In linguistics, an alternation is the phenomenon of a phoneme or 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
- Alternation related to meaning
- Morphologically conditioned alternation
- Syntactically conditioned alternation
- See also
Phonologically conditioned alternation
An example of a phonologically conditioned alternation is the English plural marker commonly spelled s or es. This morpheme is pronounced , , or , depending on the nature of the preceding sound.
- If the preceding sound is a sibilant consonant (one of , or ), the plural marker takes the form . Examples:
mass , plural masses
fez , plural fezzes
mesh , plural meshes
mirage , plural mirages
church , plural churches
bridge , plural bridges
- Otherwise, if the preceding sound is voiceless, the plural marker takes the likewise voiceless form . Examples:
mop , plural mops
mat , plural mats
pack , plural packs
cough , plural coughs
myth , plural myths
- Otherwise, the preceding sound is voiced, and the plural marker takes the likewise voiced form .
dog , plural dogs
glove , plural gloves
ram , plural rams
doll , plural dolls
toe , plural toes
Alternation related to meaning
Morphologically conditioned alternation
An example of a morphologically conditioned alternation is found in French, where many adjectives have a consonant at the end in the feminine gender that is missing in the masculine:
- masculine petit , feminine petite "small"
- masculine grand , feminine grande "tall"
- masculine gros , feminine grosse "big"
- masculine joyeux , feminine joyeuse "merry"
- masculine franc , feminine franche "sincere"
- masculine bon , feminine bonne "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. For example, in Irish, an adjective undergoes lenition after a feminine singular noun:
- unmutated m r "big", mutated in bean mh r "a big woman"
In Welsh, a noun undergoes soft mutation when it is the direct object of a finite verb:
- unmutated beic "bike", mutated in Prynodd y ddynes feic "The woman bought a bike"
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