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Bibliography to vocal harmony in African languages


The term “vocal harmony” indicates the phonological phenomenon that all vocals included in a certain area show the same phonological characteristic. In African languages, the vocal harmony typically is based on the mark [ATR] (advanced tongue root), that can be produced using the tongue root. [+ATR] describes the forward moved tongue root; [-ATR] or [RTR] (retracted tongue root) means the backwards located position of the tongue root. This attribute is used to differentiate the both following series of vocals: [+ATR]: i, u, e, o, ?: [-ATR]: ?, ?, ?, ?, ?.

Vocal harmony is specified by characteristics when one of both attributes (usually it is [+ATR]) is dominant and influences its environment, i.e. while affigation of a suffix including an [+ATR] vocal the stem vocal is assimilated. Whereas in root specified or stem specified vocal harmony the stem vocal remains stable and the vocals are adapted to the affixes. Progressive vocal harmony shows a distributional direction from left to right, in regressive vocal harmony it is from right to left and in bidirectional vocal harmony in both directions. “Irregularities” in spread of the harmonic attitude can be based on the appearance of opaque or neutral verbs. Opaque vocals prevent the dispersion while neutral vocals are transparent and do not react to vocal harmony.


The studies in vocal harmony in African languages began with Akan, which contains a bidirectional vocal harmony and appearances of palatalization. In this regard, there are plenty of essays which are recommendable to anyone, who is interested in comprehending the evolution of the theoretical discussion about vocal harmony. (also see Akan) The following bibliography shows that there is whether a regional nor a genetic limit on appearance. Languages containing vocal harmony are spread over the entire continent and find themselves in West, East and South Africa. Representatives of the three big families of language, the Nilo Saharan, the Afro Asian and the Niger Congo languages, imply vocals following the harmonic principle. Only in Khoisan languages there was –according to my knowledge- no vocal harmony found.

The bibliography was compiled during the course “Vocal harmony in African languages” during summer semester 2005, held by Ursula Drolc at the Institute for African Studies at the University of Cologne. It relies partly on an older bibliography (that was provided by Erhard Voeltz, who we would like to thank gratefully at this point), self-gained bibliographical references and the systematic research in STUDIES IN AFRICAN LINGUISTICS, JALL (Journal of African Languages and Linguistics), Linguistique Africaine, AAP (Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere), Afrika und Übersee, JAL (Journal of African Languages), Journal of West African Languages. For her help in research warm thanks to Nina Schauff.

(Ursula Drolc †)