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Metathesis ( ) is a sound change that alters the order of phones in a word. The most common instance of metathesis is the reversal of the order of two adjacent phonemes, such as "foilage" for foliage. Many languages have words that show this phenomenon, and some use it as a regular part of their grammar (e.g. the Fur language). The process of metathesis has altered the shape of many familiar words in the English language, as well. The nature of the historical sounds before the occurence of metathesis can be clarified either by studying older forms of the language (its lexicon) at hand, or, in case these forms are not attested, it may be deduced via phonological reconstruction.

Rhetorical metathesis

Dionysius of Halicarnassus was a historian and scholar in rhetoric living in 1st century BC Greece. He analysed classical texts and applied several revisions to make them sound more eloquent. One of the methods he used was re-writing documents on a mainly grammatical level: changing word and sentence orders would make texts more fluent and 'natural', he suggested. He called this way of re-writing μετάθεσις - metathesis (meaning "transposition" in Greek).

Metathesis in English

Metathesis is responsible for the most common types of speech errors, such as children acquiring spaghetti as pasghetti. The pronunciation of ask as goes back to Old English days, when ascian and axian/acsian were both in use. Some other frequent English pronunciations that display metathesis are:

  • for ask (possibly the most common metathesis in African American Vernacular English)
  • for asterisk
  • for cavalry
  • for comfortable
  • for foliage
  • for introduce
  • for integral
  • for nuclear (though this likely emerged by analogy with words such as "particular," "binocular," etc.; see nucular)
  • for pretty
  • for relevant

The process has shaped many English words historically. Bird in English was once bryd, horse was hros, wasp is also recorded as wæps and hasp, hæps.Metathesis is also a common feature of the West Country dialects.

Metathesis in French

Modern French makes extensive use of metathesis through a pattern of informal speech called verlan. In verlan new words are created from existing words by reversing the order of phonemes. Verlanization is applied mostly to two-syllable words and the new words that are created are typically considerably less formal than the originals. The process often involves considerably more changes than simple metathesis of two phonemes but this forms the basis for verlan as a linguistic phenomenon.

A few well known examples are:

  • laisse béton for laisse tomber
  • téci for cité
  • céfran for français

Some words were metathesized more than once:

  • rebeu comes from beur which itself comes from arabe

Metathesis in Greek

In Greek, the present stem is often formed by the root with a suffix of -j (often spelled ι˰). If the root ends in a vowel and ν or ρ (n, r), the j switches position with it and becomes ι:

  • *χάρjω → χαίρω "I am glad" (compare ἐχάρη "he was glad")
  • (*chárjōchaírō; echárē)
  • *φάνjω → φαίνω "I reveal" (compare ἐφάνη "it appeared")
  • (*phánjōphaínō; ephánē)

Homeric γουνός gounós (genitive singular), from γόνυ gónu "knee", may be an example of metathesis of *γονϝός gonwós, but more likely it comes from from deletion of digamma, and Ionic or compensatory lengthening of ο o to ου ou.

For metathesis of vowel length, which occurs frequently in Attic Greek, see quantitative metathesis.

Metathesis in Hebrew

In Hebrew the verb conjugation (binyan) (התפעל) undergoes metathesis if the first consonant of the root is an alveolar or postalveolar fricative. Namely, the pattern (where the numbers signify the root consonants) becomes hi1ta22ē3. Examples:

  • No metathesis: root lbš לבש = הִתְלַבֵּש ("he got dressed").
  • Voiceless alveolar fricative: root skl סכל = histakkēl הִסְתַּכֵּל ("he looked [at something]").
  • Voiceless postalveolar fricative: root šdl שדל = hištaddēl הִשְתַּדֵּל ("he made an effort").
  • Voiced alveolar fricative: root zqn זקן = hizdaqqēn הִזְדַּקֵּן ("he grew old"); with assimilation of the T of the conjugation.
  • Voiceless velarized alveolar fricative: root צלם = הִצְטַלֵּם ("he had a photograph of him taken"); with assimilation of the T of the conjugation.

Metathesis in Hungarian

In case of a very narrow range of Hungarian nouns, metathesis occurs before accusative case ending, possessive suffixes, and in plural:

  • kehely, kelyhet, kelyhem, kelyhek – chalice, chalice (accusative), my chalice, chalices
  • teher, terhet, terhed, terhek – burden, burden (accusative), your burden, burdens
  • pehely, pelyhet, pelyhe, pelyhek – flake, flake (accusative), his/her flake, flakes

Note that in all the examples above, the consonant h is transposed to the end of the stem.

Metathesis in Japanese

  • /fuiNki/ for /fuNiki/ (雰囲気), meaning "atmosphere" or "mood"

Metathesis in Navajo

In Navajo, verbs have (often multiple) morphemes prefixed onto the verb stem. These prefixes are added to the verb stem in a set order in a prefix positional template. Although prefixes are generally found in a specific position, some prefixes change order by the process of metathesis.

For example, prefix 'a- (3i object pronoun) usually occurs before di-, as in

adisbąąs 'I'm starting to drive some kind of wheeled vehicle along' [ 'a- + di- + sh- + ł + -bąąs].

