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Metathesis (linguistics)

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Metathesis (/məˈtæθəsɪs/ mə-TATH-ə-siss; from Greek μετάθεσις, from μετατίθημι "I put in a different order"; Latin: transpositio) is the transposition of sounds or syllables in a word or of words in a sentence. Most commonly, it refers to the interchange of two or more contiguous segments or syllables, known as adjacent metathesis[1] or local metathesis:[2]

  • anemone > **anenome (onset consonants of adjacent syllables)
  • cavalry > **calvary (codas of adjacent syllables)

Metathesis may also involve interchanging non-contiguous sounds, known as nonadjacent metathesis, long-distance metathesis,[1] or hyperthesis,[3] as shown in these examples of metathesis sound change from Latin to Spanish:

Many languages have words that show this phenomenon, and some even use it as a regular part of their grammar, such as Hebrew and Fur. The process of metathesis has altered the shape of many familiar words in English 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 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.[citation needed]


American Sign Language[edit]

In ASL, several signs which have a pre-specified initial and final location (such as the signs RESTAURANT, PARENT, TWINS) 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.[4] A proposed prerequisite for metathesis to apply in ASL is that both signs must be within the same region on the body. Constraints on the applications of metathesis in ASL has led to discussions that the phonology breaks down the body into regions distinct from settings.[5]


Amharic has a few minor patterns of metathesis, as shown by Wolf Leslau.[6] For example, "matches" [kəbrit] is sometimes pronounced as [kərbit], [mogzit] "nanny" is sometimes pronounced as [mozgit]. The word "Monday" is [säɲo], which is the base for "Tuesday" [maksäɲo], which is often metathesized as [maskäɲo]. All of these examples show a pair of consonants reversed so that the stop begins the next syllable.


Metathesis among neighbouring consonants happens very commonly in Azerbaijani:

  • prü > rpü "bridge"
  • yapraq > yarpaq "leaf"
  • topraq > torpaq "soil"
  • tsü > stü "smoke"


Some common nonstandard pronunciations of Danish words employ metathesis:

But metathesis has also historically changed some words:

  • kros > kors " (Christian) cross"

Egyptian Arabic[edit]

A common example of metathesis in Egyptian Arabic is when the order of the word's root consonants has changed.

  • Classical Arabic zawj > Egyptian Arabic gōz "husband"
  • Classical Arabic mil‘aqah > ma‘la’a "spoon"
  • Persian zanjabil > Egyptian Arabic ganzabīl ~ zanzabīl "ginger"[7]

The following examples of metathesis have been identified in Egyptian Arabic texts, but are not necessarily more common than their etymological spellings:[8]

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

The following loanwords are also sometimes found with metathesis:

  • manalog > malanōg "monologue"
  • isbitalya > istibalya "hospital"
  • banalti > balanti "penalty" (in football)

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).

Perhaps the clearest example of metathesis in Egyptian Arabic is the modern name of the city of Alexandria: (Al-)Iskandariya (الإسكندرية). In addition to the metathesis of x /ks/ to /sk/, the initial Al of Alexandria has been reanalyzed as the Arabic definite article.


Metathesis is responsible for some common speech errors, such as children acquiring spaghetti as pasketti. The word ask has the nonstandard variant ax pronounced /æks/; the spelling ask is found in Shakespeare and in the King James Bible[9] and ax in Chaucer, Caxton, and the Coverdale Bible.[citation needed] The word "ask" derives from Proto-Germanic *aiskōną.[citation needed]

Some other frequent English pronunciations that display metathesis are:

  • nuclear > nucular /ˈn(j)uːkjʊlər/ (re-analysed as nuke + -cular suffix in molecular, binocular)
  • prescription > perscription /pərˈskrɪpʃən/
  • introduce > interduce /ɪntərˈd(j)uːs/
  • asterisk > asterix /ˈæstərɪks/
  • comfortable > comfturble /ˈkʌm(p)ftərbəl/
  • cavalry > calvary /ˈkælvəri/
  • iron > iorn /'aɪ.ɚn/
  • foliage > foilage /ˈfoʊliɪdʒ/[10]
  • aforementioned > afrementioned /ˈæfrəˌmɛnʃənd/
  • pretty > purty /ˈpɜːrti/[11]
  • jewelry > jewlery /'dʒ(j)uːləri/

The process has shaped many English words historically. Bird and horse came from Old English bridd and hros;[citation needed] wasp and hasp were also written wæps and hæps.

