The phonology of Turkish deals with current phonology and phonetics, particularly of Istanbul Turkish. A notable feature of the phonology of Turkish is a system of vowel harmony that causes vowels in most words to be either front or back and either rounded or unrounded. Velar stop consonants have palatal allophones before front vowels.
Because of assimilation, an initial voiced consonant of a suffix is devoiced when the word it is attached to ends in a voiceless consonant. For example,
Turkish phonotactics is almost completely regular. The maximal syllable structure is (C)V(C)(C).[note 2] Although Turkish words can take multiple final consonants, the possibilities are limited. Multi-syllable words are syllabified to have C.CV or V.CV syllable splits, C.V split is disallowed, V.V split is only found in rare specific occurrences.
Turkish only allows complex onsets in a few recent English, French and Italian loanwords, making them CCVC(C)(C), such as Fransa, plan, program, propaganda, strateji, stres, steril and tren. Even in these words, the complex onsets are only pronounced as such in very careful speech. Otherwise, speakers often epenthesize a vowel after the first consonant. Although some loanwords add a written vowel in front of them to reflect this breaking of complex onsets (for example the French station was borrowed as istasyon to Turkish), epenthetic vowels in loan words are not usually reflected in spelling. This differs from orthographic conventions of the early 20th century that did reflect this epenthesis.
Rural dialects regularize many of the exceptions described above.
The vowels of the Turkish language are, in their alphabetical order, ⟨a⟩, ⟨e⟩, ⟨ı⟩, ⟨i⟩, ⟨o⟩, ⟨ö⟩, ⟨u⟩, ⟨ü⟩. There are no phonemic diphthongs in Turkish and when two vowels are adjacent in the spelling of a word, which only occurs in some loanwords, each vowel retains its individual sound (e.g. aile [a.i.le], laik [la.ic]). In some words, a diphthong in the donor language (e.g. the [aw] in Arabic نَوْبَة [naw.ba(t)]) is replaced by a monophthong (for the example, the [œ] in nöbet [nœ.bet]). In some other words, the diphthong becomes a two-syllable form with a semivocalic /j/ in between.
|Turkish Vowel Harmony||Front||Back|
|Vowels||e /e/||i /i/||ü /y/||ö /œ/||a /a/||ı /ɯ/||u /u/||o /o/|
|Twofold (Simple system)||e||a|
|Fourfold (Complex system)||i||ü||ı||u|
With some exceptions, native Turkish words follow a system of vowel harmony, meaning that they incorporate either exclusively back vowels (/a, ɯ, o, u/) or exclusively front vowels (/e, i, œ, y/), as, for example, in the words karanlıktaydılar ('they were in the dark') and düşünceliliklerinden ('due to their thoughtfulness'). /o œ/ only occur in the initial syllable. Native Turkish grammar books call the backness harmony major vowel harmony, and the combined backness and lip harmony minor vowel harmony.
The Turkish vowel system can be considered as being three-dimensional, where vowels are characterised by three features: front/back, rounded/unrounded, and high/low, resulting in eight possible combinations, each corresponding to one Turkish vowel, as shown in the table.
Vowel harmony of grammatical suffixes is realized through "a chameleon-like quality", meaning that the vowels of suffixes change to harmonize with the vowel of the preceding syllable. According to the changeable vowel, there are two patterns:
The vowel /œ/ does not occur in grammatical suffixes. In the isolated case of /o/ in the verbal progressive suffix -i4yor it is immutable, breaking the vowel harmony such as in yürüyor ('[he/she/it] is walking'). -iyor stuck because it derived from a former compounding "-i yorı".[note 4]
Some examples illustrating the use of vowel harmony in Turkish with the copula -dir4 ('[he/she/it] is'):
Compound words do not undergo vowel harmony in their constituent words as in bugün ('today'; from bu, 'this', and gün, 'day') and başkent ('capital'; from baş, 'prime', and kent, 'city') unless it is specifically derived that way. Vowel harmony does not usually apply to loanword roots and some invariant suffixes, such as and -ken ('while ...-ing'). In the suffix -e2bil ('may' or 'can'), only the first vowel undergoes vowel harmony. The suffix -ki ('belonging to ...') is mostly invariant, except in the words bugünkü ('today's') dünkü ('yesterday's'), and çünkü ( 'because that').
There are a few native Turkish words that do not have vowel harmony such as anne ('mother'). In such words, suffixes harmonize with the final vowel as in annedir ('she is a mother'). Also suffixes added to foreign borrowings and proper nouns usually harmonize their vowel with the syllable immediately preceding the suffix: Amsterdam'da ('in Amsterdam'), Paris'te ('in Paris').
In most words, consonants are neutral or transparent and have no effect on vowel harmony. In borrowed vocabulary, however, back vowel harmony can be interrupted by the presence of a "front" (i.e. coronal or labial) consonant, and in rarer cases, front vowel harmony can be reversed by the presence of a "back" consonant.
For example, Arabic and French loanwords containing back vowels may nevertheless end in a clear [l] instead of a velarized [ɫ]. Harmonizing suffixes added to such words contain front vowels. The table above gives some examples.
