Metathesis (linguistics)

Sound change and alternation

Metathesis (/məˈtæθəsɪs/; from Greek μετάθεσις, from μετατίθημι "I put in a different order"; Latin: trānspositiō) is the rearranging of sounds or syllables in a word or of words in a sentence. Most commonly, it refers to the switching of two or more contiguous sounds, known as adjacent metathesis[1] or local metathesis:[2]

Metathesis may also involve switching non-contiguous sounds, known as nonadjacent metathesis, long-distance metathesis,[1] or hyperthesis:[3]

Many languages have words that show this phenomenon, and some even use it as a regular part of their grammar, such as Hebrew and Fur. The process of metathesis has altered the shape of many familiar words in English as well.

The original form before metathesis may be deduced from older forms of words in the language's lexicon or, if no forms are preserved, from phonological reconstruction. In some cases, including English "ask" (see below), it is not possible to settle with certainty on the original version.

Rhetorical metathesis

Dionysius of Halicarnassus was a historian and scholar in rhetoric living in 1st century BC Greece. He analysed classical texts and applied several revisions to make them sound more eloquent. One of the methods he used was re-writing documents on a mainly grammatical level: changing word and sentence orders would make texts more fluent and 'natural', he suggested. He called this way of re-writing metathesis.



Metathesis is responsible for some common speech errors, such as children acquiring spaghetti as pasketti. The pronunciation /ˈæsk/ for ask, now considered standard, descends from a northern version of the verb that in most midland and southern texts through the 1500s was spelled with x or cs, showing pronunciation as /ˈæks/. Chaucer, Caxton, and the Coverdale Bible use ax; Shakespeare and the King James Bible have ask.[4]

Some other frequent English pronunciations that display metathesis are:

The process has shaped many English words historically. Bird and horse came from Old English bridd and hros; wasp and hasp were also written wæps and hæps. Likewise, it explains why the r moved after the vowel in third and thirteen, even though they originally had it before like three still does.

The Old English beorht "bright" underwent metathesis to bryht, which became Modern English bright.

The Old English þrēo "three" formed þridda "thrid" and þrēotene "thriteen". These underwent metathesis to forms which became Modern English third and thirteen.

The Old English verb wyrċan "to work" had the passive participle ġeworht "worked". This underwent metathesis to wroht, which became Modern English wrought.

The Old English þyrl "hole" underwent metathesis to þryl. This gave rise to a verb þrylian "pierce", which became Modern English thrill, and formed the compound nosþryl "nose-hole" which became Modern English nostril.

Metathesis is also a common feature of the West Country dialects.

Some people call the mercury compound thiomersal thimerosal, resulting from metathesis of the o and mer.


Deliberate metathesis occurs extensively in the informal French pattern of speech called verlan (itself an example: verlan < l'envers, meaning 'the reverse'). In verlan new words are created from existing words by reversing the order of syllables. Verlanization is applied mostly to two-syllable words and the new words that are created are typically considerably less formal than the originals, or take on a slightly different meaning. The process often involves considerably more changes than simple metathesis of two phonemes but this forms the basis for verlan as a linguistic phenomenon. Some of these words have become part of standard French.

A few well known examples are:

Some words were metathesized more than once:

Ordinary metathesis exists as well and has shaped some words, such as fromage (from formage, "shaping").


Old Spanish showed occasional metathesis when phonemes not conforming to the usual euphonic constraints were joined. This happened, for example, when a clitic pronoun was attached to a verb ending: it is attested that forms like dejadle "leave [plural] him" were often metathesized to dejalde (the phoneme cluster /dl/ does not occur elsewhere in Spanish). The Spanish name for Algeria (Argelia) is likely a metathesis of the Arabic name for the territory (al-Jazāʼir).