However, when 'a- occurs with the prefixes di- and ni-, the 'a- metathesizes with di-, leading to an order of di- + 'a- + ni-, as in

di'nisbąąs 'I'm in the act of driving some vehicle (into something) & getting stuck' [ di-'a-ni-sh-ł-bąąs 'a- + di- + ni- + sh- + ł + -bąąs]

instead of the expected *adinisbąąs (a-di-ni-sh-ł-bąąs) (note also that 'a- is reduced to '-).

Metathesis in Slavic languages

Metathesis of liquid consonants is an important historical change during the development of the Slavic languages: a syllable-final liquid metathesized to become syllable-initial, therefore eg. Polish mleko vs. English milk.

Metathesis in Spanish

Old Spanish showed occasional metathesis when phonemes not conforming to the usual euphonic constraints were joined. This happened, for example, when a clitic pronoun was attached to a verb ending: it is attested that forms like dejadle "leave [plural] him" were often metathesized to dejalde (the phoneme cluster /dl/ is not allowed anywhere else in Spanish). Milagro "miracle" is a metathesized derivation from Latin miraculum, which also shows typical intervocalic voicing and syncope.

Lunfardo, an argot of Spanish from Buenos Airesmarker, is fond of vesre, a form of intentional metathesis that involves changes in the order of whole syllables as well as individual phonemes (vesre is the inverted form of revés "back, backwards"). Gacería, an argot of Castile, also incorporates words formed through metathesis (brica for "criba", for example).

Some frequently heard pronunciations in Spanish that display metathesis are:

  • calcamonía for calcomanía
  • dentrífico for dentífrico
  • cocreta for croqueta

Metathesis in Straits Saanich

In Straits Saanich metathesis is used as a grammatical device to indicate "actual" aspect. The actual aspect is most often translated into English as a be ... -ing progressive. The actual aspect is derived from the "nonactual" verb form by a CV → VC metathesis process (i.e. consonant metathesizes with vowel).

     T̵X̱ÉT 'shove' (nonactual) T̵ÉX̱T 'shoving' (actual)
     ṮPÉX̱ 'scatter' (nonactual) ṮÉPX̱ 'scattering' (actual)
     T̸L̵ÉQ 'pinch' (nonactual) T̸ÉL̵Q 'pinching' (actual)

See Montler (1986), Thompson & Thompson (1969) for more information.

Metathesis in Telugu

From a comparative study of Dravidian vocabularies, one can observe that the retroflex consonants ( ) and the liquids of the alveolar series ( ) do not occur initially in common Dravidian etyma, but Telugu has words with these consonants at the initial position. It was shown that the etyma underwent a metathesis in Telugu, when the root word originally consisted of an initial vowel followed by one of the above consonants. When this pattern is followed by a consonantal derivative, metathesis has occurred in the phonemes of the root-syllable with the doubling of the suffix consonant (if it had been single); when a vowel derivative follows, metathesis has occurred in the phonemes of the root syllable attended by a contraction of the vowels of root and (derivative) suffix syllables. These statements and the resulting sequences of vowel contraction may be summed up as follows:

Type 1: V1C1-C² > C1V1-C²C²

Type 2: V1C1-V²- > C1V1-


  • lē = lēta (young, tener) *eɭa
  • rē = rēyi (night) *ira
  • rōlu (mortar) <="" *ural="">

Metathesis in American Sign Language

In ASL, several signs which have a pre-specified initial and final location can have the order of these two locations reversed in contexts which seem to be purely phonological. For example the sign DEAF, prototypically made with the '1' handshape making contact first with the cheek and then moving to contact the jaw (as in the sentence FATHER DEAF) can have these locations reversed if the preceding sign, when part of the same constituent, has a final location more proximal to the jaw (as in the sentence MOTHER DEAF). Both forms of the sign DEAF are acceptable to native signers. (This information has not been cited. Use with caution. Please, refer to Linguistics of American Sign Language: An Introduction (1995, pp. 43–44), C. Valli & C. Lucas, Gallaudet University Press.)

Examples in popular culture

In the Hollow Pursuits episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lt. Commander Data explains the meaning of metathesis after Captain Picard mistakenly calls Lt. Barclay "Mr. Broccoli". After Barclay leaves, Data says to the captain, "metathesis is one of the most common of pronunciation errors, sir; a reversal of vowel and consonant; 'barc' to broc'...". Data mispronounces the word 'metathesis', stressing the third rather than the second syllable.

See also

External links


  1. 雰囲気 at ウィクショナリー日本語版(Wiktionary)(in Japanese)
  2. Krishnamurti, Bhadriraju Telugu Verbal Bases Motilal Banarsidass Publ. ISBN 8-120-82324-9 p. 51–52.


  • Montler, Timothy. (1986). An outline of the morphology and phonology of Saanich, North Straits Salish. Occasional Papers in Linguistics (No. 4). Missoula, MT: University of Montana Linguistics Laboratory. (Revised version of the author's PhD dissertation, University of Hawaii).
  • Thompson, Laurence C.; & Thompson, M. Terry. (1969). Metathesis as a grammatical device. International Journal of American Linguistics, 35, 213–219.
  • Young, Robert W., & Morgan, William, Sr. (1987). The Navajo language: A grammar and colloquial dictionary, (rev. ed.). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1014-1

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