Somali ATR or front/back harmony
Saeed 1993 says (p.19):
Note that each of the symbols, i ii e ee a
aa o oo u uu, in fact stands for two slightly different sounds, but
since the difference is [sic] so rarely distinguishes different words,
the Somali orthography does not mark it.
Here is the IPA chart given in Saeed 1993 to show the qualities of the
two variants of each vowel. I've added a line connecting each pair. Saeed
attributes the difference to the Advanced Tongue Root (ATR) feature, but
the cited vowel qualities are not consistent with the West African style
of ATR differentiation, which is mainly a difference in the first formant,
generally associated with vowel height, while Saed's chart makes it seem
that the Somali difference is mainly in F2.
The other case that Somali might be compared to is the effects on vowels
of so-called emphatic consonants in Arabic.It seems prudent to reserve
judgment on the feature(s) involved until some instrumental measurements
have been made, but I will provisionally use the terms front and
back instead of +ATR and -ATR.
In order to avoid having to deal with browser font issues, I'll use
generally capital letters for the back variants from here forward.
The Somali front-back pairs participate in a system of vowel harmony
at the level of the phonological word or perhaps some larger phrasal category.
Saed p. 32:
Vowel harmony ... is not marked in the standard
orthography ... but it is essential to an authentic pronunciation of the
language ... Somali vowels are divided into two sets: a front series ...
and a back series ..., all of which occur both long and short. Vowel harmony
is the rule that within a certain range all vowels have to match, i.e.
belong to the same series. One such domain is a word: so that the vowels
in a noun root, for example, will all be front as in [libaax] libàax
'lion', or all back as in [mAAlIn] maalín 'day' ... [T]he
lexical categories of noun, verb and adjective inherently have vowels which
are either from the front or the back series, and this must be learnt for
each word from these categories. However, inflectional endings and the
functional categories of determiners, conjunctions, verbal pronouns, auxiliary
verbs, classifers and focus words are variable: their vowels can be either
from the front or back series and will tend to match neighbouring lexical
categories ... Thus vowels harmony is a kind of phonetic 'agreement' where
the vowels in functional affixes and words agree with the vowels in neighbouring
nouns, verbs and adjectives.
As the involvement of adjacent functional categories makes clear, Somali
vowel harmony is a phrasal (or 'post-lexical') phenomenon. As is often
the case with such phenomena, it is also apparently variable, both across
dialects and speakers and across occasions for the same speaker. Saed p.
It is difficult to give firm rules describing
the limits to which vowel harmony can stretch, or, for example, what happens
with conflicting vowel harmonies when several lexical categories occur
in the same clause. This is because, as Andrzejewski reports in his (1955)
study, the range of vowel harmony depends on the speed and formality of
the utterance and when the speaker chooses to pause. It seems that pausing
'switches off' the vowel harmony. Moreover the use of vowel harmony over
extended stretches seems to vary somewhat from speaker to speaker ...
Here are the examples given by Saeed. First some near-minimal pairs:
For the learner there are two clear points about
vowels harmony: firstly, that the vowel qualities of individual nouns,
verbs and adjectives must simply be learnt, even though the two vowel series
are not differentiated in the standard orthography; and secondly, that
attempts should be made to obey the fules of vowel harmony between roots
and suffixes, within the verbal piece, and in the use of focus words and
Then some examples of harmony in inflection and with adjacent clitics and
||'young female camel'
||'young female camels'
||'(they) turned over'
||'the noble person'
Warner (in Warner, John: Somali Grammar.Mennonite Board in East Africa,
Nairobi, 1988) indicates no distinction for /i/, /ii/, /e/, /a/, /ay/,
/aw/. For the other vowels he gives:
||'I sent it'
||'I refused it'
||'I may build it'
||'I may wait for it'
|[wAAn dIrI dOOnAA]
||waan díri doonaa
||'I will send it'
|[waan heli doonaa]
||waan héli doonaa
||'I will find it'
/ee/ [front] geed 'tree' gees 'horn' geel 'camels'
[back] keen 'bring (it)'
hees 'song' leef 'to lick'
/aa/ [front] taag 'a high place/ to put high'
aad 'very much' daan 'jawbone'
[back] taag 'strength'
gaal 'unbeliever' daaq 'to graze'
/o/ [front] fog 'far' tog 'seasonal river valley'
[back] lo' 'cattle'
qod 'to dig' boqol 'hundred'
/oo/ [front] jooj 'to remain' bood 'to jump' xoog
[back] roob 'rain' mood 'useful
property' doob 'youth'
/u/ [front] dul 'nostril' sug 'to wait'
duf 'fringe fibers'
[back] tuf 'to spit'
dul 'top side' tus 'to show (it)'
/uu/ [front] tuug 'thief' duug 'something old' guur 'shift'
[back] tuug 'to beg' duul 'fly'