Lunfardo, an argot of Spanish from Buenos Aires, is fond of vesre, metathesis of syllables. The word vesre itself is an example:

Gacería, an argot of Castile, incorporates metathesized words:

Some frequently heard pronunciations in Spanish display metathesis:


In Greek, the present stem often consists of the root with a suffix of y (ι˰ in Greek). If the root ends in the vowel a or o, and the consonant n or r, the y switches position with the consonant and is written i:

For metathesis of vowel length, which occurs frequently in Attic and Ionic Greek, see quantitative metathesis.


Some common mispronunciations of Danish words employ metathesis:

But metathesis has also historically changed some words:

Slavic languages

Metathesis of liquid consonants is an important historical change during the development of the Slavic languages: a syllable-final liquid metathesized to become syllable-initial, therefore e.g. Polish mleko vs. English milk.


In western dialects of Finnish, historical stem-final /h/ has been subject to metathesis (it is lost in standard Finnish). That leads to variant word forms:

Some words have been standardized in the metathetized form,:

Sporadic examples include the word vihr "green", which derives from older viherä, and the vernacular change of the word juoheva "jovial" to jouheva (also a separate word meaning "bristly").


In case of a narrow range of Hungarian nouns, metathesis of a h sound and a liquid consonant occurs in nominative case, but the original form is preserved in accusative and other suffixed forms:

Egyptian Arabic

A common example of metathesis in Egyptian Arabic is when the order of the word's root consonants has changed.

The following examples of metathesis have been identified in Egyptian Arabic texts, but are not necessarily more common than their etymological spellings:[7]

The following loanwords are also sometimes found with metathesis:

The likely cause for metathesis in the word "hospital" is that the result resembles a common word pattern familiar to Arabic speakers (namely a Form X verbal noun).


In Hebrew the verb conjugation (binyan) hitpaēl (התפעל) undergoes metathesis if the first consonant of the root is an alveolar or postalveolar fricative. Namely, the pattern hiṯ1a22ē3 (where the numbers signify the root consonants) becomes hi1ta22ē3. Examples:

Hebrew also features isolated historical examples of metathesis. For example, the words כֶּֽבֶשׂ keves[8] and כֶּֽשֶׂב kesev[9] (meaning "lamb") both appear in the Torah.


Amharic has a few minor patterns of metathesis, as shown by Wolf Leslau.[10] For example, 'matches' [kǝbrit] is sometimes pronounced as [kǝrbit], [mogzit] 'nanny' is sometimes pronounced as [mozgit]. The word 'Monday" is [säɲo], which is the base for 'Tuesday' [maksäɲo], which is often metathesized as [maskäɲo]. All of these examples show a pair of consonants reversed so that the stop begins the next syllable.


The following are examples of argot used in the entertainment industry.


In Navajo, verbs have (often multiple) morphemes prefixed onto the verb stem. These prefixes are added to the verb stem in a set order in a prefix positional template. Although prefixes are generally found in a specific position, some prefixes change order by the process of metathesis.

For example, prefix 'a- (3i object pronoun) usually occurs before di-, as in

adisbąąs 'I'm starting to drive some kind of wheeled vehicle along' [ < 'a- + di- + sh- + ł + -bąąs].

However, when 'a- occurs with the prefixes di- and ni-, the 'a- metathesizes with di-, leading to an order of di- + 'a- + ni-, as in

diʼnisbąąs 'I'm in the act of driving some vehicle (into something) & getting stuck' [ < di-ʼa-ni-sh-ł-bąąs < 'a- + di- + ni- + sh- + ł + -bąąs]

instead of the expected *adinisbąąs ('a-di-ni-sh-ł-bąąs) (note also that 'a- is reduced to '-).


The words pȟaŋkéska and kȟaŋpéska are dialectal variants of the same word, meaning "abalone" or "porcelain".[12]


The Rotuman language of Rotuman Island (a part of Fiji) uses metathesis as a part of normal grammatical structure by inverting the ultimate vowel with the immediately preceding consonant.

Straits Saanich

In Straits Saanich metathesis is used as a grammatical device to indicate "actual" aspect. The actual aspect is most often translated into English as a be ... -ing progressive. The actual aspect is derived from the "nonactual" verb form by a CV → VC metathetic process (i.e. consonant metathesizes with vowel).

