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In linguistics, an alternation is the phenomenon of a phoneme or morpheme exhibiting variation in its phonological realization. Each of the various realizations is called an alternant. The variation may be conditioned by the phonological, morphological, and/or syntactic environment in which the morpheme finds itself.

Alternations provide linguists with data that allow them to determine the allophones and allomorphs of a language's phonemes and morphemes and to develop analyses determining the distribution of those allophones and allomorphs.


Phonologically conditioned alternation

An example of a phonologically conditioned alternation is the English plural marker commonly spelled s or es.[1] This morpheme is pronounced /s/, /z/, or /ɨz/, depending on the nature of the preceding sound.

  1. If the preceding sound is a sibilant consonant (one of /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/, or /dʒ/), the plural marker takes the form /ɨz/. Examples:
    • mass /ˈmæs/, plural masses /ˈmæsɨz/
    • fez /ˈfɛz/, plural fezzes /ˈfɛzɨz/
    • mesh /ˈmɛʃ/, plural meshes /ˈmɛʃɨz/
    • mirage /mɨˈrɑːʒ/, plural mirages /mɨˈrɑːʒɨz/
    • church /ˈtʃɜrtʃ/, plural churches /ˈtʃɜrtʃɨz/
    • bridge /ˈbrɪdʒ/, plural bridges /ˈbrɪdʒɨz/
  2. Otherwise, if the preceding sound is voiceless, the plural marker takes the likewise voiceless form /s/. Examples:
    • mop /ˈmɒp/, plural mops /ˈmɒps/
    • mat /ˈmæt/, plural mats /ˈmæts/
    • pack /ˈpæk/, plural packs /ˈpæks/
    • cough /ˈkɔːf/, plural coughs /ˈkɔːfs/
    • myth /ˈmɪθ/, plural myths /ˈmɪθs/
  3. Otherwise, the preceding sound is voiced, and the plural marker takes the likewise voiced form /z/.
    • dog /ˈdɒɡ/, plural dogs /ˈdɒɡz/
    • glove /ˈɡlʌv/, plural gloves /ˈɡlʌvz/
    • ram /ˈræm/, plural rams /ˈræmz/
    • doll /ˈdɒl/, plural dolls /ˈdɒlz/
    • toe /ˈtoʊ/, plural toes /ˈtoʊz/

Alternation related to meaning


Morphologically conditioned alternation

An example of a morphologically conditioned alternation is found in French, where many adjectives have a consonant at the end in the feminine gender that is missing in the masculine:[2]

  • masculine petit [pəti], feminine petite [pətit] "small"
  • masculine grand [ɡʁɑ̃], feminine grande [ɡʁɑ̃d] "tall"
  • masculine gros [ɡʁo], feminine grosse [ɡʁos] "big"
  • masculine joyeux [ʒwajø], feminine joyeuse [ʒwajøz] "merry"
  • masculine franc [fʁɑ̃], feminine franche [fʁɑ̃ʃ] "sincere"
  • masculine bon [bɔ̃], feminine bonne [bɔn] "good"

Syntactically conditioned alternation

Syntactically conditioned alternations can be found in the Insular Celtic languages, where words undergo various initial consonant mutations depending on their syntactic position.[3] For example, in Irish, an adjective undergoes lenition after a feminine singular noun:

  • unmutated mór [oːɾˠ] "big", mutated in bean mhór [bʲan woːɾˠ] "a big woman"

In Welsh, a noun undergoes soft mutation when it is the direct object of a finite verb:

  • unmutated beic [bəik] "bike", mutated in Prynodd y ddynes feic [ˈprənoð ə ˈðənɛs vəik] "The woman bought a bike"

See also


  1. ^ Cohn, Abigail (2001). "Phonology". in in Mark Aronoff and Janie Rees-Miller (eds.),. The Handbook of Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. pp. 202–203. ISBN 0-631-20497-0.  
  2. ^ Steriade, Donca (1999). "Lexical conservatism in French adjectival liaison". in in Jean-Marc Authier, Barbara E. Bullock and Lisa A. Reed (eds.),. Formal Perspectives in Romance Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 243–70. ISBN 90-272-3691-3.  
  3. ^ Green, Antony D. (2006). "The independence of phonology and morphology: The Celtic mutations". Lingua 116: 1946–85. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2004.09.002.  


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