The Old English beorht "bright" underwent metathesis to bryht, which became Modern English bright.

The Old English þrēo "three" formed þridda "thrid" and þrēotene "thriteen". These underwent metathesis to forms which became Modern English third and thirteen.

The Old English verb wyrċan "to work" had the passive participle ġeworht "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 (May have occurred in the early Middle English Period: "nosþyrlu" (c. 1050); "nos-thirlys" (c. 1500). In 1565 "nosthrille" appears; "thirl"/"thurl" survived even longer, until 1878).

Metathesis is also a common feature of the West Country dialects.[citation needed][12]


In the Kurdish language, there are many examples of metathesis, as both forms are used until now, the pre-inverted form and the post-inverted form (depending on the regions).[clarification needed]

Example:(Befr-Berf)this word means snow. The formula (Berf) was used in Afrin and many Kurdish regions in Syria, and the formula (Befr) was used in many Kurdish regions of Turkey.


In western dialects of Finnish, historical stem-final /h/ has been subject to metathesis (it is lost in standard Finnish). That leads to variant word forms:

Some words have been standardized in the metathetized form:

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").


Etymological metathesis occurs in the following French words:

  • brebis from popular Latin berbex meaning "sheep" (early 12th century).[13]
  • fromage from popular Latin formaticus, meaning "formed in a mold" (1135).[14]
  • moustique (1654) from French mousquitte (1603) by metathesis. From Spanish mosquito ("little fly").[15]

Deliberate metathesis also occurs extensively in the informal French pattern of speech called verlan (itself an example: verlan < l'envers, meaning "the reverse" or "the inverse"). 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, and/or take on a slightly different meaning. The process often involves considerably more changes than simple metathesis of two phonemes but this forms the basis for verlan as a linguistic phenomenon. Some of these words have become part of standard French.

A few well known examples are:

  • laisse tomber > laisse ton
  • lourd > relou
  • louche > chelou
  • français > fran

Some Verlan words are metathesized more than once:

  • arabe > beur > rebeu


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 exchanges 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.


In Hebrew the verb conjugation (binyan) hitpaēl (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 = hitlabbēš 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 alveolar affricate: root t͡slm צלם = hit͡stallēm הִצְטַלֵּם ("he had a photograph of him taken"); with assimilation (no longer audible) of the T of the conjugation.

Hebrew also features isolated historical examples of metathesis. For example, the words כֶּֽבֶשׂ keves[16] and כֶּֽשֶׂב kesev[17] (meaning "lamb") both appear in the Torah.


In case of a narrow range of Hungarian nouns, metathesis of a h sound and a liquid consonant occurs in nominative case, but the original form is preserved in accusative and other suffixed forms:[citation needed]

  • kehely "chalice", but kelyhet (accusative), kelyhem (possessive), kelyhek (plural)
  • teher "burden", but terhet (acc.), terhed (poss.), terhek (pl.)
  • pehely "flake", but pelyhet (acc.), pelyhe (poss.), pelyhek (pl.)

The other instances are boholy [intestinal] villus/fluff/fuzz/nap vs. bolyhok, moholy vs. molyhos down/pubescence [on plants], and the obsolete vehem animal's fetus (cf. vemhes "pregnant [animal]"). The first of them is often used in the regular form (bolyh).


  • /fuiɴki/ for /fuɴiki/ (雰囲気), meaning "atmosphere" or "mood"[18]
  • Small children commonly refer to kusuri "medicine" as sukuri.
  • arata- "new" contrasts with atarashii "new".[19]

The following are examples of argot used in the entertainment industry.

