Consonant mutation

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

Sound change and alternation

Mutation occurs 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. Also, 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.

  • Spanish: [b, d, ɡ], occurring after nasals 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 (as begedkefet, an acronym for the consonants this affects) 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.



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.

  • seek /siːk/ : sought /sɔːt/
  • think /θɪŋk/ : thought /θɔːt/

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/.

  • confess /kənˈfɛs/ : confession /kənˈfɛʃən/
  • fuse /fjuːz/ : fusion /ˈfjuːʒən/

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/.

  • induce /ɪnˈdjuːs/ : induction /inˈdʌkʃən/
  • magic /ˈmæɪk/ : magus /meɪɡəs/

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/.

  • act /ækt/ : action /ˈækʃən/

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: Scottish Gaelic has one, Irish and Manx have two, Welsh has three (not counting mixed mutations) and Cornish and Breton have four (counting mixed mutations). Cornish and Breton have so-called mixed mutations, where a trigger causes one mutation to some sounds and another to other sounds. Welsh also has a mixed mutation (triggered by na, ni, and oni). 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, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh:

BretonWelshIrishScottish GaelicGloss
ar wreg vrasy wraig fawran bhean mhóra' bhean mhòrthe big woman
e gazhei gatha chata chathis cat
he c'hazhei chatha cata cather cat
o c'hazheu catha gcatan cattheir 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:

  • т /t/ч /tɕ/, д /d/ж /ʐ/
  • з /z/ж /ʐ/, с /s/ш /ʂ/, ц /ts/ч /tɕ/
  • ск /sk/щ /ɕː/: плеск → плещет "splash" / "(he) splashes", ст /st/щ /ɕː/: свистеть → свищу "to whistle" / "I whistle"


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.

These alternations occur in verbs:
  בוא ← תבוא /bo/ → /taˈvo/ ("come" (imperative) → "you will come"),
  שבר ← נשבר /ʃaˈvaʁ/ → /niʃˈbaʁ/ ("broke" (transitive) → "broke" (intransitive),
  כתב ← יכתוב /kaˈtav/ → /jiχˈtov/ ("he wrote" → "he will write"),
  זכר ← יזכור /zaˈχaʁ/ → /jizˈkoʁ/ ("he remembered" → "he will remember"),
  פנית ← לפנות /paˈnit/ → /lifˈnot/ ("you (f.) turned" → "to turn"),
  שפטת ← לשפוט /ʃaˈfatet/ → /liʃˈpot/ ("you (f.) judged" → "to judge "),
or in nouns:
  ערב ← ערביים /ˈeʁev/ → /aʁˈbajim/ ("evening" → "twilight"),
  מלך ← מלכה /ˈmeleχ/ → /malˈka/ ("king" → "queen"),
  אלף ← אלפית /ˈelef/ → /alˈpit/ ("a thousand" → "a thousandth"),

however, in Modern Hebrew, stop and fricative variants of ב, כ and פ are sometimes distinct phonemes, compare e.g.:

  אִפֵּר – אִפֵר /iˈpeʁ//iˈfeʁ/ ("applied make up" – "tipped ash"),
  פִּסְפֵּס – פִסְפֵס /pisˈpes//fisˈfes/ ("striped" – "missed"),
  הִתְחַבֵּר – הִתְחַבֵר /hitχaˈbeʁ//hitχaˈveʁ/ ("connected" – "made friends (with)"),
  הִשְׁתַּבֵּץ – הִשְׁתַּבֵץ /hiʃtaˈbets//hiʃtaˈvets/ ("got integrated" – "was shocked"),

For a more in depth discussion of this phenomenon, see Begadkefat.


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")

Uralic languages

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:

  • /kʰ, k//ɡ/
  • /tɕʰ, tɕ//dʑ/
  • /sʰ, s//z/
  • /tʰ, t//d/
  • /pʰ, p//b/
  • /θ//ð/

Examples of this type include:

sʰé (ဆေး) + áɴ (ခန်း) > sʰé ɡáɴ ("medicine" + "room" → "clinic")

The second type of consonant mutation occurs when the phoneme /dʑ/, following the nasalized final /ɴ/, 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 /ɴ/, 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")
lè 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.)

  • 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.[7] The mutation grades are fortition and prenasalization:

j, ɡɲdʒ, 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)


Verb affixes ending in a velar nasal [ŋ] (e.g. pang-, nang-) transforms into a bilabial nasal [m] if the root begins with a bilabial ([b], [p]).

  • bili (to buy) + pang- → pambili (= for purchasing, buying)
  • bata (child) + pang- → pambata (= for children)
  • bato (stone, rock, to throw) + nang- → nambato (= threw [something] at someone)
  • pili (to choose, select) + nang- → namili (= chose [something])

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.

  • 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 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]

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

  • tanya → menanya → nanya
  • pikir → memikir → mikir
  • merepotkan → ng(e)repotin


Additional info in Latvian


Also two consonants can mutate as a group.


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:

ts ttsnts
s ss 
n nnnn

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 old version of 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. In the 2011 version, however, there is one root consonant, which does not mutate.

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 Andrew Spencer and Arnold M. Zwicky (eds.), (ed.). The Handbook of Morphology. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 477–99. ISBN 0-631-22694-X.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  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.

Further reading

  • Grijzenhout, Janet. 2011. 'Consonant Mutation' in Marc van Oostendorp, Colin J. Ewen, Elizabeth Hume and Keren Rice (eds.) The Blackwell Companion to Phonology (Oxford: Blackwell) III: 1537-1558.
  • 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.
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