Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Language: Linguistics · Semiotics · Speech

Sound change and alternation


Metathesis (Template:IPA-en; from Greek μετά-θε-σις, from μετα-τί-θη-μι "I put in a different order": Latin trānspositiō) is the re-arranging 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]

  • foliage → **foilage
  • cavalry → **calvary

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

  • Latin parabola > Spanish palabra 'word'
  • Latin miraculum > Spanish milagro 'miracle'

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

The original form before metathesis changed may be deduced from older forms of words in the language's lexicon, or, if no forms are preserved, from phonological reconstruction.

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 the most common types of speech errors, such as children acquiring spaghetti as pasketti. The metathesized pronunciation of ask as ax /ˈæks/ goes back to Old English days, when ascian and axian/acsian were both in use.

Some other frequent English pronunciations or pronunciation errors that display metathesis are:

  • asteriskasterix /ˈæstərɪks/
  • cavalrycalvary /ˈkælvəri/
  • comfortablecomfterble /ˈkʌmftərbəl/[4]
  • foliagefoilage /ˈfɔɪlɪdʒ/
  • introduceinterduce /ɪntərˈdjuːs/
  • integralintergal /ˈɪntərɡəl/ or intregal /ˈɪntrɪɡəl/
  • nuclearnucular /ˈnjuːkjələr/ (re-analysed as nuke + -cular suffix in particular, binocular)
  • prettypurty /ˈpərti/
  • relevantrevelant /ˈrɛvələnt/

The process has shaped many English words historically. Bird and horse came from Old English bryd 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 þreo "three" formed þrid "third" and þreotene "thriteen". These underwent metathesis to forms which became Modern English third and thirteen.

The Old English verb wyrcan "to work" had the passive participle worht "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.


Modern French makes extensive use of metathesis of syllables through a pattern of informal speech called verlan (itself an example: verlan ← l'envers, meaning '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. The process often involves considerably more changes than simple metathesis of two phonemes but this forms the basis for verlan as a linguistic phenomenon.

A few well known examples are:

  • laisse Template:GreenTemplate:Navy (color)laisse Template:Navy (color)Template:Green
  • Template:GreenTemplate:Navy (color)Template:Navy (color)Template:Green
  • Template:GreenTemplate:Navy (color)Template:Navy (color)Template:Green

Some words were metathesized more than once:

  • aTemplate:GreenaTemplate:Navy (color)Template:Navy (color)Template:GreenTemplate:GreenTemplate:Navy (color)

Simple metathesis exists as well and 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).

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

  • Template:GreenTemplate:Navy (color)Template:Navy (color)Template:Green "back, backwards"

Gacería, an argot of Castile, incorporates metathesized words:

  • cribabrica

Some frequently heard pronunciations in Spanish display metathesis:

  • calcomaníacalcamonía
  • dentífricodentrífico
  • croquetacocreta


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:

  • *cháryōchaírō "I am glad" — echárē "he was glad"
  • *phányōphaínō "I reveal" — ephánē "he appeared"

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

Slavic languages

Main article: Slavic liquid metathesis and pleophony

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). This leads to variant word forms such as:

  • orhi "stallion" (standard *orih > ori)
  • sauhu "smoke" (standard *savuh > savu)
  • valhe "lie" (standard *valeh > vale)
  • venhe "boat" (standard *veneh > vene)

Some words have been standardized in the metathetized form, e.g:

  • *mureh > murhe "sorrow"
  • *pereh > perhe "family"
  • *uroh > urho "hero"
  • *valehellinen > valheellinen "untrue"

Another example of metathesis in Finnish is the vernacular change of the word juoheva "jovial" to jouheva (also a separate word meaning "bristly").


In case of a very narrow range of Hungarian nouns, metathesis occurs before accusative case ending, possessive suffixes, and in plural:

  • kehely, kelyhet, kelyhem, kelyhek – chalice, chalice (accusative), my chalice, chalices
  • teher, terhet, terhed, terhek – burden, burden (accusative), your burden, burdens
  • pehely, pelyhet, pelyhe, pelyhek – flake, flake (accusative), his/her flake, flakes

Note that in all the examples above, the consonant h is transposed to the end of the stem.