  • /neta/ for /tane/ (), the former meaning "content [of news article]", "food ingredient", "material (for joke or artwork)", the latter "seed", "species","source"[20]
  • /sisu/ for /susi/
  • The word for "sorry", gomen, is sometimes inverted to mengo (backslang).


  • The words pȟaŋkéska and kȟaŋpéska are dialectal variants of the same word, meaning "abalone" or "porcelain".[21]
  • The word čhuthúhu, meaning "rib," has its origins in čhuté "side of the body" and huhú "bone", but is more commonly metathesized as thučhúhu.[21]

Malay (including Malaysian and Indonesian variants)[edit]

Metathesis from earlier protoform, though not so prevalent in Malay, can still be seen, as in the following:

Proto-Malayo-Polynesian: *sa > rusa "deer"
Proto-Malayo-Polynesian: *qudip > hidup "alive"
Proto-Malayo-Polynesian: *dilaq > lidah "tongue"
Proto-Malayo-Polynesian: *laqia > halia "ginger""

Loanwords can also be products of metathesis. The word tembikai "watermelon" is a metathesis of mendikai borrowed from Tamil: கொம்மட்டிக்காய், romanized: kommaṭṭikkāy.[22]


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] and 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) (a- is reduced to -).


Metathesis has been used to explain the development of thorn clusters in Proto-Indo-European (PIE). It is hypothesised in the non-Anatolian and non-Tocharian branch, a coronal followed by a dorsal *TK first assimilated to *TsK, and thereafter underwent metathesis to *TsK, so *TK > *TsK > *KTs.[23]

PIE *h₂ŕ̥tḱos "bear" (cf. Hittite hartaggas) > h₂ŕ̥tsḱos > h₂ŕ̥ḱtsos (cf. Sanskrit ṛ́kṣa, Ancient Greek ἄρκτος)
PIE *dʰéǵʰōm "earth" (cf. Hittite tēkan) → zero-grade dʰǵʰōm > dʰsǵʰōm > ǵʰdsʰōm (cf. Sanskrit kṣám, Ancient Greek χθών)


Similar to the French verlan is the Totoiana, a speech form spoken in the village of Totoi in Romania. It consists in the inversion of syllables of Romanian words in a way that results unintelligible for other Romanian speakers. Its origins or original purpose are unknown. Its current use is recreative.[24][25][26]


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.

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 or Czech mléko vs. English milk.

A number of Proto-Indo-European roots indicate metathesis in Slavic forms when compared with other Indo-European languages:

Other roots have diverged within the Slavic family:

Scots Gaelic[edit]

Dùn Breatann, the Gaelic name for Dumbarton meaning 'Fort of the Britons' sees 'Breatann' morphing into '-barton' in English.


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:

Straits Salish languages[edit]

In the Salishan languages Northern Straits and Klallam, 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). Examples from the Saanich (SENĆOŦEN) dialect of Northern Straits:

     T̵X̱ÉT "shove" (nonactual) T̵ÉX̱T "shoving" (actual)
     ṮPÉX̱ "scatter" (nonactual) ṮÉPX̱ "scattering" (actual)
     T̸L̵ÉQ "pinch" (nonactual) T̸ÉL̵Q "pinching" (actual)

See Montler (1986,[31] 1989,[32]2015[33]) and Thompson & Thompson (1969)[34] for more information.


In Swahili, some foreign words can undergo metathesis during their importation. For instance, "American" becomes "mmarekani".


