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Alternation (linguistics)

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
  • References

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 , , or , depending on the nature of the preceding sound.

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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:[2]

  • 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.[3] 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"

See also


ar: ( ) de:Alternanz (Linguistik) kk: nl:Alternantie (taalkunde) ja: ( ) pl:Alternacja (j zykoznawstwo) ru: uk:

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