Arabic loanwords ending in ⟨k⟩ usually take front-vowel suffixes if the origin is kāf, but back-vowel suffixes if the origin is qāf: e.g. idrak-i ('perception' acc. from إدراك idrāk) vs. fevk-ı ('top' acc. from ← فوق fawq). Loanwords ending in ⟨at⟩ derived from Arabic tāʼ marbūṭah take front-vowel suffixes: e.g. saat-e ('hour' dat. from ساعة sāʿat), seyahat-e ('trip' dat. from سياحة siyāḥat). Words ending in ⟨at⟩ derived from the Arabic feminine plural ending -āt or from devoicing of Arabic dāl take the expected back-vowel suffixes: e.g. edebiyat-ı ('literature' acc. from أدبيّات adabiyyāt), maksat, maksadı ('purpose', nom. and acc. from مقصد maqṣad).
Front-vowel suffixes are also used with many Arabic monosyllables containing ⟨a⟩ followed by two consonants, the second of which is a front consonant: e.g. harfi ('letter' acc.), harp/harbi ('war', nom. and acc.). Some combinations of consonants give rise to vowel insertion, and in these cases the epenthetic vowel may also be front vowel: e.g. vakit ('time') and vakti ('time' acc.) from وقت waqt; fikir ('idea') and fikri (acc.) from فِكْر fikr.
There is a tendency to eliminate these exceptional consonantal effects and to apply vowel harmony more regularly, especially for frequent words and those whose foreign origin is not apparent. For example, the words rahat ('comfort') and sanat ('art') take back-vowel suffixes, even though they derive from Arabic tāʼ marbūṭah.
Turkish words are said to have an accent on one syllable of the word. In most words the accent comes on the last syllable of the word, but there are some words, such as place names, foreign borrowings, words containing certain suffixes, and certain adverbs, where the accent comes earlier in the word.
A phonetic study by Levi (2005) shows that when a word has non-final accent, e.g. banmamak ('not to dip'), the accented syllable is higher in pitch than the following ones; it may also have slightly greater intensity (i.e. be louder) than an unaccented syllable in the same position. In longer words, such as sinirlenmeyecektiniz ('you would not get angry'), the syllables preceding the accent can also be high pitched.
When the accent is final, as in banmak ('to dip'), there is often a slight rise in pitch, but with some speakers there is no appreciable rise in pitch. The final syllable is also often more intense (louder) than the preceding one. Some scholars consider such words to be unaccented.
Although most treatments of Turkish refer to the word-accent as "stress", some scholars consider it a kind of pitch accent. Underhill (1986) writes that stress in Turkish "is actually pitch accent rather than dynamic stress." An acoustic study, Levi (2005), agrees with this assessment, concluding that though duration and intensity of the accented syllable are significant, the most reliable cue to accent-location is the pitch of the vowel. In its word-accent, therefore, Turkish "bears a great similarity with other pitch-accent languages such as Japanese, Basque, and Serbo-Croatian". Similarly, Özcelik (2016), noting the difference in phonetic realisation between final and non-final accent, proposes that "Final accent in Turkish is not 'stress', but is formally a boundary tone." According to this analysis therefore, only words with non-final accent are accented, and all other words are accentless.
However, not all researchers agree with this conclusion. Kabak (2016) writes: "Finally stressed words do not behave like accentless words and there is no unequivocal evidence that the language has a pitch-accent system."
A non-final accent is generally pronounced with a relatively high pitch followed by a fall in pitch on the following syllable. The syllables preceding the accent may either be slightly lower than the accented syllable or on a plateau with it. In words like sözcükle ('with a word'), where the first and third syllable are louder than the second, it is nonetheless the second syllable which is considered to have the accent, because it is higher in pitch, and followed by a fall in pitch.
However, the accent can disappear in certain circumstances; for example, when the word is the second part of a compound, e.g. çoban salatası ('shepherd salad'), from salata, or Litvanya lokantası ('Lithuania(n) restaurant'), from lokanta. In this case only the first word is accented.
If the accented vowel is final, it is often slightly higher in pitch than the preceding syllable; but in some contexts or with some speakers there is no rise in pitch.
In addition to the accent on words, intonational tones can also be heard in Turkish. One of these is a rising boundary tone, which is a sharp rise in pitch frequently heard at the end of a phrase, especially on the last syllable of the topic of a sentence. The phrase ondan sonra↑ ('after that,...'), for example, is often pronounced with a rising boundary tone on the last syllable (indicated here by an arrow).
Another intonational tone, heard in yes-no questions, is a high tone or intonational pitch-accent on the syllable before the particle mi/mu, e.g. Bu elmalar taze mi? ('Are these apples fresh?'). This tone tends to be much higher in pitch than the normal word-accent.
A raised pitch is also used in Turkish to indicate focus (the word containing the important information being conveyed to the listener). "Intonation ... may override lexical pitch in Turkish".
As stated above, word-final accent is the usual pattern in Turkish:
When a non-preaccenting suffix is added, the accent moves to the suffix:
Non-final accent in Turkish words is generally caused by the addition of certain suffixes to the word. Some of these (always of two syllables, such as -iyor) are accented themselves; others put an accent on the syllable which precedes them.
