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Lecture | LUCL Colloquium - Spring 2014

LUCL Colloquium: Vowel Harmony Meets Centralization

  • Sharon Rose (University of California, San Diego)
Thursday 6 February 2014
LUCL Colloquium
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden
Room 028

Vowel Harmony Meets Centralization


Moro (Kordofanian, spoken in Sudan) has a vowel harmony system that presents two intriguing puzzles. First, the harmony system appears to be based on vowel height, but does not resemble other height harmony systems typologically, particularly within Africa. Second, a central schwa vowel appears to be both transparent to harmony, and a harmony trigger. I use comparative and phonetic data to address how best to represent the harmony, and consider the implications of this case for the analysis of harmony systems.

Moro has an inventory of seven vowels /i u e ʌ o a ə/ which appear in roots and trigger harmony on affixes. The low vowel /a/ raises to mid [ʌ] and the mid vowels /e o/ raise to [i u], respectively. Raising is conditioned by the set of ‘higher’ vowels /ʌ i u/, and some suffixes can also trigger raising harmony on roots and preceding prefixes. If this is a height harmony system, it is cross-linguistically unusual, as the mid [ʌ] triggers raising of other mid vowels. In related Kordofanian languages, harmony is typically one of advanced tongue root (ATR) harmony, but unlike Moro, the vowel systems show contrasts among either the high or the mid vowels, or both. I will discuss how an ATR system could shift due to mergers and centralization to resemble a height system of the Moro type. I then address how best to represent this pattern within the typology of height and ATR harmony systems.

The vowel /ə/ shows chameleon like behavior with respect to harmony in Moro. It can co-occur in roots with vowels of any type, which suggests that it is transparent to harmony. Yet, it can also occur alone in a root and condition affixes of either harmonic set. Furthermore, some /ə/ in suffixes can also trigger harmony. These facts suggest that /ə/ participates in harmony. I present acoustic evidence from three speakers to suggest that there are two central vowels in Moro, a lower schwa /ə/ and a higher schwa /ɘ/, thus explaining the chameleon behavior. The higher vowel patterns with /i ʌ u/ in triggering harmony. I discuss how this system may have developed from vowel centralization, which, in combination with harmony, resulted in another central vowel distinction. Such a result has ramifications for the analysis of ‘transparent’ vowels in vowel harmony systems, which require closer phonetic scrutiny, and cannot be assumed to be transparent. The Moro case illustrates how vowel harmony systems may change due to centralization, resulting in new typological cases that pose representational and analytical challenges to phonological models.

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