Palatalization (sound change)

In linguistics, palatalization /ˌpælətəlˈzʃən/ is a sound change that either results in a palatal or palatalized consonant or a front vowel, or is triggered by one of them. Palatalization involves change in the place or manner of articulation of consonants, or the fronting or raising of vowels. In some cases, palatalization involves assimilation or lenition.

Sound change and alternation

An example of palatalization in English is one of the possible pronunciations of did you? as [dɪdʒuː] rather than [dɪdjuː]


Palatalization is sometimes an example of assimilation. In some cases, it is triggered by a palatal or palatalized consonant or front vowel, but in other cases, it is not conditioned in any way.


Palatalization changes place of articulation or manner of articulation of consonants. It may add palatal secondary articulation or change primary articulation from velar to palatal or alveolar, alveolar to postalveolar.

It may also cause a consonant to change its manner of articulation from stop to affricate or fricative. The change in the manner of articulation is a form of lenition. However, the lenition is frequently accompanied by a change in place of articulation.

Palatalization of velar consonants commonly causes them to front, and apical and coronal consonants are usually raised. In the process, stop consonants are often spirantised except for palatalized labials.

Palatalization, as a sound change, is usually triggered only by mid and close (high) front vowels and the semivowel [j]. The sound that results from palatalization may vary from language to language. For example, palatalization of [t] may produce [tʲ], [tʃ], [tɕ], [tsʲ], [ts], etc. A change from [t] to [tʃ] may pass through [tʲ] as an intermediate state, but there is no requirement for that to happen.

In some Zoque languages, [j] does not palatalize velar consonants but it turns alveolars into palato-alveolars. In the Nupe language, /s/ and /z/ are palatalized both before front vowels and /j/, while velars are only palatalized before front vowels. In Ciluba, /j/ palatalizes only a preceding /t/, /s/, /l/ or /n/. In some variants of Ojibwe, velars are palatalized before /j/, but apicals are not. In Indo-Aryan languages, dentals and /r/ are palatalized when occurring in clusters before /j/, but velars are not.


Palatalization sometimes refers to vowel shifts, the fronting of a back vowel or raising of a front vowel. The shifts are sometimes triggered by a nearby palatal or palatalized consonant or by a high front vowel. The Germanic umlaut is a famous example.

A similar change is reconstructed in the history of Old French in which Bartsch's law turned open vowels into [e] or [ɛ] after a palatalized velar consonant. If it was true for all open vowels in Old French, it would explain the palatalization of velar plosives before /a/.[1]

In Erzya, a Uralic language, the open vowel [a] is raised to near-open [æ] after a palatalized consonant, as in the name of the language, [erzʲæ].

In Russian, the back vowels /u o/ are fronted to central [ʉ ɵ], and the open vowel /a/ is raised to near-open [æ], near palatalized consonants. The palatalized consonants also factor in how unstressed vowels are reduced.


Palatalization is sometimes unconditioned or spontaneous, not triggered by a palatal or palatalized consonant or front vowel.

In southwestern Romance, clusters of a voiceless obstruent with /l/ were palatalized once or twice. This first palatalization was unconditioned. It resulted in a cluster with a palatal lateral [ʎ], a palatal lateral on its own, or a cluster with a palatal approximant [j]. In a second palatalization, the /k/ was affricated to [tʃ] or spirantized to [ʃ].

> Istriot ciamà /tʃaˈma/, Portuguese chamar /ʃɐˈmaɾ/

In the Western Romance languages, Latin [kt] was palatalized once or twice. The first palatalization was unconditioned: the /k/ was vocalized to [i̯t] or spirantized to [çt]. In a second palatalization, the /t/ was affricated to [tʃ]:

> Spanish noche, western Occitan nuèch, Romansh notg

In many dialects of English, the back vowel /uː/ is fronted to near-back [u̟ː], central [ʉː], or front [yː]. This vowel shift is unconditioned, happening in all cases, and not triggered by another sound.

A similar change is reconstructed for Ancient Greek. In the Attic dialect before the Classical period, the back vowels /u uː/ were fronted to [y yː]. During the Koine or Medieval Greek period, they were unrounded to [i iː], and they finally merged as short [i], the pronunciation that they have in Modern Greek.

Anticipatory and progressive

When palatalization is assimilatory or triggered by a consonant or vowel, it is triggered by a following sound (anticipatory) or by a preceding sound (progressive).


