Consonant mutation

Consonant mutation
Sound change and alternation


Consonant mutation is when a consonant in a word changes according to its morphological and/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.


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 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 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.

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:

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

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.)

  • ɡɔt 'hill' (abs.), god (const.)
  • θ 'stick' (abs.), luð (const.)
  • do 'appearance' (abs.), kit (const.)
  • tʃoɡo '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.[6] 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:

  • [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.[7] 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 some words (those that diachronically use the etymologically distinct letters ו, ח, and ק in place of the morphing כ and ב) do not have alternations:

  • [xatav] "he hacked", [jaxtov] "he will hack" (The [x] sound comes from a ח, not a spirantized כ)
  • [tov] "good", [tovin]~[tovim] "goods" (The [v] sound comes from a ו, not a spirantized ב)
  • [kibut͡s] "a kibbutz", [be-kibut͡s] "in a kibbutz" (The [k] sound comes from a ק, not a radical כ)

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-.[8]


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), /ɡ//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/ (т→ч) / /d//ʐ/ (д→ж)
  • /z//ʐ/ (з→ж)/ /s//ʂ/ (с→ш) / /ts//tɕ/ (ц→ч)
  • /sk//ɕː/ (ск→щ): плеск → плещет "splash" / "(he) splashes"

Uralic languages

Word-medial consonant mutation is pervasive in certain Uralic languages, where it goes by the traditional name of consonant gradation.

Ute language

In the Ute language, also called Southern Paiute, there are three consonant mutations, which are triggered by different word-stems.[9] 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'

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 is 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.

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, ɡ], 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'. This also occurs in Hebrew, Aramaic and Tamil.
  • Scottish Gaelic: in some dialects, stops in stressed syllables are voiced after nasals, e.g. [aht] 'a cat', [əŋ ɡaht] '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. ^ Ternes, Elmar. 1986. A Grammatical hierarchy of joining. In: Andersen, Henning. Sandhi phenomena in the languages of Europe. P.17-18
  4. ^ Crowley T, 1991. Parallel Development and Shared Innovation: Some Developments in Central Vanuatu Inflectional Morphology. Oceanic Linguistics, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 179-222
  5. ^ Stafford, R. (1967). The Luo language. Nairobi: Longmans. 
  6. ^ Arnott, D. W. (1970). The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  7. ^ Glinert, Lewis (1989). The Grammar of Modern Hebrew. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  8. ^ Examples adapted from Wikibooks:Indonesian_prefix_me
  9. ^ 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. 

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Consonant gradation — Sound change and alternation Metathesis Quantitative metathesis …   Wikipedia

  • Mutation (disambiguation) — A mutation is a change in the sequence of an organism s genetic material. Mutation may also refer to: Contents 1 Literature 2 Music 3 Sciences …   Wikipedia

  • Consonant harmony — Sound change and alternation Metathesis Quantitative metathesis …   Wikipedia

  • Consonant voicing and devoicing — Sound change and alternation Metathesis Quantitative metathesis …   Wikipedia

  • Mutation Consonantique — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Mutation. La mutation consonantique, en synchronie, est une modification phonétique qui voit la consonne d un mot changer selon son environnement morphologique ou syntaxique. Elle relève de la morphophonologie.… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • mutation — [myo͞o tā′shən] n. [ME mutacioun < OFr mutacion < L mutatio < mutare, to change: see MISS1] 1. a changing or being changed 2. a change, as in form, nature, qualities, etc. 3. Biol. a) a sudden variation in some inheritable characteristic …   English World dictionary

  • Mutation consonantique — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Mutation. La mutation consonantique, en synchronie, est une modification phonétique qui voit la consonne d un mot changer selon son environnement morphologique ou syntaxique. Elle relève de la morphophonologie.… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • mutation — noun 1》 the action or process of changing in form or nature.     ↘a change. 2》 a change in the structure of a gene resulting in a variant form which may be transmitted to subsequent generations.     ↘a distinct form resulting from genetic… …   English new terms dictionary

  • mutation — n. 1 the process or an instance of change or alteration. 2 a genetic change which, when transmitted to offspring, gives rise to heritable variations. 3 a mutant. 4 a an umlaut. b (in a Celtic language) a change of a consonant etc. determined by a …   Useful english dictionary

  • Germanic a-mutation — A mutation is a metaphonic process, supposed to have taken place in late Proto Germanic (i.e. around 200 AD).General descriptionIn a mutation, a short high vowel (*/u/ or */i/) was lowered when the following syllable contained a non high vowel… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.