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Colloquium 7 (17th September, 10AM): Seongyeon Ko (Queens College, CUNY)

Revisiting the Northeast Asian Vowel Shift

The seventh colloquium held at the Department of Linguistics, SNU in 2021 is “Revisiting the Northeast Asian Vowel Shift” by Seongyeon Ko.

The speaker currently works at Queens College of The City University of New York, USA. He acquired his PhD in Linguistics from Cornell University in 2012.


Proto languages and the earliest attested languages of Northeast Asia, including Proto-Turkic, Proto-Mongolic, Old Korean, and even the controversial Proto-Altaic, all have long been assumed to have had a palatal velar harmony. In the last decade, Ko (2011, 2013, 2018, 2020), Ko et al. (2014), Joseph et al. (2020) have rejected this conventional view and instead presented a revised view that the original vowel harmony was of a tongue root type, which may have shifted to a palatal-velar harmony in Turkic as well as in one branch of Mongolic languages (Kalmyk-Oirat).

Recently, Barrere & Janhunen (2019) have argued against this revisionist view and, for the first time, presented six concrete arguments in favor of the conventional view on Proto-Mongolic vowel harmony. They further extended their analysis to other languages in the area, such as Tungusic and Korean, and claimed that the proposed shift from a palatal-velar harmony to a tongue root harmony was indeed a major areal phenomenon, i.e., what they call Northeast Asian Vowel Shift.

In this talk, I will first provide an overview of the debate on the vowel shift hypotheses of Northeast Asian languages. Then, I will critically evaluate and discredit Barrere & Janhunen’s key arguments and promote my own revisionist view. (This talk is a slightly revised version of my recent talk at KLCC 2021 and will be delivered in Korean.)

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