Allophony and phonemic split

Palatalization may result in a phonemic split, a historical change by which a phoneme becomes two new phonemes over time through palatalization.

Old historical splits have frequently drifted since the time they occurred and may be independent of current phonetic palatalization. The lenition tendency of palatalized consonants (by assibilation and deaffrication) is important. According to some analyses,[2] the lenition of the palatalized consonant is still a part of the palatalization process itself.

In Japanese, allophonic palatalization affected the dental plosives /t/ and /d/, turning them into alveolo-palatal affricates [tɕ] and [dʑ] before [i], romanized as ⟨ch⟩ and ⟨j⟩ respectively. Japanese has, however, recently regained phonetic [ti] and [di] from loanwords, and the originally-allophonic palatalization has thus become lexical. A similar change has also happened in Polish and Belarusian. That would also be true about most dialects of Brazilian Portuguese but for the strong phonotactical resistancy of its native speakers that turn dental plosives into post-alveolar affricates even in loanwords: McDonald's [mɛ̞kiˈdõnɐwdʑ(is)].

For example, Votic has undergone such a change historically, *keelitšeeli 'language', but there is currently an additional distinction between palatalized laminal and non-palatalized apical consonants. An extreme example occurs in Spanish, whose palatalized ('soft') g has ended up as [x] from a long process where Latin /ɡ/ became palatalized to [ɡʲ] (Late Latin) and then affricated to [dʒ] (Proto-Romance), deaffricated to [ʒ] (Old Spanish), devoiced to [ʃ] (16th century), and finally retracted to a velar, giving [x] (c. 1650). (See History of the Spanish language and Phonological history of Spanish coronal fricatives for more information).


Palatalization has played a major role in the history of English, and of other languages and language groups throughout the world, such as the Romance, Greek, Slavic, Baltic, Finnic, Swedish, Norwegian, Mordvinic, Samoyedic, Iranian, Indo-Aryan, Goidelic, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Albanian, Arabic, and Micronesian languages.



In Anglo-Frisian, the language that gave rise to English and the Frisian languages, the velar stops /k ɡ/ and the consonant cluster /sk/ were palatalized in certain cases and became the sounds /tʃ/, /dʒ/, /j/, and /ʃ/. Many words with Anglo-Frisian palatalization survive in Modern English, and the palatalized sounds are typically spelled ch, (d)ge, y, and sh in Modern English.

Palatalization only occurred in certain environments, and so it did not apply to all words from the same root. This is the origin of some alternations in cognate words, such as speak and speech /ˈspiːk, ˈspiːtʃ/, cold and chill /ˈkoʊld, ˈtʃɪl/, burrow and bury /ˈbʌroʊ, ˈbɛri/, dawn and day /ˈdɔːn, ˈdeɪ/. Here k originates from unpalatalized /k/ and w from unpalatalized /ɡ/.

Some English words with palatalization have unpalatalized doublets from the Northumbrian dialect and from Old Norse, such as shirt and skirt /ˈʃərt, ˈskərt/, church and kirk /ˈtʃɜrtʃ, ˈkɜrk/, ditch and dike /ˈdɪtʃ, ˈdaɪk/. German only underwent palatalization of /sk/: cheese /tʃiːz/ and Käse /kɛːzə/; lie and lay /ˈlaɪ, ˈleɪ/, liegen and legen /ˈliːɡən, ˈleːɡən/; fish and Fisch /fɪʃ/.

The pronunciation of wicca as [ˈwɪkə] with a hard c is a spelling pronunciation, since the actual Old English pronunciation gave rise to witch.


Later in English, another palatalization called yod-coalescence occurred. Alveolar stops and affricates were palatalized before the palatal approximant /j/ so that the clusters /dj/, /tj/, /sj/ and /zj/ changed into [dʒ], [tʃ], [ʃ] and [ʒ] respectively, frequently occurring with clusters that would be considered to span a syllable boundary.[3] Yod-coalescence in stressed syllables, such as in tune and dune, occurs in Australian, Cockney, Estuary English, Hiberno-English (some speakers), Newfoundland English, South African English, and to a certain extent in New Zealand English and Scottish English (many speakers). This can lead to additional homophony; for instance, dew and due come to be pronounced the same as Jew.[4]

