Metathesis (linguistics)

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Sound change and alternation
Fortition
Dissimilation

Metathesis (/məˈtæθəsɪs/; 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'
  • Latin periculum > Spanish peligro 'danger, peril'
  • Latin crocodilus > Italian cocodrillo 'crocodile'

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 may be deduced from older forms of words in the language's lexicon, or, if no forms are preserved, from phonological reconstruction. In some cases, including English "ask" (see below), it is not possible to settle with certainty on the original version.

Rhetorical metathesis[edit]

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.

Examples[edit]

Egyptian Arabic[edit]

A common appearance of metathesis in Egyptian Arabic is when the consonants of the word's root have changed their order.

  • Classical Arabic zawǧ > Egyptian Arabic gōz "husband"
  • Persian zanǧabīl > Egyptian Arabic ganzabīl ~ zanzabīl "ginger"[4]

The following examples of metathesis have been identified in Egyptian Arabic texts, but are not necessarily more common than their etymological spellings:[5]

  • Allāh yil‘an > Allāh yin‘al "God curse!"
  • fir’a masṛaḥiyyah > fir’a maṛsaḥiyyah "theatre troupe"
  • falsafah > falfasah "philosophy"

The following loanwords are also sometimes found with metathesis:

  • manalog > malanōg "monologue"
  • isbitalya > istibalya "hospital"

The likely cause for metathesis in the word "hospital" is that the result resembles a common word pattern familiar to Arabic speakers (namely a Form X verbal noun).

English[edit]

Metathesis is responsible for some common speech errors, such as children acquiring spaghetti as pasketti. The pronunciation /ˈæsk/ for ask, now considered standard, descends from a northern version of the verb that in most midland and southern texts through the 1500s was spelled with "x" or "cs", showing pronunciation as /ˈæks/. Chaucer, Caxton, and the Coverdale Bible use "ax"; Shakespeare and the King James Bible have "ask".[6]

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

  • iron > iern /ˈaɪərn/
  • comfortable > comfterble /ˈkʌmftərbəl/[7]
  • nuclear > nucular /ˈnjuːkjələr/ (re-analysed as nuke + -cular suffix in particular, binocular)
  • asterisk > asterix /ˈæstərɪks/
  • cavalry > calvary /ˈkælvəri/
  • foliage > foilage /ˈfɔɪlɪdʒ/
  • introduce > interduce /ɪntərˈd(j)uːs/
  • integral > intergal /ˈɪntərɡəl/ or intregal /ˈɪntrɪɡəl/
  • pretty > purty /ˈpərti/
  • relevant > revelant /ˈrɛvələnt/
  • prescription > perscription /pərˈscrɪpʃən/

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 "thrid" 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.

French[edit]

Modern French makes extensive use of metathesis of syllables through a pattern of informal speech called verlan (itself an example: verlan < l'envers, meaning 'the 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 tomber > laisse ton
  • ci > ci
  • français > fran

Some words were metathesized more than once:

  • arabe > beur > rebeu

Simple metathesis exists as well and shaped some words, such as fromage (from formage, "shaping").

Spanish[edit]

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). The Spanish name for Algeria (Argelia) is likely a metathesis of the Arabic name for the territory (al-Jazāʼir).

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

  • revés > vesre "back, backwards"

Gacería, an argot of Castile, incorporates metathesized words:

  • criba > brica

Some frequently heard pronunciations in Spanish display metathesis:

  • calcomanía > calcamonía
  • dentífrico > dentrífico
  • croqueta > cocreta

Greek[edit]

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:

  • *cháryō > chaírō "I am glad" — echárē "he was glad"
  • *phányō > phaínō "I reveal" — ephánē "he appeared"

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

Slavic languages[edit]

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.

Finnish[edit]

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"

Sporadic examples include the word vihr "green", which derives from older viherä, and the vernacular change of the word juoheva "jovial" to jouheva (also a separate word meaning "bristly").

Hungarian[edit]

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.

Hebrew[edit]

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 שׁדל = hištaddēl הִשְׁתַּדֵּל ("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.

Hebrew also features isolated historical examples of metathesis. For example, the words כֶּֽבֶשׂ keves[8] and כֶּֽשֶׂב kesev[9] both appear in the Torah, both with the meaning "lamb."

Japanese[edit]

  • /fuiNki/ for /fuNiki/ (雰囲気), meaning "atmosphere" or "mood"[10]
  • /neta/ for /tane/ (種), the former meaning "content (of news article)", "food ingredient", the latter "seed", "species","source" [11]

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

Navajo[edit]

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 'a- (3i object pronoun) usually occurs before di-, as in

adisbąąs 'I'm starting to drive some kind of wheeled vehicle along' [ < 'a- + di- + sh- + ł + -bąąs].

However, when 'a- occurs with the prefixes di- and ni-, the 'a- metathesizes with di-, leading to an order of di- + 'a- + ni-, as in

diʼnisbąąs 'I'm in the act of driving some vehicle (into something) & getting stuck' [ < di-ʼa-ni-sh-ł-bąąs < 'a- + di- + ni- + sh- + ł + -bąąs]

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

Rotuman[edit]

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[edit]

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 metathetic 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.

Telugu[edit]

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.[12] 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-

Examples:

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

Turkish[edit]

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"

Urdu and Hindi[edit]

Like many other natural languages Urdu and Hindi also manifest this phenomenon. The example given hereunder is diachronic.

Sanskrit जन्म (جنمہ) Janma /dʒənmə/ > Urdu جنم and Hindi जनम Janam /dʒənəm/ "Birth"[13]

American Sign Language[edit]

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. While not possible with all signs, this does happen with quite a few. 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. [14]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Strazny, Philipp (2005). Encyclopedia of Linguistics. 2, M–Z. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn. p. 679. 
  2. ^ van Oostendorp, Marc et al. (ed.). The Blackwell Companion to Phonology. Volume III, 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. ^ Hinds, Martin; Badawi, El-Said, eds. (1986). A Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic (Lebanon: Librairie du Liban). p. 175. 
  5. ^ El-Farnawany, Refaat (1980). Ägyptisch-Arabisch als geschriebene Sprache: Probleme der Verschriftung einer Umgangssprache [Egyptian Arabic as a written language: the problems of spelling a colloquial language] (Thesis) (in German). Erlangen-Nürnberg: Friedrich-Alexander-Universität. p. 158. 
  6. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd. ed., under "ask".
  7. ^ With a non-rhotic schwa, this is a normal British pronunciation
  8. ^ Cf. Leviticus 4:32
  9. ^ Cf. Leviticus 3:7
  10. ^ 雰囲気 at ウィクショナリー日本語版(Wiktionary)(in Japanese)
  11. ^ [1] at Kotobank (in Japanese)
  12. ^ Krishnamurti, Bhadriraju Telugu Verbal Bases Motilal Banarsidass Publ. ISBN 81-208-2324-9 p. 51–52.
  13. ^ Platts, John T. (1884). A dictionary of Urdu, classical Hindi, and English. London: W. H. Allen & Co. p. 392. 
  14. ^ "ASL Linguistics: metathesis". Retrieved 2014-01-25. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • 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. doi:10.1086/465056. 
  • 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[edit]