Old habits die hard

I am reading Keith W. Slater’s “A Grammar of Mangghuer” (which is worth reading just for the overview it provides of the linguistic culture of Qinghai, indisputably the best province of China, Gansu is cool too), and he begins his overview by stating:

Morphosyntactically, Mangghuer shares most of the typical characteristics of Mongolic languages. It is an agglutinative, exclusively suffixing language with SOV basic word order.

Mangghuer exhibits generally head-final morphosyntactic behavior: objects always precede the verb; most nominal modifiers, including relative clauses, precede their head noun; and the language has postpositions.

Phonologically, though, Mangghuer most strongly resembles Sinitic. It has simple syllable structure, with a very restricted set of coda consonants and few onset clusters, and its inventory of phonemes and syllable types almost exactly mirrors that of nearby Chinese dialects. However, Mangghuer has a stress system, rather than the tone system typical of Sinitic.

But then in the chapter on phonology, he shows us the IPA chart for this Mongolian variety and reveals to us that Mangghuer has both a /q/ and a /qʰ/ phoneme. So even though they have replaced /ʃ/ with /ɕ/ and /ʂ/ (and of course the same process for the affricates and the aspirated affricates) in true Han style, they still insist on hanging onto /q/ like good Central Asians. This means that their name is pronounced /maŋ’qwɚ/, which you have to admit sounds more majestic.

I don’t know if Mongols always had a /q/ phoneme or if it was traditionally a back variant of /k/, but among Turks traditionally the /q/ was a (back) phonetic realisation of the /k/. However, as most Turks today utilise extensive Arabic and Persian vocabulary, in many varieties /q/ has developed into an independent phoneme. One consequence of heavy use of Arabic and Persian vocabulary in Turkic varieties has been that certain consonants, which originally had a back and front phonetic realisation, have a confusing habit of being unified as one phoneme in the Turkic vocabulary but split into two seperate phonemes, one palatal and one velar (or uvular), in the loanwords.

For example, Turks have a velar and a palatal /l/ (the former for back vowels, the latter for front vowels), but most Russian, French and Arabic loanwords with “l” are palatal in all cases. This “forces” the suffixes to the front, as in “haller” and “alkolsüz”. The “k-q” question is also pertinent, with the Persian suffix “كه” (ke) obeying labial harmony, but not palatal harmony: “oradaki” and “bugünkü“.

Observent readers will note that I only provided examples from Turkey. This is not because this issue is unique to Turkey (several Turkic varieties presently have a similar “problem”), but because people in Turkey are so bad at dealing with it orthographically (for all my complaints about Uzbekistan’s alphabet, this is one issue they don’t have). As Lewis mentions in “The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success”, this problem vexed the early Kemalists, and they even attempted to introduce the letter “q” in a similar capacity to modern Albanian (for the palatal, not the uvular/velar, hence: Qazım Koyuncu):

But this would not have dealt with the same problem with “g” and “l”. In the example I gave above, “haller”, many well-intentioned but ignorant people will tell you that the frontness is easily enough indicated with the use of “â”: “Hâller”. Sounds good in that example, but what of “rüzgârlar”, where the the “â” represents the palatalisation of the preceding consonant?

Fortunately, the underlying logic of the language tends to come to the rescue. If one googles “liberaller” and “liberallar”, one notes that both are in use (only the former is endorsed by the Ottomanist and Eurocentric, however). Although “hallar” is not in use in Turkey (it is too common and thus too easy to remember as an “exception”, like “saat”, which is front for altogether different reasons), it is perfectly normal in Türkmenistan (where “h” is pronounced /x/ next to back vowels). Perhaps one day the Turks of the world will save themselves a lot of headache and admit that it’s better to just follow Turkmenistan’s example in all things.

In ALL things.

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