In certain varieties—such as Australian English, South African English, and New Zealand English/sj/ and /zj/ in stressed syllables can coalesce into [ʃ] and [ʒ], respectively. In Australian English for example, assume is pronounced [əˈʃʉːm] by some speakers.[5] Furthermore, some speakers may palatalize the /s/ to a /ʃ/ when it comes before the cluster /tr/,[6] so words like student and stress would be pronounced [ˈʃtʃuːdənt] and [ˈʃtʃɹɛs], respectively, with the former pronunciation being less common among North American speakers. According to author Wayne P. Lawrence, "this phonemic change seems to be neither dialectal nor regional."[7][8]


Others include the following:

  • Rhotic palatalization:
This is found in non-rhotic dialects of New York City, according to Labov, triggered by the loss of the coil–curl merger. It results in the palatalization of /ɝ/.[9] (Labov never specified the resultant vowel.)
  • In Glasgow and some other urban Scottish accents, /s/ is given an apico-alveolar articulation, which auditorily gives an impression of a retracted pronunciation similar to /ʃ/.[10]

Semitic languages



While in most Semitic languages, e.g. Aramaic, Hebrew, Ge'ez the Gimel represents a [ɡ], Arabic is considered unique among them where the Gimel or Jīm ج was palatalized to an affricate [d͡ʒ] or a fricative [ʒ] in most dialects from classical times. While there is variation in Modern Arabic varieties, most of them reflect this palatalized pronunciation except in Egyptian Arabic and a number of Yemeni and Omani dialects, where it is pronounced as [ɡ]. It is not well known when this change occurred or if it is connected to the pronunciation of Qāf ق as a [ɡ], but in most of the Arabian peninsula which is the homeland of the Arabic language, the ج represents a [d͡ʒ] and ق represents a [ɡ], except in western and southern Yemen and parts of Oman where ج represents a [ɡ] and ق represents a [q], which shows a strong correlation between the palatalization of ج to [d͡ʒ] and the pronunciation of the ق as a [ɡ] as shown in the table below:

Language / Dialects Pronunciation of the letters
ج ق
Proto-Semitic /ɡ/ /kʼ/
Parts of Southern Arabia /ɡ/ /q/
Most Arabian Peninsular Dialects /d͡ʒ/ /ɡ/
Modern Standard Arabic /d͡ʒ/ /q/
Modern Arabic dialects

Some modern Arabic varieties developed palatalization of ك (turning [k] into [], [ts], [ʃ], or [s]), ق (turning [ɡ~q] into [] or [dz]) and ج (turning [d͡ʒ] into [j]), usually when adjacent to front vowel, though these palatalizations also occur in other environments as well. These three palatalizations occur in a variety of dialects, including Iraqi, rural Palestinian varieties, a number of Gulf Arabic dialects,[11][12] such as Kuwaiti, Qatari, Bahraini, and Emarati, as well as others in the Arab peninsula like Najdi,[13] the southern dialects of Saudi Arabia, and various Bedouin dialects. Examples:

  • Classical Arabic كلب ('dog') /kalb/ > Iraqi and Gulf [t͡ʃalb], and Najdi [t͡salb].
  • Classical Arabic ديك ('rooster') /diːk/ > rural Palestinian [diːt͡ʃ]
  • Classical Arabic الشارقة ('Sharjah') /aʃːaːriqa/ > Gulf [əʃːɑːrd͡ʒɑ] while other neighboring dialects [aʃːaːrga] without palatalization.
  • Classical Arabic جديد ('new') /d͡ʒadiːd/ > Gulf [jɪdiːd]
  • Classical Arabic قربة ('water container') /qirba/ > Najdi [d͡zərba] although this phenomenon is fading among the younger generations where قربة is pronounced [gɪrba] like in most other dialects in Saudi Arabia.

Palatalization occurs in the pronunciation of the second person feminine singular pronoun in those dialects. For instance :

Classical Arabic عَيْنُكِ ('your [f.] eye') /ʕajnuki/ is pronounced:

  • [ʕeːnət͡ʃ] in Gulf, Iraqi, and rural Palestinian dialects
  • [ʕe̞ːnət͡s] in Najdi and a number of bedouin dialects.
  • [ʕe̞ːnəʃ] or [ʕe̞ːnəs] in some southern dialects in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

speakers in these dialects that do not use the palatalization would merge the feminine and masculine suffix pronouns e.g. عينك [ʕe̞ːnək] ('your eye' to a male/female) as opposed to Classical Arabic /ʕajnuka/ عَيْنُكَ ('your eye' to a male) and /ʕajnuki/ عَيْنُكِ ('your eye' to a female) and most other modern urban dialects /ʕeːnak/ (to a male) and /ʕeːnik/ (to a female).