     T̵X̱ÉT 'shove' (nonactual) T̵ÉX̱T 'shoving' (actual)
     ṮPÉX̱ 'scatter' (nonactual) ṮÉPX̱ 'scattering' (actual)
     T̸L̵ÉQ 'pinch' (nonactual) T̸ÉL̵Q 'pinching' (actual)

See Montler (1986), Thompson & Thompson (1969) for more information.


From a comparative study of Dravidian vocabularies, one can observe that the retroflex consonants (ʈ, ɖ, ɳ, ɭ, ɻ) and the liquids of the alveolar series (r, ɾ, l) do not occur initially in common Dravidian etyma, but Telugu has words with these consonants at the initial position. It was shown that the etyma underwent a metathesis in Telugu, when the root word originally consisted of an initial vowel followed by one of the above consonants. When this pattern is followed by a consonantal derivative, metathesis has occurred in the phonemes of the root-syllable with the doubling of the suffix consonant (if it had been single); when a vowel derivative follows, metathesis has occurred in the phonemes of the root syllable attended by a contraction of the vowels of root and (derivative) suffix syllables.[13] These statements and the resulting sequences of vowel contraction may be summed up as follows:

Type 1: V1C1-C² > C1V1-C²C²

Type 2: V1C1-V²- > C1V1-



Two types of metathesis are observed in Turkish. The examples given are from Anatolian Turkish, though the closely related Azerbaijani language is better known for its metathesis:

Urdu and Hindi

Like many other natural languages Urdu and Hindi also have metathesis like in this diachronic example:

Sanskrit जन्म (جنمہ) janma /dʒənmə/ > Urdu جنم and Hindi जनम janam /dʒənəm/ "Birth"[14]

American Sign Language

In ASL, several signs which have a pre-specified initial and final location can have the order of these two locations reversed in contexts which seem to be purely phonological. While not possible with all signs, this does happen with quite a few. For example, the sign DEAF, prototypically made with the '1' handshape making contact first with the cheek and then moving to contact the jaw (as in the sentence FATHER DEAF), can have these locations reversed if the preceding sign, when part of the same constituent, has a final location more proximal to the jaw (as in the sentence MOTHER DEAF). Both forms of the sign DEAF are acceptable to native signers.[15]

In popular culture

See also


  1. 1 2 Strazny, Philipp (2005). Encyclopedia of Linguistics. 2, M–Z. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn. p. 679.
  2. van Oostendorp, Marc; et al. (eds.). The Blackwell Companion to Phonology. Volume III, Phonological Processes. Oxford: Blackwell. p. 1381.
  3. Trask, Robert Lawrence (2000). The Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 211.
  4. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd. ed., under "ask".
  5. With a non-rhotic schwa, this is a normal British pronunciation
  6. Hinds, Martin; Badawi, El-Said, eds. (1986). A Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic. Lebanon: Librairie du Liban. p. 175. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. El-Farnawany, Refaat (1980). Ägyptisch-Arabisch als geschriebene Sprache: Probleme der Verschriftung einer Umgangssprache [Egyptian Arabic as a written language: the problems of spelling a colloquial language] (Thesis) (in German). Erlangen-Nürnberg: Friedrich-Alexander-Universität. p. 158.
  8. Cf. Leviticus 4:32
  9. Cf. Leviticus 3:7
  10. p. 27, 28. Wolf Leslau. 1995. Reference Grammar of Amharic. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden.
  11. at Kotobank (in Japanese)
  12. New Lakota Dictionary, Lakota Language Consortium, 2008
  13. Krishnamurti, Bhadriraju Telugu Verbal Bases Motilal Banarsidass Publ. ISBN 81-208-2324-9 p. 51–52.
  14. Platts, John T. (1884). A dictionary of Urdu, classical Hindi, and English. London: W. H. Allen & Co. p. 392.
  15. "ASL Linguistics: metathesis". Retrieved 2014-01-25.


External links

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