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In linguistics, an alternation is the phenomenon of a morpheme exhibiting variation in its phonological realization. Each of the various realizations is called an alternant. The variation may be conditioned by the phonological, morphological, and/or syntactic environment in which the morpheme finds itself.
Alternations provide linguists with data that allow them to determine the allophones and allomorphs of a language's phonemes and morphemes and to develop analyses determining the distribution of those allophones and allomorphs.
Phonologically conditioned alternation
An example of a phonologically conditioned alternation is the Englishplural marker commonly spelled s or es. This morpheme is pronounced /s/, /z/, or /?z/,[note 1] depending on the nature of the preceding sound.
If the preceding sound is a sibilant consonant (one of /s/, /z/, /?/, /?/), or an affricate (one of /t?/, /d?/), the plural marker takes the form /?z/. Examples:
mass/'mæs/, plural masses/'mæs?z/
fez/'f?z/, plural fezzes/'f?z?z/
mesh/'m/, plural meshes/'m?z/
mirage/m?'r?:?/, plural mirages/m?'r?:??z/
church/'t:rt?/, plural churches/'t:rt??z/
bridge/'br?d?/, plural bridges/'br?d??z/
Otherwise, if the preceding sound is voiceless, the plural marker takes the likewise voiceless form /s/. Examples:
mop/'m?p/, plural mops/'m?ps/
mat/'mæt/, plural mats/'mæts/
pack/'pæk/, plural packs/'pæks/
cough/'k?f/, plural coughs/'k?fs/
myth/'m/, plural myths/'ms/
Otherwise, the preceding sound is voiced, and the plural marker takes the likewise voiced form /z/.
dog/'d/, plural dogs/'dz/
glove/'?l?v/, plural gloves/'?l?vz/
ram/'ræm/, plural rams/'ræmz/
doll/'d?l/, plural dolls/'d?lz/
toe/'to?/, plural toes/'to?z/
Alternation related to meaning
Morphologically conditioned alternation
French has an example of morphologically conditioned alternation. The feminine form of many adjectives ends in a consonant sound that is missing in the masculine form. In spelling, the feminine ends in a silent e, while the masculine ends in a silent consonant letter:
^The vowel of the inflectional suffix -⟨es⟩ may belong to the phoneme of either /?/ or /?/ depending on dialect, and ⟨?⟩ is a shorthand for "either /?/ or /?/". This usage of the symbol is borrowed from the Oxford English Dictionary.