Metathesis (; from Greek , from ? "I put in a different order"; Latin: transpositio) is the transposition of sounds or syllables in a word or of words in a sentence. Most commonly, it refers to the interchange of two or more contiguous segments or syllables, known as adjacent metathesis or local metathesis:
Metathesis may also involve interchanging non-contiguous sounds, known as nonadjacent metathesis, long-distance metathesis, or hyperthesis, as shown in these examples of metathesis sound change from Latin to Spanish:
Many languages have words that show this phenomenon, and some even use it as a regular part of their grammar, such as Hebrew and Fur. The process of metathesis has altered the shape of many familiar words in English as well.
The original form before metathesis may be deduced from older forms of words in the language's lexicon or, if no forms are preserved, from phonological reconstruction. In some cases it is not possible to settle with certainty on the original version.
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 metathesis.
Metathesis is responsible for some common speech errors, such as children acquiring spaghetti as pasketti. The pronunciation /'æsk/ (American English) for ask is now considered standard, and the spelling "ask" was used by Shakespeare and in the King James Bible. Chaucer, Caxton, and the Coverdale Bible, however, use "ax". The word "ask" derives from Proto-Germanic *aiskona.
Some other frequent English pronunciations that display metathesis are:
The Old English þyrl "hole" underwent metathesis to þryl. This gave rise to a verb þrylian "pierce", which became Modern English thrill, and formed the compound nosþryl "nose-hole" which became Modern English nostril (May have occurred in the early Middle English Period: 'nosþyrlu' (circa 1050); 'nos-thirlys' (c. 1500). In 1565 'nosthrille' appears. 'thirl/thurl' survived even longer until 1878).
Etymological metathesis occurs in the following French words:
Deliberate metathesis also occurs extensively in the informal French pattern of speech called verlan (itself an example: verlan < l'envers, meaning 'the reverse'). In verlan new words are created from existing words by reversing the order of syllables. Verlanization is applied mostly to two-syllable words and the new words that are created are typically considerably less formal than the originals, and/or take on a slightly different meaning. The process often involves considerably more changes than simple metathesis of two phonemes but this forms the basis for verlan as a linguistic phenomenon. Some of these words have become part of standard French.
A few well known examples are:
Some Verlan words are metathesized more than once:
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/ does not occur elsewhere in Spanish). The Spanish name for Algeria (Argelia) is likely a metathesis of the Arabic name for the territory (al-Jaz?'ir).
Some frequently heard pronunciations in Spanish display metathesis:
In Greek, the present stem often consists of the root with a suffix of y (?? in Greek). If the root ends in the vowel a or o, and the consonant n or r, the y exchanges position with the consonant and is written i:
Some common nonstandard pronunciations of Danish words employ metathesis:
But metathesis has also historically changed some words:
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 e.g. Polish mleko or Czech mléko vs. English milk.
Other roots have diverged within the Slavic family:
In western dialects of Finnish, historical stem-final /h/ has been subject to metathesis (it is lost in standard Finnish). That leads to variant word forms:
Some words have been standardized in the metathetized form:
The other instances are boholy [intestinal] villus/fluff/fuzz/nap vs. bolyhok, moholy vs. molyhos down/pubescence [on plants], and the obsolete vehem animal's fetus (cf. vemhes 'pregnant [animal]'). The first of them is often used in the regular form (bolyh).
Similar to the French verlan is the Totoiana, a speech form spoken in the village of Totoi in Romania. It consists in the inversion of syllables of Romanian words in a way that results unintelligible for other Romanian speakers. Its origins or original purpose are unknown, but it is nowadays spoken for fun.
A common example of metathesis in Egyptian Arabic is when the order of the word's root consonants has changed.
The following examples of metathesis have been identified in Egyptian Arabic texts, but are not necessarily more common than their etymological spellings:
The following loanwords are also sometimes found with metathesis:
The likely cause for metathesis in the word "hospital" is that the result resembles a common word pattern familiar to Arabic speakers (namely a Form X verbal noun).
Perhaps the clearest example of metathesis in Egyptian Arabic is the modern name of the city of Alexandria: (Al-)Iskandariya (?). In addition to the metathesis of x /ks/ to /sk/, the initial Al of Alexandria has been reanalyzed as the Arabic definite article.
In Hebrew the verb conjugation (binyan) hitpa?l () undergoes metathesis if the first consonant of the root is an alveolar or postalveolar fricative. Namely, the pattern hi?1a22?3 (where the numbers signify the root consonants) becomes hi1ta22?3. Examples:
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Metathesis among neighbouring consonants happens very commonly in Azerbaijani.
Amharic has a few minor patterns of metathesis, as shown by Wolf Leslau. For example, "matches" [k?brit] is sometimes pronounced as [k?rbit], [mogzit] "nanny" is sometimes pronounced as [mozgit]. The word 'Monday" is [sä?o], which is the base for "Tuesday" [maksä?o], which is often metathesized as [maskä?o]. All of these examples show a pair of consonants reversed so that the stop begins the next syllable.
Small children commonly refer to kusuri "medicine" as sukuri[check spelling].
arata- "new" contrasts with atarashii "new".
The following are examples of argot used in the entertainment industry.
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
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
instead of the expected *adinisbs (a-di-ni-sh-?-bs) (a- is reduced to -).
In 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 metathetic process (i.e. consonant metathesizes with vowel).
|T?X?ÉT "shove" (nonactual)||->||T?ÉX?T "shoving" (actual)|
|?PÉX? "scatter" (nonactual)||->||?ÉPX? "scattering" (actual)|
|T?L?ÉQ "pinch" (nonactual)||->||T?ÉL?Q "pinching" (actual)|
See Montler (1986), Thompson & Thompson (1969) for more information.
In Swahili, some foreign words can undergo metathesis during their importation. For instance, "american" becomes "mmarekani".
From a comparative study of Dravidian vocabularies, one can observe that the retroflex consonants (?, ?, ?, ?, ?) and the liquids of the alveolar series (r, ?, l) 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-
Like many other natural languages Urdu and Hindi also have metathesis like in this diachronic example:
In ASL, several signs which have a pre-specified initial and final location (such as the signs RESTAURANT, PARENT, TWINS) can have the order of these two locations reversed in contexts which seem to be purely phonological. While not possible with all signs, this does happen with quite a few. 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. A proposed prerequisite for metathesis to apply in ASL is that both signs must be within the same region on the body. Constraints on the applications of metathesis in ASL has led to discussions that the phonology breaks down the body into regions distinct from settings.
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