Quantitative Metathesis
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Quantitative Metathesis
Sound change and alternation

Quantitative metathesis (or transfer of quantity)[1] is a specific form of metathesis or transposition (a sound change) involving quantity or vowel length. By this process, two vowels near each other - one long, one short - switch their lengths, so that the long one becomes short, and the short one becomes long.

In theory, the definition includes both

long-short -> short-long


short-long -> long-short,

but Ancient Greek, which the term was originally created to describe, displays only the former, since the process is part of long-vowel shortening.

Ancient Greek

In the Attic and Ionic dialects of Ancient Greek, ?o and ?a often exchange length, becoming e? and e?.[1]

This quantitative metathesis is more accurately described as one form of long-vowel shortening. Usually if quantitative metathesis affects a word, other kinds of shortening do as well, in the forms where quantitative metathesis cannot occur:

  • ?wo -> e? (quantitative metathesis)
  • ?ws -> ews (shortening of long diphthong before consonant)
  • ?i -> ei (analogical shortening)

In general, the vowels affected by this shortening were separated by the Proto-Indo-European semivocalic versions of u or i, usually deleted in later Greek: w (written ? or ) or y (written ).

First declension

The Homeric form of the genitive singular in the masculine first declension sometimes undergoes quantitative metathesis:[2]

P?le?d?o -> * *P?le?d?o -> P?le?de? (genitive singular; alternate form P?l?ïáde? in the first line of the Iliad)[3]

The Attic genitive singular - P?le?d-ou uses a copy of the second-declension ending, which came from the same original form as the Thessalian Aeolic ending -oio (used in Homer)[4] -- o-syo, thematic vowel o and case-ending -syo). The Homeric form comes from the same case ending, with the first-declension pseudo-thematic vowel ?.

Second declension

Nouns in a small subclass of the second declension (known as the "Attic declension") lengthen the o, oi of the ending to ?, ?i. Sometimes this is quantitative metathesis:[5]

Ionic ? l?ós (from l?wós)[6] -> Attic ? le?s "people"
? l?oí -> le?í (nominative plural)

But sometimes, when a long vowel occurs in the ending, ? is shortened to e without an accompanying lengthening of the vowel in the ending (but ou changes to ? to follow the other forms):[7]

? l?oú -> le? (genitive singular)
-> le?í (dative singular)

Third declension

Some third-declension nouns had, in Proto-Indo-European, stems in -u or -i in zero-grade, -ew or -ey in short e-grade, and -?w or -?y in long ?-grade.[8][9] Others had -?w with no variation in ablaut grade, which changed in some forms to ?w, by the Attic-Ionic ? -> ? shift.

In many cases, the w or j was deleted, but sometimes it is preserved as the last element of a diphthong (-eus, -aus).

Stems with ? underwent shortening in Classical Attic-Ionic, but early forms with long ? are preserved in Homer to maintain the original meter. Some forms exemplify the quantitative-metathesis type of shortening:

  • basileús (shortened from * *basil?ws)[10] "king"
Homeric (early Attic-Ionic) basilêos (from basilêwos)[11] -> Classical Attic basilé?s (genitive singular)
? basilêa -> ? basilé? (accusative singular)
basilêas -> basilé?s (accusative plural)
  • Attic ? naûs "ship" (from *? *n?ûs by shortening of ?: Latin n?v-is)
? n?ós (from * *n?wós) -> ? ne?s) (genitive singular)[9]
  • pólis "city"
pól?os (from * *pól?yos) -> póle?s (genitive singular)
  • ? ástu "town"
* *ást?os (from * *wást?wos) -> áste?s (genitive singular)

The accent of the genitive singular of the last two words violates the rules of accentuation. Normally the long vowel of the last syllable would force the accent forward to the second-to-last syllable, giving * *polé?s and * *asté?s, but instead the accent remains where it was before shortening.[12][13]

Other forms of these nouns shorten ? to e, but because the vowel of the ending is long, no quantitative metathesis occurs:[7]

  • *basiln -> basilé?n (genitive plural)

Some forms shorten ? to e before i according to the analogue of the other forms, but without lengthening the i:

Homeric i basilêi -> Attic ? basileî (dative singular)

Other forms involve no shortening, since they come from a short e-grade form of the stem.[8] The accent of the genitive plural is sometimes irregular because it follows the analogue of the genitive singular:

*- poléy-?n -> póle?n (genitive plural -- re-accented after genitive singular)
  • wastéw-?n -> áste?n (also re-accented)


The perfect participle of the verb thn?ísk? "die" undergoes vowel shortening, and quantitative metathesis in the oblique forms:[1]

  • * tethn?w?ts[14] -> ? tethne?s "dead" (masculine nominative singular: perfect with stative meaning)
*? *tethn?wótos -> tethneôtos (masculine/neuter genitive singular)

See also


  1. ^ a b c Smyth, Greek Grammar, paragraph 34 on CCEL: transfer of quantity
  2. ^ Smyth, paragraph 214 footnote: dialectal first-declension forms
  3. ^ . Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek-English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  4. ^ Paul Kiparsky, "Sonorant Clusters in Greek", Language, Vol. 43, No. 3, Part 1, pp. 619-635: Sep. 1967
  5. ^ Smyth, paragraph 238 c: transfer of quantity and shortening in "Attic declension" forms
  6. ^ ?. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek-English Lexicon at the Perseus Project (end of entry)
  7. ^ a b Smyth, paragraph 39: shortening of long vowel before another long vowel
  8. ^ a b Smyth, paragraph 270: stem variation of i, u-stems
  9. ^ a b Smyth, paragraph 278: stem variation of au, eu, ou-stems
  10. ^ Smyth, paragraph 40: shortening of long vowel before u, i, nasals, liquid + a consonant
  11. ^ . Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek-English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  12. ^ Smyth, paragraph 271: accent of genitive singular and plural of some i, u-stems
  13. ^ Smyth, paragraph 163 a: exceptions to rules for antepenult accent
  14. ^ Smyth, paragraph 301 c: masculine/neuter endings for perfect active participle

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