Uyghur phonology

This article covers the phonology of the Uyghur language. Uyghur, a Turkic language spoken primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region features both vowel harmony and some vowel reduction also plays a role.


Front Back
Close ɪ ʏ (ɯ) u
Mid e ø o
Open æ ɑ

Uyghur vowels are by default short, but some phonologists[who?] have argued that long vowels also exist because of historical vowel assimilation (above) and through loanwords. Underlyingly long vowels would resist vowel reduction and devoicing, introduce non-final stress, and be analyzed as |Vj| or |Vr| before a few suffixes. However, the conditions in which they are actually pronounced as distinct from their short counterparts have not been fully researched.[1]

Official Uyghur orthographies do not mark vowel length, and also do not distinguish between /ɪ/ (e.g., بىلىم /bɪlɪm/ 'knowledge') and back /ɯ/ (e.g., تىلىم /tɯlɯm/ 'my language'); these two sounds are in complementary distribution, but phonological analyses claim that they play a role in vowel harmony and are separate phonemes.[2]

The high vowels /ɪ/, /ʊ/, and /ʏ/ are devoiced in non-stressed positions when they occur between two voiceless consonants, or in word-initial position before a voiceless consonant: e.g. uka [ʊ̥kɑ] 'older brother', pütün [pʏ̥tʏn] 'entire', ikki [ɪ̥kkɪ].

/e/ only occurs in words of non-Turkic origin and as the result of vowel raising.[3]

Vowel reduction[edit]

Uyghur has two processes of systematic vowel reduction (or vowel raising):

  1. Unrounded non-high vowels (/ɑ/ and /æ/) in initial open syllables followed by /ɪ/ are changed to /e/.
  2. Unrounded vowels in other non-final open syllables are changed to /ɪ/.

The former process is applied before the latter; As with other phenomena, long vowels are exempt. For example:

/ɑl + ɪŋ//elɪŋ/ (cf. Turkish alın) 'take!'
/ɑtɑ + lɑr + ɪmɪz//ɑtɪlɪrɪmɪz/ (cf. Turkish atalarımız) 'our fathers' (not *[etɪlɪrɪmɪz] in Uyghur because reduction to /e/ can only be applied before reduction to /ɪ/ in a word)
/ɑt + ɪm//etɪm/ (cf. Turkish atım) 'my horse')
/pæːr + ɪm//pæ(ː)rɪm/ 'my feather' (in some loanwords, vowel raising does not occur)

Vowel harmony[edit]

Uyghur, like other Turkic languages, displays vowel harmony. Words usually agree in vowel backness, but compounds, loans, and some other exceptions often break vowel harmony. Suffixes surface with the rightmost [back] value in the stem, and /e, ɪ/ are transparent (as they don't contrast for backness). Uyghur also has rounding harmony.[4]


Labial Dental Post-
Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop p b t d t͡ʃ d͡ʒ k ɡ q ʁ ʔ
Fricative (f) (v) s z ʃ ʒ x h
Trill r
Approximant l j w

Uyghur voiceless stops are aspirated word-initially and intervocalically.[5] The pairs /p, b/, /t, d/, /k, ɡ/, and /q, ʁ/ alternate, with the voiced member devoicing in syllable-final position, except in word-initial syllables. This devoicing process is usually reflected in the official orthography, but an exception has been recently made for certain Perso-Arabic loans.[6] Voiceless phonemes do not become voiced in standard Uyghur.[7]

Suffixes display a slightly different type of consonant alternation. The phonemes /ɡ/ and /ʁ/ anywhere in a suffix alternate as governed by vowel harmony, where /ɡ/ occurs with front vowels and /ʁ/ with back ones. Devoicing of a suffix-initial consonant can occur only in the cases of /d/[t], /ɡ/[k], and /ʁ/[q], when the preceding consonant is voiceless. Lastly, the rule that /ɡ/ must occur with front vowels and /ʁ/ with back vowels can be broken when either [k] or [q] in suffix-initial position becomes assimilated by the other due to the preceding consonant being such.[8]

