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Sound change and alternation
Fortition (strengthening)

Consonant mutation is the phenomenon in which a consonant in a word is changed according to its morphological and/or syntactic environment.

Mutation phenomena are found in languages around the world. The prototypical example of consonant mutation is the initial consonant mutation of all modern Celtic languages. Initial consonant mutation is also found in Indonesian or Malay, in Southern Paiute and in several West African languages such as Fula. The Nilotic language Dholuo, spoken in Kenya, shows mutation of stem-final consonants, as does English to a small extent. Mutation of initial, medial, and final consonants is found in Modern Hebrew. Japanese exhibits word medial consonant mutation involving voicing, rendaku, in many compounds.


Celtic languages

The Celtic languages are well known for their initial consonant mutations.[1][2] The individual languages vary on the number of mutations available: the Goidelic languages Scottish Gaelic, Manx and Irish have two, and the Brythonic languages Welsh, Breton and Cornish each have three (but not the same three). Additionally, Irish and the Brythonic languages have so-called "mixed mutations", where a trigger will cause one mutation to some sounds and another to other sounds. The languages vary on the environments for the mutations, though some generalizations can be made. In all the languages, feminine singular nouns are mutated after the definite article, and adjectives are mutated after feminine singular nouns. In most of the languages, the possessive adjectives trigger various mutations. Following are some examples from Breton, Irish and Welsh:

Breton Irish Welsh Gloss
gwreg bean gwraig woman
bras mór mawr big
ar wreg vras an bhean mhór y wraig fawr the big woman
kazh cat cath cat
e gazh a chat ei gath his cat
he c'hazh a cat ei chath her cat
o c'hazh a gcat eu cath their cat

Older textbooks on Gaelic sometimes refer to the c → ch mutation as "aspiration", but it is not aspiration in the sense of the word used by modern phoneticians, and linguists prefer to speak of lenition here.

For details see the articles on the individual languages:

Another type of consonant mutation found in the Celtic languages is affection.


The Dholuo language (one of the Luo languages) shows alternations between voiced and voiceless states of the final consonant of a noun stem.[3] In the construct state (the form that means 'hill of', 'stick of', etc.) the voicing of the final consonant is switched from the absolute state. (There are also often vowel alternations that are independent of consonant mutation.)

  • t 'hill' (abs.), god (const.)
  • θ 'stick' (abs.), luð (const.)
  • do 'appearance' (abs.), kit (const.)
  • tʃogo 'bone' (abs.), tʃok (const.)
  • buk 'book' (abs.), bug (const.)
  • kɪtabu 'book' (abs.), kɪtap (const.)


Consonant mutation is a prominent feature of the Fula language. The Gombe dialect spoken in Nigeria, for example, shows mutation triggered by declension class.[4] The mutation grades are Fortition and Prenasalization:

Radical Fortition Prenasalization
f p p
s ʃ ʃ
h k k
w b mb
r d nd
j , g ɲdʒ, ŋg
ɣ g ŋg

For example, the stems rim- 'free man' and [ɣim-] 'person' have the following forms:

  • [rimɓe] (class 2), dimo (class 1), ndimon (class 6)
  • [ɣimɓe] (class 2), gimɗo (class 1), ŋgimkon (class 6)


Modern Hebrew shows a limited set of mutation alternations, involving spirantization only.[5] The consonants affected may be stem-initial, stem-medial, or stem-final.

Radical Spirantized
p f
k x
b v

For example, some verbs show mutation between tenses and conjugation classes:

  • [katav] "he wrote", [jixtov] "he will write"
  • [hitbia] "he sank" (transitive), [tava] "he sank" (intransitive)

Some nouns show mutation between masculine and feminine, between singular and plural, or after prepositions:

  • [melex] "a king", [malka] "a queen", [melaxim] "kings", [melaxot] (spoken Hebrew, [malkot])
  • [dov] "a bear" (masc.), [duba] "a bear" (fem.), [dubim] "bears" (masc.), [dubot] "bears" (fem.)
  • [bajit] "a house", [be-vajit] "in a house" (in spoken Modern Hebrew: [be-bajit]

But not all words have alternations:

  • [xatav] "he hacked", [jaxtov] "he will hack" (diachronically, this is due to etymologyical, unmutated, ח)
  • [tov] "good", [tovin]/[tovim] "goods"
  • [kibut͡s] "a kibbutz", [be-kibut͡s] "in a kibbutz"

In some limited cases, initial mutation can signal adverbial status in spoken Modern Hebrew:

  • [bakaʃa] "a request", [be-vakaʃa] "please" (spoken or written, "בבקשה"), [vakʃa] "please" (spoken, informal).

Indonesian and Malay

The active form of a multisyllabic verb with an initial stop consonant or fricative consonant is formed by prefixing the verb stem with meN-, in which N stands for a nasal consonant sharing the place of articulation as the initial consonant.

  • garuk → menggaruk (= to scratch), hitung → menghitung (= to count),
  • beri → memberi (= to give), fitnah → memfitnah (= to accuse falsely),
  • cari → mencari (= to search), dapat → mendapat (= to obtain), *jangkau → menjangkau (= to reach)

If the initial consonant is an unvoiced stop or s, it disappears, leaving only the nasal in its place.

  • kandung → mengandung (= to contain or to be pregnant),
  • putih → memutih (= to turn white),
  • satu → menyatu (= to become one / to unite),
  • tulis → menulis (= to write).