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic features the palatalization of kaph (turning /k/ into []), taw (turning /t/ into [ʃ]) and gimel (turning /ɡ/ into []),[14] albeit in some dialects only and seldom in the standardized version of the language.[15]

  • In the Upper Tyari dialects, /t/ in a stressed syllable is palatalized and replaced with [ʃ] (e.g. beta, 'house' [bɛʃa]).[16]
  • /k/ may be palatalized to [tʃ] among Assyrians who originate from Urmia; Iran; and Nochiya, southeastern Turkey.[17]
  • In Urmian and some Tyari dialects, /ɡ/ is palatalized to [dʒ].[18]

Romance languages

The Romance languages developed from Vulgar Latin, the colloquial form of Latin spoken in the Roman Empire. Various palatalizations occurred during the historical development of the Romance languages. Some groups of the Romance languages underwent more palatalizations than others. One palatalization affected all groups, some palatalizations affected most groups, and one affected only a few groups.


In Gallo-Romance, Vulgar Latin *[ka] became *[tʃa] very early, with the subsequent deaffrication and some further developments of the vowel. For instance:

  • cattus "cat" > chat /ʃa/
  • calva "bald" (fem.) > chauve /ʃov/
  • *blanca "white" (fem.) > blanche /blɑ̃ʃ/
  • catēna "chain" > chaîne /ʃɛn/
  • carus "dear" > cher /ʃɛʁ/

Early English borrowings from French show the original affricate, as chamber /ˈtʃeɪmbəɾ/ "(private) room" < Old French chambre /tʃɑ̃mbrə/ < Vulgar Latin camera; compare French chambre /ʃɑ̃bʁ/ "room".


Mouillé (French pronunciation: [muje], "moistened") is a term for palatal consonants in the Romance languages. Palatal consonants in the Romance languages developed from /l/ or /n/ by palatalization.

Spelling of palatal consonants
l mouillén mouillé
Italian gl(i)gn
French il(l)(i)gn
Occitan lhnh
Catalan llny
Spanish llñ
Portuguese lhnh

L and n mouillé have a variety of origins in the Romance languages. In these tables, letters that represent or used to represent /ʎ/ or /ɲ/ are bolded. In French, /ʎ/ merged with /j/ in pronunciation in the 18th century; in many dialects of Spanish, /ʎ/ has merged with /ʝ/. Romanian formerly had both /ʎ/ and /ɲ/, but both have merged with /j/: vīnea > *viɲe > Romanian vie /ˈ "vineyard"; mulierem > *muʎere > Romanian muiere /muˈ "woman".

Examples of palatal /ʎ/
"to coagulate"
Italian migliorecagliareorecchiocavallolunachiave
French meilleurcailleroreillechevalluneclé
Occitan melhorcalharaurelhacavallunaclau
Catalan millorquallarorellacavallllunaclau
Spanish mejor[lower-alpha 1]cuajar[lower-alpha 1]oreja[lower-alpha 1]caballolunallave
Portuguese melhorcoalharorelhacavaloluachave
Romanian închegaurechecallunăcheie
  1. These cases come from the early fricativization of palatal /ʎ/, first into palatal /ʒ/ and ultimately into velar /x/, represented by j.
Examples of palatal /ɲ/
Italian signorecognatoannosonnosognounghiavino
French seigneuransommesongeonglevin
Occitan senhorcunhatansòmsòmionglavin
Catalan senyorcunyatanysonsomniunglavi
Spanish señorcuñadoañosueñosueñouñavino
Portuguese senhorcunhadoanosonosonhounhavinho
Romanian seniorcumnatansomnunghievin

Satem languages

In certain Indo-European language groups, the reconstructed "palato-velars" of Proto-Indo-European (*ḱ, *ǵ, *ǵʰ) were palatalized into sibilants. The language groups with and without palatalization are called satem and centum languages, after the characteristic developments of the PIE word for "hundred":

  • PIE *(d)ḱm̥tóm > Avestan satəm (palatalization)
Latin centum /kentum/ (no palatalization)

Slavic languages

In the Slavic languages, two palatalizations took place. Both affected the Proto-Slavic velars *k *g *x. In the first palatalization, the velars before the front vowels *e *ē *i *ī and the palatal approximant *j changed to *č *ž *š. In the second palatalization, the velars changed to c, dz or z, and s or š before the Proto-Slavic diphthongs *aj *āj, which must have been monophthongized to by this time.