Stops and affricates lenite when preceding a dissimilar consonant. /t͡ʃ/ goes to [ʃ], /d͡ʒ/ to [ʒ], /k/ to [ç], and /q/ to [χ]. /ɡ/ goes to /ɣ/ in word-initial syllables, but in non-initial syllables, /ɡ/ and /ʁ/ behave like their unvoiced equivalents and go to [ç] and [χ] respectively.[5] These changes are not reflected in orthography, except when /b/ lenites to [v] or [w] as <w>. Similarly, /h/ tends to become [χ] before another consonant.[9] Lenition also occurs in certain intervocalic contexts, e.g. /b/ lenites to [β] and /ɡ/ as [ɣ] (not marked).[10]

Uyghur displays vocalic assimilation, atypical among Turkic languages. Syllable-final /r/, /l/, and /j/ are optionally assimilated to the preceding vowel which is lengthened, in the case of e and u, made lower and less tense; e.g., xelqler [xæːqlæː] ‘the nations’. However, this never occurs when /l/ and /j/ are word final. This phenomenon occurs most common in colloquial speech, but is often avoided when reciting, reading, or singing. As a result, Uyghur speakers often hypercorrect by inserting an [r] after a long vowel where there is no phonemic /r/, especially after attaching a vowel-initial suffix (e.g. bina 'building', binarim or binayim 'my building'). In addition, although this is not represented orthographically, a few cases of "r-deletion" have been lexicalized, such as تۆت töt ('four').[11]

Loan phonemes have influenced Uyghur to various degrees. /d͡ʒ/ and /x/ were borrowed from Arabic and have been nativized, while /ʒ/ from Persian less so. /f/ only exists in very recent Russian and Chinese loans, since Perso-Arabic (and older Russian and Chinese) /f/ became Uyghur /p/. Perso-Arabic loans have also made the contrast between /k, ɡ/ and /q, ʁ/ phonemic, as they occur as allophones in native words, the former set near front vowels and the latter near a back vowels. Some speakers of Uyghur distinguish /v/ from /w/ in Russian loans, but this is not represented in most orthographies. Other phonemes occur natively only in limited contexts, i.e. /h/ only in few interjections, /d/, /ɡ/, and /ʁ/ rarely initially, and /z/ only morpheme-final. Therefore, the pairs */t͡ʃ, d͡ʒ/, */ʃ, ʒ/, and */s, z/ do not alternate.[12][13]


The primary syllable structure of Uyghur is CV(C)(C).[14] Uyghur syllable structure is usually CV or CVC, but CVCC can also occur in some words. When syllable-coda clusters occur, CC tends to become CVC in some speakers especially if the first consonant is not a sonorant. In Uyghur, any consonant phoneme can occur as the syllable onset or coda, except for /ʔ/ which only occurs in the onset and /ŋ/, which never occurs word-initially. In general, Uyghur phonology tends to simplify phonemic consonant clusters by means of elision and epenthesis.[15]



  1. ^ Hahn 1998, p. 380
  2. ^ Hahn 1991, p. 34
  3. ^ Vaux 2001
  4. ^ Vaux 2001, pp. 1–2
  5. ^ a b Hahn 1991, p. 89
  6. ^ Hahn 1991, pp. 84–86
  7. ^ Hahn 1991, pp. 82–83
  8. ^ Hahn 1991, pp. 80–84
  9. ^ Hahn 1991, p. 74
  10. ^ Hahn 1991, p. 86
  11. ^ Hahn 1991, pp. 86–87
  12. ^ Hahn 1998, pp. 381–382
  13. ^ Hahn 1991, pp. 59–84
  14. ^ Ethnologue: Uyghur
  15. ^ Hahn 1991, pp. 22–26