Betacism

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In historical linguistics, betacism is a sound change in which [b] (the voiced bilabial plosive, like in bane) shifts to [v] (the voiced labiodental fricative, like in English vane). Betacism is a fairly common phenomenon; it has taken place in Greek, Hebrew, and Spanish, among others.

In Classical Greek, the letter beta <β> denoted [b]. As a result of betacism, it has come to denote [v] in Modern Greek. (Modern Greek uses the digraph <μπ> to represent [b].) Indeed, this is the origin of the word betacism.

Perhaps the best known example of betacism is in the Romance languages. The first traces of betacism in Latin can be found in the third century C.E. The results of the shift are most widespread in the Western Romance languages, especially in Spanish, where the letters <b> and <v> are now both pronounced [β] (the voiced bilabial fricative, which is similar to [v]) except phrase-initially and after [m] when they are pronounced [b]; the two sounds ([β] and [b]) are now allophones. A similar phenomenon takes place in Persian in casual speech.[citation needed] Another example is in Neapolitan, or in Maceratese (dialect of Macerata) which uses <v> to denote betacism-produced [v], such that Italian bocca corresponds to Neapolitan vocca and to Maceratese "vocca", Italian albero to arvero, and barba to Neapolitan varva and Maceratese "varba".

Betacism occurred in Ancient Hebrew; the sound [b] (denoted <ב>) changed to [β] and eventually to [v] except when geminated or when following a consonant or pause. As a result, the two sounds became allophones; but, due to later sound changes, including the loss of gemination, the distinction become phonemic in Modern Hebrew.