Mandarin Chinese

In many dialects of Mandarin Chinese, the alveolar sibilants /ts tsʰ s/ and the velars /k kʰ x/ were palatalized before the medials /j ɥ/ and merged in pronunciation, yielding the alveolo-palatal sibilants /tɕ tɕʰ ɕ/. Alveolo-palatal consonants occur in modern Standard Chinese and are written as j q x in Pinyin. Postal romanization does not show palatalized consonants, reflecting the dialect of the imperial court during the Qing dynasty. For instance, the name of the capital of China was formerly spelled Peking, but is now spelled Beǐjīng [peɪ̀.tɕíŋ], and Tientsin and Sian were the former spellings of Tiānjīn [tʰjɛ́n.tɕín] and Xī'ān [ɕí.án].

See also


  1. Buckley (2003)
  2. For example, Bhat (1978)
  3. Wyld, H.C., A History of Modern Colloquial English, Blackwell 1936, cited in Wells (1982), p. 262.
  4. Bauer, L. & Warren, P. New Zealand English: phonology in Schneider, E.W. "A handbook of varieties of English: Phonology, Volume 1", Mouton De Gruyter, 2005.
  5. Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 207. ISBN 0-521-22919-7. (vol. 1), ISBN 0-521-24224-X (vol. 2), ISBN 0-521-24225-8 (vol. 3).
  6. Durian, David (2007) "Getting [ʃ]tronger Every Day?: More on Urbanization and the Socio-geographic Diffusion of (str) in Columbus, OH," University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics: Vol. 13: Iss. 2, Article 6
  7. Lawrence, Wayne P. (2000) "Assimilation at a Distance," American Speech Vol. 75: Iss. 1: 82-87; doi:10.1215/00031283-75-1-82
  8. Jennifer Hay (6 March 2008). New Zealand English. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 37–. ISBN 978-0-7486-3088-2.
  9. Labov (1966), p. 216
  10. Cole, J., Hualde, J.I., Laboratory Phonology 9, Walter de Gruyter 2007, p. 69.
  11. McCarus, Hamdi A. Qafisheh ; in consultation with Ernest N. (1977). "Appendix II". A short reference grammar of Gulf Arabic. Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press. p. 265. ISBN 0-8165-0570-5.
  12. McCarus, Hamdi A. Qafisheh ; in consultation with Ernest N. (1977). "Appendix III". A short reference grammar of Gulf Arabic. Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press. p. 267. ISBN 0-8165-0570-5.
  13. Al Motairi (2015)
  14. Rudolf Macuch Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London Vol. 53, No. 2 (1990), pp. 214-223
  15. Rudder, Joshua. Learn to Write Aramaic: A Step-by-Step Approach to the Historical & Modern Scripts. n.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011. 220 pp. ISBN 978-1461021421 Includes the Estrangela (pp. 59–113), Madnhaya (pp. 191–206), and the Western Serto (pp. 173–190) scripts.
  16. Brock, Sebastian (2006). An Introduction to Syriac Studies. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press. ISBN 1-59333-349-8.
  17. Tsereteli, Konstantin G. (1990). "The velar spirant 0 in modern East Aramaic Dialects", W. Heinrichs (ed.): Studies in Neo-Aramaic (Harvard Semitic Studies 36), Atlanta, 35-42.
    • Beyer, Klaus (1986). The Aramaic language: its distribution and subdivisions. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-53573-2.


  • Bynon, Theodora. Historical Linguistics. Cambridge University Press, 1977. ISBN 0-521-21582-X (hardback) or ISBN 978-0-521-29188-0 (paperback).
  • Bhat, D.N.S. (1978), "A General Study of Palatalization", Universals of Human Language, 2: 47–92
  • Buckley, E. (2003), "The Phonetic Origin and Phonological Extension of Gallo-Roman Palatalization", Proceedings of the North American Phonology Conferences 1 and 2, CiteSeerX
  • Crowley, Terry. (1997) An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press.
  • Lightner, Theodore M. (1972), Problems in the Theory of Phonology, I: Russian phonology and Turkish phonology, Edmonton: Linguistic Research, inc
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