These include the following:
Note that since a focus word frequently precedes a verb (see below), causing any following accent to be neutralised, these accents on verbs can often not be heard.
Among the pre-accenting suffixes are:
The following, though written separately, are pronounced as if pre-accenting suffixes, and the stress on the final syllable of the preceding word is more pronounced than usual:
Less commonly found pre-accenting suffixes are -leyin (during) and -sizin (without), e.g. akşamleyin (in the evening), gelmeksizin (without coming).
Suffixes meaning 'is' or 'was' added to nouns, adjectives or participles, and which act like a copula, are pre-accenting:
Copular suffixes are also pre-accenting when added to the following participles: future (-ecek/-acak), aorist (-er/-ir), and obligation (-meli):
Often at the end of a sentence the verb is unaccented, with all the syllables on the same pitch. Suffixes such as -di and -se/-sa are not pre-accenting if they are added directly to the verb stem:
This accentual pattern can disambiguate homographic words containing possessive suffixes or the plural suffix:
Compound nouns are usually accented on the first element only. Any accent on the second element is lost:
The same is true of compound and intensive adjectives:
Some compounds, however, are accented on the final, for example those of the form verb-verb or subject-verb:
Remaining compounds have Sezer-type accent on whole word. Compound numerals are accented like one word or separately depending on speaker.
Certain adverbs take initial accent:
Certain adverbs ending in -en/-an have penultimate accent unless they end in a cretic (– u x) rhythm, thus following the Sezer rule (see below):
Some kinship terms are irregularly accented on the first syllable:
When two pre-accenting suffixes are added to a word with a non-final accent, only the first accent is pronounced:
However, the accent preceding the negative -ma-/-me- may take precedence over an earlier accent:
In the following pair also, the accent shifts from the object to the position before the negative:
However, even the negative suffix accent may disappear if the focus is elsewhere. Thus in sentences of the kind "not A but B", the element B is focussed, while A loses its accent.  gives a pitch track of the following sentence, in which the only tone on the first word is a rising boundary tone on the last syllable -lar:
In the second word, eğleniyorlardı, the highest pitch is on the syllable eğ and the accent on the suffix -iyor- almost entirely disappears.
Place names usually follow a different accentual pattern, known in the linguistics literature as "Sezer stress" (after the discoverer of the pattern, Engin Sezer). According to this rule, place names that have a heavy syllable (CVC) in the antepenultimate position, followed by a light syllable (CV) in penultimate position (that is, those ending with a cretic ¯ ˘ ¯ or dactylic ¯ ˘ ˘ rhythm), have a fixed antepenultimate stress:
Most other place names have a fixed penultimate stress:
Some exceptions to the Sezer stress rule have been noted:
(a) Many foreign place names, as well as some Turkish names of foreign origin, have fixed penultimate stress, even when they have cretic rhythm:
But Moskova ('Moscow') has Sezer stress.
(b) Names ending in -iye have antepenultimate stress:
(c) Names ending in -hane, -istan, -lar, -mez and some others have regular final (unfixed) stress:
(d) Names formed from common words which already have a fixed accent retain the accent in the same place:
(e) Compounds (other than those listed above) are generally accented on the first element:
(f) Other exceptions:
As with all other words, names which are accented on the penultimate or antepenultimate retain the stress in the same place even when pre-accenting suffixes are added, while those accented on the final syllable behave like other final-accented words:.
Turkish personal names, unlike place names, have final accent:
When the speaker is calling someone by their name, the accent may sometimes move up:
Ordinary words also have a different accent in the vocative:
Some surnames have non-final stress:
Others have regular stress:
Foreign surnames tend to be accented on the penultimate syllable, regardless of the accent in the original language:
The majority of foreign words in Turkish, especially most of those from Arabic, have normal final stress:
The same is true of some more recent borrowings from western languages:
On the other hand, many other foreign words follow the Sezer rules. So words with a dactylic or cretic ending ( ¯ ˘ * ) often have antepenultimate accent:
Those with other patterns accordingly have penultimate accent:
Some have irregular stress, though still either penultimate or antepenultimate:
The accent on these last is not fixed, but moves to the end when non-preaccenting suffixes are added, e.g. istimbotlar ('steamboats'). However, words with non-final accent keep the accent in the same place, e.g. masalar ('tables').
The accent in phrases where one noun qualifies another is exactly the same as that of compound nouns. That is, the first noun usually retains its accent, and the second one loses it:
The same is true when an adjective or numeral qualifies a noun:
The same is also true of prepositional phrases:
An indefinite object or focussed definite object followed by a positive verb is also accented exactly like a compound, with an accent on the object only, not the verb:
Focus also plays a part in the accentuation of subject and verb. Thus in the first sentence below, the focus (the important information which the speaker wishes to communicate) is on "a man", and only the first word has an accent while the verb is accentless; in the second sentence the focus is on "came", which has the stronger accent:
When there are several elements in a Turkish sentence, the focussed word is often placed before the verb and has the strongest accent:.
For the same reason, a question-word such as kim ('who?') is placed immediately before the verb: