Alternation (linguistics)
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Alternation Linguistics

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 English plural marker commonly spelled s or es.[1] This morpheme is pronounced /s/, /z/, or /?z/,[note 1] depending on the nature of the preceding sound.

  1. 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/
  2. 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/
  3. 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:[2]

  • masculine petit [p?ti], feminine petite [p?tit] "small"
  • masculine grand [?], feminine grande [?d] "tall"
  • masculine gros [o], feminine grosse [os] "big"
  • masculine joyeux [?wajø], feminine joyeuse [?wajøz] "merry"
  • masculine franc [f], feminine franche [f?] "sincere"
  • masculine bon [b], feminine bonne [b?n] "good"

Syntactically conditioned alternation

Syntactically conditioned alternations can be found in the Insular Celtic languages, where words undergo various initial consonant mutations depending on their syntactic position.[3] For example, in Irish, an adjective undergoes lenition after a feminine singular noun:

  • unmutated mór [m?o:] "big", mutated in bean mhór [b?an wo:] "a big woman"

In Welsh, a noun undergoes soft mutation when it is the direct object of a finite verb:

  • unmutated beic [b?ik] "bike", mutated in Prynodd y ddynes feic ['pr?noð ? 'ð?n?s v?ik] "The woman bought a bike"

See also


  1. ^ 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.


  1. ^ Cohn, Abigail (2001). "Phonology". In Mark Aronoff; Janie Rees-Miller (eds.). The Handbook of Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. pp. 202-203. ISBN 0-631-20497-0.
  2. ^ Steriade, Donca (1999). "Lexical conservatism in French adjectival liaison" (PDF). In Jean-Marc Authier; Barbara E. Bullock; Lisa A. Reed (eds.). Formal Perspectives in Romance Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 243-70. ISBN 90-272-3691-7.
  3. ^ Green, Antony D. (2006). "The independence of phonology and morphology: The Celtic mutations" (PDF). Lingua. 116 (11): 1946-1985. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2004.09.002.

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