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IPA number 421
Entity (decimal) ʲ
Unicode (hex) U+02B2
Sound change and alternation

In linguistics, palatalization /ˌpælətəlˈzʃən/ or palatization may refer to two different processes by which a sound, usually a consonant, comes to be produced with the tongue in a position in the mouth near the palate.

In describing the phonetics of an existing language (i.e., in synchronic descriptions), a palatalized consonant is one pronounced with a palatal secondary articulation. This means that the consonant is pronounced as if followed very closely by the sound [j] (a palatal approximant, like the sound of "y" in "yellow"). For example, in the Polish word kiedy ("when"), the letters ki represent a palatalized [k], indicated in IPA notation as [kʲ], with a superscript "j". This sound is similar to the combination of "k" and "y" in English "thank you".

The other meaning of palatalization is encountered in historical linguistics, and refers to a sound change in which a consonant's place of articulation becomes closer to the palatal position. This change is often triggered by a following [j] sound or a front vowel. For example, in Italian, before the front vowels e and i, the letter c (which otherwise represents [k], a velar consonant), has come to be pronounced as the palato-alveolar consonant [tʃ], like English "ch" (see hard and soft C).

Palatalization of both types is widespread across languages in the world, though its actual manifestation varies. In some languages, such as the Slavic languages, palatal or palatalized consonants are frequently referred to as soft consonants, with others called hard consonants.

The term palatalized vowel is also sometimes used, to refer to a vowel that has become fronter or closer.


In technical terms, palatalization refers to one of several things:

The first may be the result of the second, but they are often different. A vowel may "palatalize" a consonant (sense 2), but the result might not be a palatalized consonant in the phonetic sense (sense 1), or the phonetically palatalized (sense 1) consonant may occur irrespective of adjacency to front vowels.

The word "palatalization" may also be used for the effect a palatal or palatalized consonant exerts on nearby sounds, as in the history of Old French where Bartsch's law turned low vowels into [e] or [ɛ] after a palatalized velar consonant, or in the Uralic language Erzya, where the near-open low front unrounded vowel [æ] only occurs as an allophone of the open vowel [a] after a palatalized consonant, as seen in the pronunciation of the name of the language itself, [erzʲæ]. Something similar may have been the case for some or even all low vowels in Old French, which could explain the palatalization of almost all velar plosives before /a/.[1] However, while the process may be called palatalization, the resulting vowel [æ] is not called a palatalized vowel in the phonetic sense. Terminology such as "palatal vowel" is found, but this is primary and not secondary articulation.


"Pure" palatalization is denoted by a small superscript ʲ in IPA. This is a modification to the articulation of a consonant, where the middle of the tongue is raised, and nothing else. It may produce a laminal articulation of otherwise apical consonants such as /t/ and /s/. It is a phonemic feature in some languages; a common misconception is that it is merely allophonic, as it is in English. Phonemic palatalization may be contrasted with either plain or velarized articulation. In Finnic languages, Baltic languages and Slavic languages, the contrast is with plain consonants, but in Irish, it is with velarized consonants.

Phonetically palatalized consonants may vary in their exact realization. Some, but not all languages add offglides or onglides. In Russian, both plain and palatalized consonant phonemes are found in words like пальто [pɐˈlʲto], царь [tsarʲ] and Катя [ˈkatʲə]. Typically, the vowel (especially a non-front vowel) following a palatalized consonant has a palatal onglide. In Hupa, on the other hand, the palatalization is heard as both an onglide and an offglide. In some cases, the realization of palatalization may change without any corresponding phonemic change. For example, according to Thurneysen,[full citation needed] palatalized consonants at the end of a syllable in Old Irish had a corresponding onglide (reflected as i in the spelling), which was no longer present in Middle Irish (based on explicit testimony of grammarians of the time).

Palatalization can also occur as a suprasegmental feature that affects the pronunciation of an entire syllable. This is the case in Skolt Sami, a language which is unusual in contrasting suprasegmental palatalization with segmental palatalization (i.e., inherently palatalized consonants).