In Hebrew the verb conjugation (binyan) hiṯpaʿʿēl (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:

  • No metathesis: root lbš לבש
= hiṯlabbēš הִתְלַבֵּש
("he got dressed").
  • Voiceless alveolar fricative: root skl סכל
= histakkēl הִסְתַּכֵּל
("he looked [at something]").
  • Voiceless postalveolar fricative: root šdl שדל
= hištaddēl הִשְתַּדֵּל
("he made an effort").
  • Voiced alveolar fricative: root zqn זקן
= hizdaqqēn הִזְדַּקֵּן
("he grew old"); with assimilation of the T of the conjugation.
  • Voiceless velarized alveolar fricative: root ṣlm צלם
= hiṣṭallēm הִצְטַלֵּם
("he had a photograph of him taken"); with assimilation of the T of the conjugation.


  • /fuiNki/ for /fuNiki/ (雰囲気), meaning "atmosphere" or "mood"[5]
  • /neta/ for /tane/ (種), the former meaning "evidence", the latter "rice plant" [6]

In slang, the word for sorry, gomen, is sometimes reversed informally as mengo.


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 Template:Spell-nv (3i object pronoun) usually occurs before Template:Spell-nv, as in

Template:Spell-nv 'I'm starting to drive some kind of wheeled vehicle along' [ < Template:Spell-nv].

However, when Template:Spell-nv occurs with the prefixes Template:Spell-nv and Template:Spell-nv, the Template:Spell-nv metathesizes with Template:Spell-nv, leading to an order of Template:Spell-nv, as in

Template:Spell-nv 'I'm in the act of driving some vehicle (into something) & getting stuck' [ < Template:Spell-nv]

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


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 metathesis 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.[7] 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-


  • lē = lēta (young, tender) < *eɭa
  • rē = rēyi (night) < *ira
  • rōlu (mortar)< <oral < *ural


Two types of metathesis are observed in Turkish. The examples given are from the Turkish of Turkey but Azerbaijani Turkish is best known for its metatheses:

  • Close type:
  • prü = körpü "bridge"
  • toprak = torpak "ground"
  • kirpi = kipri "hedgehog"
  • kibrit = kirbit "match"
  • kou = koşnu "neighbour"
  • kimse = kisme "nobody"
  • bayrak = baryak "flag"
  • ei = eşki "sour"
  • Distant type:
  • bulgur = burgul "parched crushed wheat"
  • ödünç = öndüç "loan"
  • lanet = nalet "curse"

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. 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. (This information has not been cited. Use with caution. Please, refer to Linguistics of American Sign Language: An Introduction (1995, pp. 43–44), C. Valli & C. Lucas, Gallaudet University Press.)

Popular culture

In the "Hollow Pursuits" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lt. Commander Data explains the meaning of metathesis after Captain Picard mistakenly calls Lt. Barclay "Mr. Broccoli". After Barclay leaves, Data says to the captain, "metathesis is one of the most common of pronunciation errors, sir; a reversal of vowel and consonant; 'barc' to broc'...". Data mispronounces the word 'metathesis', stressing the third rather than the second syllable.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Strazny, Philipp. 2005. Encyclopedia of Linguistics, vol. 2, M–Z. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, p. 679.
  2. van Oostendorp, Marc et al. (eds.). The Blackwell Companion to Phonology, vol. 3, 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. With a non-rhotic schwa, this is a normal British pronunciation
  5. 雰囲気 at ウィクショナリー日本語版(Wiktionary)(in Japanese)
  6. [1] at Kotobank (in Japanese)
  7. Krishnamurti, Bhadriraju Telugu Verbal Bases Motilal Banarsidass Publ. ISBN 8-120-82324-9 p. 51–52.


  • Montler, Timothy. (1986). An outline of the morphology and phonology of Saanich, North Straits Salish. Occasional Papers in Linguistics (No. 4). Missoula, MT: University of Montana Linguistics Laboratory. (Revised version of the author's PhD dissertation, University of Hawaii).
  • Thompson, Laurence C.; & Thompson, M. Terry. (1969). Metathesis as a grammatical device. International Journal of American Linguistics, 35, 213–219.
  • Young, Robert W., & Morgan, William, Sr. (1987). The Navajo language: A grammar and colloquial dictionary, (rev. ed.). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1014-1

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).