Alternation (linguistics)

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In linguistics, an alternation is the phenomenon of a morpheme exhibiting variation in its phonological realization. Each of the various realizations is called an alternant. The variation may be conditioned by the phonological, morphological, and/or syntactic environment in which the morpheme finds itself.


Alternations provide linguists with data that allow them to determine the allophones and allomorphs of a language's phonemes and morphemes and to develop analyses determining the distribution of those allophones and allomorphs.

Phonologically conditioned alternation

An example of a phonologically conditioned alternation is the English plural marker commonly spelled s or es. [1] This morpheme is pronounced /s/, /z/, or /ᵻz/, [note 1] depending on the nature of the preceding sound.

  1. If the preceding sound is a sibilant consonant (one of /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/), or an affricate (one of /tʃ/, /dʒ/), the plural marker takes the form /ᵻz/. Examples:
    • mass/ˈmæs/, plural masses/ˈmæsᵻz/
    • fez/ˈfɛz/, plural fezzes/ˈfɛzᵻz/
    • mesh/ˈmɛʃ/, plural meshes/ˈmɛʃᵻz/
    • mirage/mɪˈrɑːʒ/, plural mirages/mɪˈrɑːʒᵻz/
    • church/ˈtʃɜːrtʃ/, plural churches/ˈtʃɜːrtʃᵻz/
    • bridge/ˈbrɪdʒ/, plural bridges/ˈbrɪdʒᵻz/
  2. Otherwise, if the preceding sound is voiceless, the plural marker takes the likewise voiceless form /s/. Examples:
    • mop/ˈmɒp/, plural mops/ˈmɒps/
    • mat/ˈmæt/, plural mats/ˈmæts/
    • pack/ˈpæk/, plural packs/ˈpæks/
    • cough/ˈkɒf/, plural coughs/ˈkɒfs/
    • myth/ˈmɪθ/, plural myths/ˈmɪθs/
  3. Otherwise, the preceding sound is voiced, and the plural marker takes the likewise voiced form /z/.
    • dog/ˈdɒɡ/, plural dogs/ˈdɒɡz/
    • glove/ˈɡlʌv/, plural gloves/ˈɡlʌvz/
    • ram/ˈræm/, plural rams/ˈræmz/
    • doll/ˈdɒl/, plural dolls/ˈdɒlz/
    • toe/ˈtoʊ/, plural toes/ˈtoʊz/

Morphologically conditioned alternation

French has an example of morphologically conditioned alternation. The feminine form of many adjectives ends in a consonant sound that is missing in the masculine form. In spelling, the feminine ends in a silent e, while the masculine ends in a silent consonant letter: [2]

Syntactically conditioned alternation

Syntactically conditioned alternations can be found in the Insular Celtic languages, where words undergo various initial consonant mutations depending on their syntactic position. [3] For example, in Irish, an adjective undergoes lenition after a feminine singular noun:

In Welsh, a noun undergoes soft mutation when it is the direct object of a finite verb:

See also


  1. The vowel of the inflectional suffix -es may belong to the phoneme of either /ɪ/ or /ə/ depending on dialect, and is a shorthand for "either /ɪ/ or /ə/". This usage of the symbol is borrowed from the Oxford English Dictionary .

Related Research Articles

In linguistics, an allomorph is a variant phonetic form of a morpheme, or, a unit of meaning that varies in sound and spelling without changing the meaning. The term allomorph describes the realization of phonological variations for a specific morpheme. The different allomorphs that a morpheme can become are governed by morphophonemic rules. These phonological rules determine what phonetic form, or specific pronunciation, a morpheme will take based on the phonological or morphological context in which they appear.

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  1. Cohn, Abigail (2001). "Phonology". In Mark Aronoff; Janie Rees-Miller (eds.). The Handbook of Linguistics . Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. pp.  202–203. ISBN   0-631-20497-0.
  2. Steriade, Donca (1999). "Lexical conservatism in French adjectival liaison" (PDF). In Jean-Marc Authier; Barbara E. Bullock; Lisa A. Reed (eds.). Formal Perspectives in Romance Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 243–70. ISBN   90-272-3691-7.
  3. Green, Antony D. (2006). "The independence of phonology and morphology: The Celtic mutations" (PDF). Lingua. 116 (11): 1946–1985. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2004.09.002.