Palatalization as a sound change is usually triggered only by mid, close (high) front vowels and the semi-vowel [j]; but counterexamples to this are also found. 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 e.g. [t] to [tʃ] may pass through [tʲ] as an intermediate state, but there is no requirement for this to happen.

Palatalization of velar consonants commonly causes them to front, while apical and coronal consonants are usually raised. In the process, stop consonants are often spirantized, except for the palatalized labials.[citation needed]

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/camera; cf. French chambre /ʃɑ̃bʁ/ ‘room’.

Historical (diachronic) palatalization[edit]

Palatalization may result in a phonemic split, that is, a historical change by which a phoneme becomes two new phonemes over time through phonetic 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 here. According to some analyses,[2] the lenition of the palatalized consonant is still a part of the palatalization process itself.

For example, Votic has undergone such a change historically, in for example *keelitšeeli ‘language’, but there is currently an additional distinction between palatalized laminal and non-palatalized apical consonants. An extreme example occurs in Spanish, where palatalized ('soft') g has ended up as [x]; this results from a long process where Latin /ɡ/ became palatalized to [ɡʲ] (Late Latin), 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 Spanish and ceceo for more information).

While the majority of palatalization effects are connected with sequences with a consonant adjacent to a high front or mid front vowel or glide, palatalization may occur spontaneously in a sense. In southwestern Romance, /l/ in word-initial clusters with a voiceless obstruent palatalized to /ʎ/, as Latin clāmāre ‘to call’ → Aromanian cl’imari /kʎimari/, Aragonese clamar /kʎamar/ → Italian chiamare /kjaˈmare/, Istriot ciamà /tʃaˈma/, and Portuguese chamar /ʃɐˈmaɾ/; in Spanish, the obstruent drops before the palatalized liquid: llamar /ʎamar/. Differently, in the former Celtic zone, Latin [kt] fricativizes to [çt], vocalizes to [i̯t], and in some varieties palatalizes to [tʃ], e.g. Latin noctem ‘night’ → Mozarabic noxte /noçte/ → French nuit [nɥi], Portuguese noite [ˈnoj.tɨ], eastern Occitan nuèit, Catalan nit → Spanish noche, western Occitan nuèch, Romansh notg.

Such phonemic splits due to historic palatalization are common in many other languages. Some English examples of cognate words distinguished by historical palatalization are church vs. kirk, witch vs. wicca, ditch vs. dike, and shirt vs. skirt. The pronunciation of wicca as [ˈwɪkə] is a spelling pronunciation based on unfamiliarity with Old English spelling conventions (wicca was presumably [ˈwitʃːɑ] ← *wikjō̃); in the other cases, the words come from related dialects or languages (skirt from Danish) which differed in the place and degree of palatalization. More recently, the original /t/ of question and nature have come to be pronounced [tʃ] before [j] in a number of English dialects, and the original /d/ of soldier and procedure have come to be [dʒ]. This effect can also be seen in casual speech in some dialects, where Do you want to go? comes out as [uː ˈwʌnə ɡoʊ], and Did you eat yet? as [ˈdɪə ˈiːɛt].


Palatalization has played a major role in the history of English in addition to the Uralic, Romance, Slavic, Baltic, Goidelic, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Twi, Micronesian languages and Languages of India, among many others throughout the world. In pre-Old English, for example (c. AD 400), palatalization produced new phonemes /tʃ/, /dʒ/ and /ʃ/, along with many new cases of /j/. Palatal/non-palatal alternations from this time are still visible in pairs such as speak vs. speech, and less obviously in day vs. dawn. A more recent palatalization (c. 1600) has produced extensive alternations, as in close (verb) /z/ vs. closure /ʒ/, face /s/ vs. facial /ʃ/, -ate /t/ vs. -ature /tʃ/, etc.

In Japanese, allophonic palatalization affected the dental plosives /t/ and /d/, turning them into alveolo-palatal affricates [tɕ] and [dʑ] before [i]. Japanese has only recently regained phonetic [ti] and [di] through borrowed words, and thus this originally allophonic palatalization has become lexical. A similar change has also happened in Polish and Belarusian. This would also be true about most dialects of Brazilian Portuguese if not for the strong phonotactical resistancy of its native speakers that turn dental plosives into post-alveolar affricates even in loanwords e.g. McDonalds IPA: [mɛ̞kiˈdõnɐwdʑ(is)].

