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Some irregular Spanish verbs with infinite in "-ir" seem to have an interesting pattern in their conjugation:

For some verbs with "o" as last vowel in the infinite stem (e.g. dormir, morir), the form of the last stem vowel in conjugated forms seem to follow the following pattern (examples are in italics):

stressed: ue (duermo, duerma)
unstressed, next vowel/diphthong i: o (dormimos, dormía)
unstressed, next vowel/diphthong ie/a/ió: u (durmieron, durmamos, durmió)

Similarly for some verbs with last vowel in the infinite stem "e" (e.g. mentir, sentir):

stressed: ie (siento, sienta)
unstressed, next vowel/diphthong i: e (sentimos, sentía)
unstressed, next vowel/diphthong ie/a/ió: i (sintieron, sintamos, sintió)

When looking as the unstressed vowel patterns in particular, this reminds me of vowel harmony.


  1. Does this qualify as vowel harmony at all?
  2. If so, where does this phenomenon come from in Spanish? I usually relate vowel harmony to Uralic/Turkic languages, but not IE/romance. Does a similar phenomenon appear in other IE/romance langauges?
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Why yes, Romance languages do have vowel harmony, or what the Romance linguistics literature likes to call metaphony. The following information on Spanish is all from Alkire & Rosen 2010, which is my only source of knowledge about Spanish phonology.

Alkire & Rosen 2010 devote subchapter 5.2 to "yod effects in Spanish". The effect of raising of a stressed vowel under the influence of a following high vowel gesture (anticipation) seems to be especially prominent in the verb system, where it has been largely morphologized. But you find it in nouns as well, so you have:

VĬTREU   'glassy'   vidrio   'glass'

SĒPIA   'cuttlefish'   jibia

PLŬVIA   'rain'   lluvia

The stressed vowels in Latin should have given Romance high mids, which in Spanish should go on to give you mids: [e] and [o]. Insead, what you you have is [i] and [u], evidence for anticipatory raising. Alkire & Rosen give many more examples.

Yod effects can also be found in Italian, but they're more restricted.

PŬGNU   'fist'   pugno

FAMILĬA   'family'   famiglia

CONSĬLIU   'counsel'   consiglio

Same story here as for Spanish, except it happens before [ɲ] and [ʎ]. There are other examples as well, including examples where the expected raising fails to happen.

French has a lot of yod-related effects too. See ch. 5.3 of Alikre & Rosen 2010.

Maybe someone else can fill us in on Portuguese. :)

Romanian has this stuff too, but it involves stressed low vowels alternating with mids before an [j] in the inflection (a-ə, e̯a-e, o̯a-o; note that the diphthongs are considered phonemic) and before an [e] in the plural marker (only e̯a-e). This correlates with gender in nouns and person in verbs, so it's also morphologized to a large extent. See Chitoran 2002 (abstract).


[mare]   'sea'   [mərj]   'seas'

[se̯arə]   'evening'   [serj]   'evenings'

[bo̯alə]   'disease'   [bolj]   'diseases'


[aratə]   ''   [arəʦj]   ''

[vise̯azə]   ''   [visezj]   ''

[do̯arme]   ''   [dormj]   ''

share|improve this answer
Quite a detailed answer! :) – Alenanno Oct 25 '12 at 10:23
Very cool stuff, thanks! I definitely need to spend more time to go through the whole answer, but just one thought. "Raising of a stressed vowel under the influence of a following high vowel" isn't what's happening in my examples, is it? It looks more like "raising of an unstressed vowel under the influence of a following mid/low vowel". – dainichi Oct 25 '12 at 10:29
@dainichi I got so excited about vowel harmony that I completely failed to read your examples. Some of those stem alternations in Spanish verbs are regular changes from Latin. Stressed low mids diphthongized in Spanish, giving you siento and duermo, vs. sentir and dormir. But your third forms, the preterites, do have metaphonic raising of unstressed vowels from [j] of -io and -ieron (only in -ir verbs). So you're right that this is for unstressed vowels, but I think it's only in verbs. Other yod-induced raising seems to be under stress, but sb correct me if that's not the case. – lapropriu Oct 25 '12 at 11:40
@lapropriu, actually, it's not only the preterites, but also the present subjunctive (sintamos, sintáis, durmamos, durmáis) where no [j] is following. – dainichi Oct 26 '12 at 0:30
@dainichi Romance metaphony is not a living, purely phonological process, so you won't always clearly see the conditioning context. There is evidence that it was once active in the language, but it might not be active any more. Additionally, there's the question of where morphology fits into the life-span of a phonological process, with stuff like paradigm leveling, morphologization etc. – lapropriu Oct 26 '12 at 17:37

While Lapropriu gives evidence for a sort of vowel harmony, diphthongizing "stem-changing" verbs are not an example of vowel harmony.