Applied to verbs starting with a vowel, the nasal consonant is realized as ng ([ŋ]).

Monosyllabic verbs add an epenthetic vowel before prefixing, producing the prefix menge-.

  • bor (= boring tool / drill) → mengebor (= to make a hole with drill).

Verbs starting with a nasal or approximant consonant do not add the mutant nasal at all, just me-.[6]


Rendaku (meaning sequential voicing) is a mutation of the initial consonant of a non-initial component in a Japanese compound word. Some compounds exhibiting rendaku:
nigiri + sushi → nigirizushi ("grip (with the hand)" + "sushi" → "hand-shaped sushi")
nigori + sake → nigorizake ("muddy" + "rice wine" → "unfiltered sake")

Nigori in "nigorizake" and the daku in "rendaku" are actually different readings (see On-yomi and Kun-yomi) of the same kanji , because voiced and unvoiced consonants are described in Japanese as opaque and clear.


In Russian, consonant mutation and alternations are a very common phenomenon during word formation, conjugation and in comparative adjectives.

The most common classes of mutations involve

  • velar/postalveolar alternation /k//tɕ/ (к→ч), /g//ʐ/ (г→ж), /x//ʂ/ (х→ш): тихий/тише (comparative adjective: quiet→quieter)
  • Gain/loss of palatalization: царь/царский (adjective formation: tsar (n.)/ tsar (adj.))

Other common mutations are:

  • /t//tɕ/ / /d//ʐ/:
  • /z//ʐ/ / /s//ʂ/ / /ts//tɕ/
  • /sk//ɕː/ (ск→щ): плеск → плещет "splash" / "(he) splashes"

Ute language

In the Ute language, also called Southern Paiute, there are three consonant mutations, which are triggered by different word-stems.[7] The mutations are Spirantization, Gemination, and Prenasalization:

Radical Spirantization Gemination Prenasalization
p v pp mp
t r tt nt
k ɣ kk ŋk
ɣʷ kkʷ ŋkʷ
ts   tts nts
s   ss  
m ŋkʷ mm mm
n   nn nn

For example, the absolutive suffix -pi appears in different forms, according to which noun stem it is suffixed to:

  • movi-ppi 'nose'
  • sappI-vi 'belly'
  • aŋo-mpi 'tongue'

Central Vanuatu languages

Mutation of the initial consonant of verbs is a characteristic feature of many Austronesian languages spoken in central Vanuatu.

For example, in Raga language, verbs whose root forms begin with v, vw, g or t change this to b, bw, ngg and d respectively in certain environments:

nan vano "I went"
nam bano "I go"
nan toronia "I liked it"
nam doronia "I like it"

Fictional languages


The Sindarin language created by J. R. R. Tolkien has mutation patterns inspired by those of Welsh. The first letter of a noun usually undergoes mutation when the noun follows a closely associated word such as an article or preposition. Thus, we get certh, rune, and i gerth, the rune. Also, second elements of compounds and direct objects of verbs undergo mutation.

Mutation vs. sandhi

Initial consonant mutation must not be confused with sandhi, which can refer to word-initial alternations triggered by their phonological environment, unlike mutations, which are triggered by their morphosyntactic environment. Some examples of word-initial sandhi are listed below.

  • Spanish: [b, d, g], occurring after nasal consonants and pause, alternate with [β, ð, ɣ], occurring after vowels and liquid consonants. Example: un [b]arco 'a boat', mi [β]arco 'my boat'.
  • Scottish Gaelic: in some dialects, stops in stressed syllables are voiced after nasals, e.g. [aht] 'a cat', [əŋ gaht] 'the cat'.

Sandhi effects like these (or other phonological processes) are usually the historical origin of morphosyntactically triggered mutation. For example, the English fricative mutation described above originates in an allophonic alternation of Old English, where a voiced fricative occurred between vowels (or other voiced consonants), and a voiceless one occurred initially or finally, and also when adjacent to voiceless consonants. Old English infinitives ended in -(i)an and plural nouns (of one very common declension class) ended in -as. Thus, hūs 'a house' had [s], while hūsas 'houses' and hūsian 'to house' had [z]. After most endings were lost in English, and the contrast between voiced and voiceless fricatives phonemicized (largely due to the influx of French loanwords), the alternation was morphologized.

Further reading

  • Zimmer, Stefan. The Celtic Mutations: some typological comparisons. A Companion in Linguistics, a Festschrift for Anders Ahlqvist, ed. B. Smelik, R. Hofman, C. Hamans, D. Cram. Nijmegen: de Keltische Draak / Münster: Nodus 2004, 127-140.

See also


  1. ^ Ball, M. J.; N. Müller (1992). Mutation in Welsh. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-03165-6.  
  2. ^ Fife, James; Gareth King (1998). "Celtic (Indo-European)". in in Andrew Spencer and Arnold M. Zwicky (eds.),. The Handbook of Morphology. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 477–99. ISBN 0-631-22694-X.  
  3. ^ Stafford, R. (1967). The Luo language. Nairobi: Longmans.  
  4. ^ Arnott, D. W. (1970). The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  
  5. ^ Glinert, Lewis (1989). The Grammar of Modern Hebrew. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  
  6. ^ Examples adapted from Wikibooks:Indonesian_prefix_me
  7. ^ Sapir, Edward (1930). "The Southern Paiute Language (Part I): Southern Paiute, a Shoshonean Language". Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 65: 1–296.  

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