In some Zoque languages, [j] does not palatalize velar consonants while it does turn 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/, while apicals are not. In Indo-Aryan languages, dentals and /r/ are palatalized when occurring in clusters before /j/ while velars are not.

Synchronic palatalization[edit]

Palatalization may be a synchronic phonological process, i.e., some phonemes have palatalized allophones in certain contexts, typically before front vowels, and unpalatalized allophones elsewhere. Because it is allophonic, it often goes unnoticed by native speakers. As an example, compare the /k/ of English key with that of coo, or tea with took. The consonant in the first word of each pair is palatalized, but few English speakers would perceive them as distinct.

The process gets complicated when other phonological and morphological processes that delete the palatalizing sound, such as syncope or elision, make the surface realization appear to be a phonemic contrast when analysis of the deep structure shows it to be allophonic. For example, Romanian consonants are palatalized before /i/. Palatalized consonants also appear terminally as the manifestation of certain morphological markers, particularly to indicate plurality in nouns and adjectives and the second person singular in verbs.[3] On the surface, it would appear then that ban [ban] ('coin') forms a minimal pair with bani [banʲ] The interpretation commonly taken, however, is that an underlying morpheme |-i| palatalizes the consonant and is subsequently deleted.

Palatalization may also occur as a morphological process. For example, although Russian makes phonemic contrasts between palatalized and unpalatalized consonants, alternations across morpheme boundaries are normal:[4]

  • ответ [ɐˈtvʲet] ('answer') vs. ответить [ɐˈtvʲeɪtʲ] ('to answer')
  • несу [nʲɪˈsu] ('I carry') vs. несёт [nʲɪˈɵt] ('carries')
  • голод [ˈɡolət] ('hunger') vs. голоден [ˈɡoləɪn] ('hungry' masc.)

Phonetic palatalization of a consonant often correlates with surrounding vowels. In Russian, "soft" (palatalized) consonants are usually followed by vowels that are relatively more front (that is, closer to [i] or [y]), and vowels following "hard" (unpalatalized) consonants are further back. See Russian phonology for more information.

Local uses of the word[edit]

There are various other local or historical uses of the word. In Slavic linguistics, the "palatal" fricatives marked by a háček are really postalveolar consonants that arose from palatalization historically. There are also phonetically palatalized consonants (marked with an acute accent) that contrast with this; thus the distinction is made between "palatal" (postalveolar) and "palatalized". Such "palatalized" consonants are not always phonetically palatalized; e.g., in Russian, when /t/ undergoes palatalization, a palatalized sibilant offglide appears, as in тема [ˈtˢʲemə].

In Uralic linguistics, "palatalization" has the standard phonetic meaning. /s/, /sʲ/, /ʃ/, /t/, /tʲ/, /tʃ/ are distinct phonemes, as they are in the Slavic languages, but /ʃ/ and /tʃ/ are not considered either palatal or palatalized sounds. Also, the Uralic palatalized /tʲ/ is a stop with no frication, unlike in Russian.

In using the Latin alphabet for Uralic languages, palatalization is typically denoted with an acute accent, as in Võro ś; an apostrophe, as in Karelian s’; or digraphs in j, as in the Savo dialect of Finnish, sj. Postalveolars, in contrast, take a caron, š, or are digraphs in h, sh.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Buckley (2003)
  2. ^ e.g. Bhat (1978)
  3. ^ Chițoran (2001:11)
  4. ^ See Lightner (1972:9–11, 12–13) for a fuller list of examples.


  • 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: 
  • Chițoran, Ioana (2001), The Phonology of Romanian: A Constraint-based Approach, Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-016766-2 
  • 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 
  • Pullum, Geoffrey K.; Ladusaw, William A. (1996). Phonetic Symbol Guide. University of Chicago Press. 


  1. ^ Prior to 1989, several palatalized consonants were represented by curly-tailed variants in the IPA, e.g., [ʆ] for [ʃʲ] and [ʓ] for [ʒʲ]. See also Palatal hook.

External links[edit]