Consonant mutation

Sound change and alternation

Consonant mutation is change in a consonant in a word according to its morphological or syntactic environment.

Mutation phenomena occur in languages around the world. A 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.

Similar sound changes

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.

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.



In Old English, velar stops were palatalized in certain cases and not in others. This resulted in some alternations. Many of these have been levelled, but traces occur in some word doublets such as ditch /dɪ/ and dike /daɪk/.

In the past tense of certain verbs, English also retains traces of several ancient sound developments such as *kt > *xt and *ŋx > *x; many of these have been further complicated following the loss of /x/ in the Middle English period.

The pair teach /tiːt͡ʃ/ : taught /tɔːt/ has a combination of both this and palatalization.

A second palatalization, called yod-coalescence, occurs in loanwords from Latin. One subtype affects the sibilant consonants: earlier /sj/ and /zj/ were palatalized, leading to an alternation between alveolar /s z/ and postalveolar /ʃ ʒ/.

Another, unproductive layer results from the Vulgar Latin palatalization of velar stops before front vowels, and is thus imported from the Romance languages. Here /k ɡ/ alternate with /s dʒ/.

A combination of inherited and loaned alternation also occurs: an alternation pattern *t : *sj was brought over in Latinate loanwords, which in English was then turned into an alternation between /t/ and /ʃ/.

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, Welsh and Cornish (both Brythonic languages) each have three (but not the same three) and Breton (also a Brythonic language) has four. Additionally, Irish and the Brythonic languages have so-called "mixed mutations", where a trigger causes 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 determiners trigger various mutations. Following are some examples from Breton, Irish, and Welsh:

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

Historically, the Celtic initial mutations originated from progressive assimilation and sandhi phenomena between adjacent words. For example, the mutating effect of the conjunction a 'and' is due to the fact that it used to have the form *ak, and the final consonant influenced the following sounds.[3]

For details see the articles on the individual languages:


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 are the alternation between velar and postalveolar consonants:

Other common mutations are:


Modern Hebrew shows a limited set of mutation alternations, involving spirantization only.[4] 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:

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

But some words do not have alternations:

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


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 濁, because voiced and unvoiced consonants are described in Japanese as opaque and clear.

Uralic languages

Main article: Consonant gradation

Word-medial consonant mutation is found in several Uralic languages, where it goes by the traditional name of consonant gradation. Gradation is pervasive especially in the Samic and Finnic branches.

Burmese language

The Burmese language exhibits consonant mutation, involving voicing in many compound words.

The primary type of consonant mutation is when two syllables are joined to form a compound word, the initial consonant of the second syllable becomes voiced. This shift occurs in the following phones:

Examples of this type include:

sʰéɪ (ဆေး) + á̃ (ခန်း) > sʰéɪ ɡá̃ ("medicine" + "room" → "clinic")

The second type of consonant mutation occurs when the phoneme /dʑ/, following the nasalized final /t/, can become a /j/ sound in compound words.

Examples of this type include:

"blouse" (အင်္ကျီ angkyi) can be pronounced /èɪɴí/ or /èɪɴjí/.

The third type of consonant mutation occurs when phonemes /p, pʰ, b, t, tʰ, d/, following the nasalized final /t/, can become /m/ in compound words. Examples include:

tàɪɴ (တိုင်) + pɪ̀ɴ (ပင်) > tàɪɴ mɪ̀ɴ (တိုင်ပင်) ("to consult")
táʊɴ (တောင်း) + pàɴ (ပန်) > táʊɴ màɴ ("to apologize")
lèi jɪ̀ɴ (လေယာဉ်) + pjàɴ (ပျံ) > lèɪɴ mjàɴ ("airplane")

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:

nan vano "I went"
nam bano "I go"

These patterns of mutations probably arose when a nasal prefix, used to indicate realis mood, became combined with the initial consonant of the verb.[5] The possible ancestral pattern of mutation, and its descendants in some modern Central Vanuatu languages, are shown below:

Proto-Central Vanuatu *k > *ŋk *r > *nr *p > *mp
Raga (Pentecost) x > ŋg t > d v / vw > b / bw
northern Apma (Pentecost) k > ŋg t > d v / w > b / bw
southern Apma (Pentecost) v / w > b / bw
Ske (Pentecost) z > d v / vw > b / bw
Lonwolwol (Ambrym) r > rV ∅ > bV
Southeast Ambrym x / h / ∅ > g t > d v / h > b
northern Paama ∅ > k t > r
central/southern Paama k / ∅ > g / ŋ t / r > d
Nāti (Malekula) k / ʔ > ŋk t / r > nt / ntr v / w > mp / mpw
Maii (Epi) t > d v > b
Lewo (Epi) v / w > p / pw
Lamenu (Epi) ∅ > p
Bierebo (Epi) k > ŋk t / c > nd / nj v / w > p / pw
Baki (Epi) c > s v > mb
Bieria (Epi) t > nd v > mb
Nakanamanga (Efaté-Shepherds) k > ŋ r > t v / w > p / pw
Namakir (Shepherds) k > ŋ t / r > d v / w > b


The Dholuo language (one of the Luo languages) shows alternations between voiced and voiceless states of the final consonant of a noun stem.[6] 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.)


Consonant mutation is a prominent feature of the Fula language. The Gombe dialect spoken in Nigeria, for example, shows mutation triggered by declension class.[7] 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 , ɡ ɲdʒ, ŋɡ
ɣ ɡ ŋɡ

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

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 sharing the same place of articulation as the initial consonant.

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

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

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

Verbs starting with a nasal or approximant consonant do not add the mutant nasal at all, just me-.[8]

The colloquial version lose me- prefix and instead tends to use nasalization process.[9]


Additional info in Latvian

Mutation Example
b→bj gulbis→gulbja
c→č lācis→lāča
d→ž briedis→brieža
dz→dž dadzis→dadža
g→dz lūgt→lūdzu
k→c liekt→liecu
l→ļ sīlis→sīļa
m→mj zeme→zemju
n→ņ zirnis→zirņa
p→pj krupis→krupja
r→r teteris→tetera
s→š lasis→laša
t→š vācietis→vācieša
v→vj cirvis→cirvja
z→ž vēzis→vēža

Also two consonants can mutate as a group.

Mutation Example
kst→kš pāksts→pākšu
ln→ļņ cilnis→ciļņa
sl→šļ kāpslis→kāpšļa
sn→šņ atkusnis→atkušņa
zl→žļ zizlis→zižļa
zn→žņ zvaigzne→zvaigžņu

Ute language

In the Ute language, also called Southern Paiute, there are three consonant mutations, which are triggered by different word-stems.[10] 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:

Artificial 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.


The philosophical Ithkuil language features a complex mutation pattern, with every root consonant having eight possible mutations of its base form. Idiosyncratically, these are all consonant clusters rather than single consonants. Its phonologically simpler successor Ilaksh retains the feature as well, though reduces the grades to three.

Further reading

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. Ternes, Elmar. 1986. A Grammatical hierarchy of joining. In: Andersen, Henning. Sandhi phenomena in the languages of Europe. P.17-18
  4. Glinert, Lewis (1989). The Grammar of Modern Hebrew. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Crowley T, 1991. Parallel Development and Shared Innovation: Some Developments in Central Vanuatu Inflectional Morphology. Oceanic Linguistics, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 179-222
  6. Stafford, R. (1967). The Luo language. Nairobi: Longmans.
  7. Arnott, D. W. (1970). The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. Examples adapted from Wikibooks:Indonesian prefix me
  9. id:Bahasa gaul
  10. 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. doi:10.2307/20026309.
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