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In Slavic languages, iotation (IPA [joʊˈteɪʃən]) is a form of palatalization which occurs when a consonant comes into contact with a palatal approximant /j/ from the succeeding morpheme. The sound /j/ is represented by iota (ι) in the Cyrillic alphabet and the Greek alphabet it is based on, hence the name. For example, ni in English onion has the sound of iotated n. Iotation is a distinct phenomenon from Slavic first palatalization (in which only the front vowels are involved), although the end result is similar.

Sound change[edit]

Iotation occurs when a labial (/m/, /b/), dental (/n/, /s/, /l/) or velar (/k/, /g/, /x/) consonant comes into contact with a iotified vowel, i.e. one preceded by a palatal glide /j/. As result, the consonant becomes partially or completely palatalized.[1] In many Slavic languages, iotated consonants are called "soft" and the process of iotation is called "softening".

Iotation can result in a partial palatalization, meaning the center of the tongue is raised during and after the articulation of the consonant, or in a complete sound change to a palatal or alveolo-palatal consonant. The table below summarizes the typical outcomes in modern Slavic languages:

Labial Dental/alveolar Velar
origin partial complete origin partial complete origin partial complete
m mj, mʎ n ɳ k c, t͡ɕ, t͡ʃ
b bj, bʎ d ɟ, d͡ʑ g ɟ, d͡ʑ, d͡ʒ
p pj, pʎ t c, t͡ɕ x ç, ɕ, ʃ
v vj, vʎ s ɕ, ʃ
f fj, fʎ z ʑ, ʒ
l ʎ

According to most scholars, the period of iotation started approximately in the 5th century, in the era of Proto-Slavic, and it lasted for several centuries, probably into the late Common Slavic dialect differentiation. Examples from the early stage include:[1]

  • Proto-Slavic *kĭasĭa > Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian чаша, Czech číše, Serbo-Croatian čaša


Iotified vowels[edit]

In Slavic languages, iotified vowels are preceded by an palatal approximant /j/ before a vowel at the beginning of a word or between two vowels in the middle of a word, creating a diphthongoid (a partial diphthong).[2] In the Greek alphabet this consonant is represented by iota (ι), hence the name. For example, the English apple is cognate to Russian яблоко (jabloko); they both come from an Indo-European stem *ābol-. As a result of this phenomenon, no native Slavic root starts with an [e] or an [a], but only with a [je] and [ja], although other vowels are possible. This process is still partially productive in some rural areas.

As it was invented for the writing of Slavic languages, the original Cyrillic script has relatively complex ways for representing iotation, devoting an entire class of letters to deal with the issue; there are letters which represent iotified vowels; these same letters also palatalize preceding consonants, which is why iotation and palatalization are often mixed up. There are also two special letters (Ь and Ъ) that prevent that palatalization, but the first one itself palatalizes the consonant again, thus allowing combinations of both palatalized and non-palatalized consonants with [j]. Originally, they were super-short vowels [i] and [u] themselves. The exact use depends on the language.

The adjective for a phone which undergoes iotation is iotated. The adjective for a letter formed as a ligature of the Early Cyrillic I (І) and another letter (which is used to represent iotation) is iotified[citation needed]. Note that the use of a iotified letter does not necessarily denote iotation. Even a iotified letter following a consonant letter is not iotated in most orthographies, although iotified letters imply iotated pronunciation after vowels, soft and hard signs as well as in isolation.

In the Cyrillic alphabet, some letter forms are iotified, that is, formed as a ligature of Early Cyrillic I (І) and a vowel.

Normal Iotified Comment
Name Shape Sound Name Shape Sound
A А /a/ Iotified A /ja/ Now supplanted by Ya (Я)
E Е /e/ Iotified E Ѥ /je/ No longer used
Uk ОУ /u/ Iotified Uk Ю /ju/ Uk is an archaic form of U (У)
Little Yus Ѧ /ẽ/ Iotified Little Yus Ѩ /jẽ/ No longer used
Big Yus Ѫ /õ/ Iotified Big Yus Ѭ /jõ/ No longer used

In old inscriptions, other iotified letters, even consonants, could be found, but these are not parts of a regular alphabet.

There are more letters which serve the same function, but their glyphs are not made in the same way.

Normal Iotified Comment
Name Shape Sound Name Shape Sound
A А /a/ Ya Я /ja/
E Э /e/ Ye Е /je/ Used in Belarusian and Russian
E Е Ye Є Used in Ukrainian
I І /i/ Yi Ї /ji/ Used in Ukrainian
O О /o/ Yo Ё /jo/ Used in Belarusian and Russian

Iotated consonant letters[edit]

Iotated consonants occur as result of iotation. A iotated consonant is represented in IPA with superscript j after it and in X-SAMPA with apostrophe after it, so the pronunciation of iotated n could be represented as [nʲ] or [n'].

Name Shape Sound
Dje Ђ ђ /dʲ/
Gje Ѓ ѓ /gʲ/
Lje Љ љ /lʲ/
Nje Њ њ /nʲ/
Tje Ћ ћ /tʲ/
Kje Ќ ќ /kʲ/

When Vuk Karadžić reformed the Serbian language (the system still largely influential over the Macedonian language), he created new letters to represent iotated consonants.



See also[edit]