On Tue, Dec 4, 2012 at 11:30 PM, Nicole Valicia Thompson-Andrews <
[log in to unmask]> wrote:

> What are front and back vowels? What's vowel harmony?

This is a bit hard to explain without diagrams, which won't be of much use
to you.  However, you can experience it if you speak aloud and pay
attention to your mouth.

Say the word "feet" and draw out the vowel.  Notice where your jaw is, and
where your tongue is.   Now say "father" and draw out the first vowel.
 Notice where your tongue and jaw are when you're saying the first syllable
of father.  You will find that your mouth is more open for "father" than
for "feet."  We say, then, that "feet" has a "close vowel," because your
jaw more closed.  We say "father" has an "open" vowel.  Now, your tongue is
closer to the front of your mouth when  you say "feet" than when you say
"father."  We say, then, that "feet" has a front vowel, and father has a
back vowel.  We describe the vowel sound in "feet" as "close front" and
that in "father" as "open back."  You'll sometimes see other terminology
("high" for "close" and "low" for "open" are common, but not preferred by

In a language with vowel harmony, all of the vowels in a word share some
quality.  For example, they might all be high vowels, or all low vowels.
 This means that if the language has suffixes, it'll have two possible
suffixes (called "allomorphs") for the same function.  For example, just
making something up:

kan = man
tik = woman
kanta = men
tikte = women

So the plural suffix in my made-up example is either -ta or -te depending
on the vowels in the word.

> What's the limit on vowels? I hear we have twelve? I only count five
> unless you c ount Y, which makes six.

Germanic languages often have about a dozen. The Taa language of the !Xoon
people of Botswana has somewhere in the area of 20 or 30 vowels.  Classical
Arabic has only three, and that's about the lower limit except for some
languages that have been described, IIRC, as only having one.

It's very important to understand that vowels are not letters.  They are
sounds.  We use five or six symbols to represent about a dozen sounds.
 Think about the following words:


and then, of course, the last sound in the word "sofa," which I can't think
of a b-word for.

each of these words has a different vowel, at least in my dialect, even
though some of them are written with the same letters.

It can actually get pretty complicated, by the way, because high/low and
front/back are not the only choices one has with vowels.  They can be
nasalized or not (which is one reason that some counts of French vowels are
very high), rounded or not (we round oh and u, but you *could* round ah and
ee and ey, or anything else, and unround oh and u!) and diphthongs (English
is so full of diphthongs that we find it hard to make pure vowels in
languages like Spanish: the vowels "oh" and "eh" exist in English only as
parts of diphthongs in most dialects).  My advice here is do not get fancy.
 Do not give your conlang vowel sounds you cannot pronounce.  The five
cardinal vowel sounds in Spanish are extremely common and will not excite
surprise or bewilderment.

Second Person, a chapbook of poetry by Patrick Dunn, is now available for
order from Finishing Line