vowels, the long-palatalized and
diphthong had merged into the same sound, respectively. In our published paper, we
will present a numerical comparison of the formant contours for these vowels.
The collected recordings also contain data showing the interaction of palatalized RTR
vowels, both long and short, with the vowels in inflectional suffixes chosen by vowel
harmony. We supposed that because these palatalized vowels are more phonetically
similar to the ATR vowels, they might take ATR suffixes. This behavior was observed
occasionally; in many cases, suffixes were changed to match the palatalized vowel
exactly, whereas in fewer cases, non-palatalized RTR suffixes were attached to
palatalized ATR roots, showing that palatalization does affect vowel harmony.
Our data clearly shows the phonetic composition of these palatalized vowels in
Mongolian. From a phonological standpoint, we suspect that a complete merger of the
palatalized long vowels and diphthongs is either complete or underway. If close
comparison of the formants of these two types of vowels, including their effects on the
articulation of surrounding consonants and following vowels, continue to show them to
be identical in their respective pairs, then a continuation of this study could look for
minimal pairs and possibly prove that the two categories have merged entirely.
Furthermore, this study provides vital information for future study of Mongolian language
change. We believe that Mongolian pronunciation of these palatalized vowels may be
slowly shifting, particularly as concerns the merger discussed above. Historically,
Mongolian had a sequence of front rounded vowels, but these have shifted back in
articulation to become the ATR vowels. It is possible that the palatalized RTR vowels
are differentiating to again provide front rounded vowels in Mongolian. Research into
this phenomenon in the coming decades will be able to use our data as a midpoint to
show the development of Mongolian vowels.
The focus of our publication will be a comparison of the formant frequencies of the
vowels in question, analyzing surrounding consonants and suffix vowels in order to
determine the different effects of palatalized vowels of varying length and composition.
We will submit for publication in spring of 2017.