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.[35] 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-


  • = lēta "young, tender" < *eɭa
  • = rēyi "night" < *ira
  • rōlu "mortar" < oral < *ural


Two types of metathesis are observed in Turkish. The examples given are from Anatolian Turkish, though the closely related Azerbaijani language is better known for its metathesis:


Like many other natural languages Urdu and Hindi also have metathesis like in this diachronic example:

Sanskrit जन्म (جنمہ) janma /dʒənmə/ > Urdu جنم and Hindi जनम janam /dʒənəm/ "Birth"[36]

More examples

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Strazny, Philipp (2005). Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Vol. 2, M–Z. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn. p. 679.
  2. ^ van Oostendorp, Marc; et al. (eds.). The Blackwell Companion to Phonology. Vol. 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. ^ "ASL Linguistics: metathesis". Retrieved 2014-01-25.
  5. ^ Sandler, Wendy (2006). Sign Language and Linguistic Universals. Cambridge University Press. pp. 124, 179. ISBN 978-0521483957.
  6. ^ p. 27, 28. Wolf Leslau. 1995. Reference Grammar of Amharic. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden.
  7. ^ Hinds, Martin; Badawi, El-Said, eds. (1986). A Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic. Lebanon: Librairie du Liban. p. 175. {{cite encyclopedia}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd. ed., under "ask".
  10. ^ Oxford English Dictionary Online, Meriam Webster's Dictionary Online
  11. ^ Meriam Webster's Dictionary Online
  12. ^ Halpert, Herbert (1996). Folktales of Newfoundland: The Resilience of the Oral Tradition. New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 9781317551492.
  13. ^ "BREBIS : Etymologie de BREBIS".
  14. ^ "FROMAGE : Etymologie de FROMAGE".
  15. ^ "MOUSTIQUE : Etymologie de MOUSTIQUE".
  16. ^ Cf. Leviticus 4:32
  17. ^ Cf. Leviticus 3:7
  18. ^ "「雰囲気」は[フインキ]? [フンイキ]?|NHK放送文化研究所". NHK放送文化研究所 (in Japanese). Retrieved 2019-06-29.
  19. ^ "新しい(あたらしい) - 語源由来辞典". gogen-allguide.com. 3 September 2006. Retrieved 2019-06-29.
  20. ^ https://kotobank.jp/word/%E3%81%AD%E3%81%9F-595058 at Kotobank (in Japanese) Archived 2016-04-06 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ a b New Lakota Dictionary, Lakota Language Consortium, 2008
  22. ^ Hoogervorst, Tom (2015). "Detecting pre-modern lexical influence from South India in Maritime Southeast Asia". Archipel. 89: 63-93. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/archipel.490
  23. ^ Ringe, Donald A. (2017). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic (2 ed.). Oxford. pp. 20–22. ISBN 978-0-19-183457-8. OCLC 979813633.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  24. ^ "În localitatea Totoi, județul Alba, se vorbește o limbă specifică locului". Realitatea TV (in Romanian). 19 January 2009.
  25. ^ Arsenie, Dan (9 December 2011). "Totoiana – messengerul de pe uliță. Povestea unei limbi inventate de români". GreatNews.ro (in Romanian).
  26. ^ ""Limba intoarsă" vorbită în Totoi". Ziare.com (in Romanian). 2 November 2009.
  27. ^ Yard (land)
  28. ^ p. 1453, http://www.bulgari-istoria-2010.com/Rechnici/Indo-europ.pdf
  29. ^ https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Slavic/mьgla [user-generated source]
  30. ^ https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Slavic/medvědь [user-generated source]
  31. ^ Montler, Timothy R. 1986. An outline of the morphology and phonology of Saanich, North Straits Salish. Missoula: University of Montana Occasional Papers in Linguistics No. 4.
  32. ^ Montler, Timothy. 1989. Infixation, Reduplication, and Metathesis in the Saanich Actual Aspect. Southwest Journal of Linguistics 9.92-107.
  33. ^ Montler, Timothy. 2015. Klallam Grammar. Seattle:University of Washington Press.
  34. ^ Thompson, Laurence C. and M. Terry Thompson. 1969. Metathesis as a grammatical device. International Journal of American Linguistics Vol. 35, No. 3 (Jul., 1969), pp. 213-219
  35. ^ Krishnamurti, Bhadriraju Telugu Verbal Bases Motilal Banarsidass Publ. ISBN 81-208-2324-9 p. 51–52.
  36. ^ Platts, John T. (1884). A dictionary of Urdu, classical Hindi, and English. London: W. H. Allen & Co. p. 392.

General bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]