This is not restricted to -ir-conjugation verbs; other common ones are sentar (me siento 'I sit'; nos sentamos 'we sit') and perder (pierdo 'I lose'; perdemos 'we lose'). And there's nothing special about verbs; the same phenomenon occurs with stress alternation in nouns and adjectives. Example: /ˈθ Venezuela, /θo.ˈ venezolano. (Aside: This process is no longer productive; more recent forms do not alternate: Puerto Rico /ˈrˑi.ko/ corresponds to puertorriqueño /ˑi.ˈke.ɲo/, not */porto/-.)

Generally, the alternating diphthongizations are derived from Latin short /e/ and /o/. In Spanish, these vowels regularly become /je/ and /we/ in stressed syllables, and /e/ and /o/ in unstressed syllables. This accounts for the alternation between most such verb forms, which differ in stress. It occurs regardless of the other vowels in the word, so it is not vowel harmony. (Non-alternating /e/ and /o/ come from Latin /eː/ or /i/, resp. /oː/ or /u/.)

Demonstration: /e/ in contar diphthongizes in stressed syllables, when followed by a syllable starting with any of the possible vowels for the -ar conjugation: * /e/: present subjunctive 3sg -> cuente * /a/: present indicative 2sg (tú) -> cuentas * /o/: present indicative 1sg -> cuento

but never diphthongizes in unstressed syllables: * /e/: past perfective indicative 1sg -> conté * /a/: present indicative 2sg (vos) -> contás * /o/: past perfective indicative 3sg -> contó

More information: historical sound changes; conjugations.

You could argue that the raising mutations in ir-conjugation verbs are like vowel harmony, since they only occur in that conjugation, and depend somewhat on the vowel in the following syllable. But there doesn't seem to be any tendency to regularly place the same vowels in multiple classes, which would be needed for it to be vowel harmony.

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Thanks for the writeup, but the diphthongization is not the part I'm curious about as much as the change in unstressed vowels. I will make that clearer. – dainichi Oct 27 '12 at 12:45
Do you have any support for your statement that it has to be valid for multiple classes to be vowel harmony? By classes, what exactly do you mean? Even languages with very strong vowel harmony have some exceptions AFAIK, so I don't see how a language usually without vowel harmony can't have vowel harmony in some specific cases. – dainichi Oct 27 '12 at 13:04

There's also a completely separate vowel harmony process in some Spanish dialects that have an alternation between high and low vowel allophones. An open allophone at the end of a word triggers using the open allophone in preceding syllables' vowels.

Wikipedia gives some examples:

In Eastern Andalusian and Murcian Spanish, word-final /s/, /θ/ and /x/ (phonetically [h]) regularly weaken, and the preceding vowel is lowered and lengthened:

/is/ → [i̞ː] e.g. mis [mi̞ː] ('my' pl)
/es/ → [ɛː] e.g. mes [mɛː] ('month')
/as/ → [æ̞ː] e.g. más [mæ̞ː] ('plus')
/os/ → [ɔː] e.g. tos [tɔː] ('cough')
/us/ → [u̞ː] e.g. tus [tu̞ː] ('your' pl)

A subsequent process of vowel harmony takes place so that lejos ('far') is [ˈlɛxɔ], tenéis ('you all have') is [tɛˈnɛi] and tréboles ('clovers') is [ˈtɾɛβɔlɛ] or [ˈtɾɛβo̞lɛ].

They give a citation:

  • Lloret, Maria-Rosa (2007), "On the Nature of Vowel Harmony: Spreading with a Purpose", in Bisetto, Antonietta; Barbieri, Francesco, Proceedings of the XXXIII Incontro di Grammatica Generativa, pp. 15–35.
share|improve this answer
Why another answer? – Alenanno Jan 25 '13 at 11:13
@Alenanno: Because it's a separate unrelated process. – Mechanical snail Feb 6 '13 at 7:47
Oh I see, but there was no need to link me that. :P – Alenanno Feb 6 '13 at 10:19

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