Consonant gradation

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Consonant gradation is a type of consonant mutation, in which consonants alternate between various "grades". It is typical of Uralic languages such as Finnish, Estonian, Northern Sámi, and the Samoyed language Nganasan. Of the Finnic languages, Votic is known for its extensive set of gradation patterns. Consonant gradation in some of these languages is not (or is no longer) purely phonological, although this may be surmised for various reconstructions of Proto-Finnic. In archiphonemic terms, the mutation is a type of lenition in which there are quantitative (e.g. /kː/ vs. /k/) as well as qualitative (e.g. /k/ vs. /v/) alternations.

What types of consonants and consonant clusters may undergo gradation vary from language to language; for example, Northern Sámi has three different grades (as well as having three quantities of consonant length), and also allows for quantitative gradation of its sonorants /l m n r/. Most Finnic languages, however, have two grades and only allow stops to undergo gradation. Languages may also have other constraints for loanwords; for example, loan words and some personal names in Finnish may have quantitative gradation, but not qualitative; thus, auto does not become *audon '(the) car's', but remains auton.

In addition, the term has been recently used for an unrelated alternation pattern reconstructed for Proto-Germanic, the parent language of the Germanic languages.


The term "consonant gradation" has been used in Uralic linguistics to refer to almost any possible process of word-medial alternation involving lenition or fortition. The more lenited alternant is known as the weak grade; the more fortited alternant is known as the strong grade. The exact realization of the contrast is not crucial. In its widest sense "consonant gradation" can be considered near-synonymous to "consonant alternation", covering a number of unrelated phenomena.

However, in particular consonant gradation refers to a group of processes found in the Samic, Finnic and Samoyedic languages, which share stark similarities, and which are commonly believed to be historically connected. The common archetype is an alternation where a weak grade is found in two specific environments:

  1. A consonant appearing at the beginning of an original non-initial closed syllable
  2. A consonant appearing at the beginning of an original non-initial secondarily stressed syllable

The first type is known as radical gradation or syllabic gradation. A syllable was closed if it ended in a consonant, which in particular always occurred with a word-final consonant, but also if vowels were separated by two or more consonants (including geminates).

The second type is known as suffixal gradation or rhythmic gradation. Already in Proto-Uralic, but also in its descendants Proto-Samic, Proto-Finnic and Proto-Samoyedic, stress originally followed a trochaic pattern, falling on odd-numbered syllables, with the 1st syllable primarily stressed, and the 3rd, 5th… syllables secondarily stressed.

In all languages that maintain this particular type of gradation, it is understood to have originally been a predictable phonological process. In most it has evolved further to a less predictable system of consonant mutation, of morphophonological or even purely morphological nature.

Examples of consonant gradation
Language Alternation
(strong : weak)
Phonetic nature of alternation
(strong : weak)
Estonian sukk : suk-a
/sukːː/ : /sukːɑ/
overlong : long
Finnish sukka : suka-n
/sukːɑ/ : /sukɑn/
long : short
Estonian ait : aid-a
/ɑit/ : /ɑid̥ɑ/
tense voiceless : lax voiceless
Finnish aita : aida-n
/ɑitɑ/ : /ɑidɑn/
voiceless : voiced
Finnish lampi : lamme-n
/lɑmpi/ : /lamːen/
Manner of articulation
stop : nasal
Karelian mušta : mušša-n
/muʃtɑ/ : /muʃːɑn/
Manner of articulation
stop : fricative
Finnish kylki : kylje-n
/kylki/ : /kyljen/
Manner of articulation
stop : semivowel
Finnish teko : teon
/teko/ : /te.on/
Presence of segment
stop : zero

Research history

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Finnic languages

The original effect of gradation in the Finnic languages can be reconstructed as a lenition of the consonant at the beginning of the syllable. Lenition caused geminate (long) stops and affricates to shorten, and it caused already-short voiceless obstruents to become voiced if they were not preceded by another obstruent:

  • *pp [pː] → *p̆p [pˑ]
  • *tt [tː] → *t̆t [tˑ]
  • *cc [t͡sː] → *c̆c [t͡sˑ]
  • *kk [kː] → *k̆k [kˑ]
  • *p → *b
  • *t → *d
  • *k → *g

The voiced stops *b *d *g generally shifted to fricatives *β *ð *ɣ unless they were preceded by a nasal. This change may have occurred already in Proto-Finnic. The fricatives soon underwent further changes, and have been lost from almost all Finnic varieties. (Instances of /ð/ still linger in the Kven language and the traditional dialect of Rauma.)

The weakened grades of geminate consonants still counted as geminates for the purposes of syllabification. That is, a syllable ending with a geminate in the weak grade was still considered closed. One such example of these is the Finnish derivational suffix -ton/tön '-less'. When applied to the word tapa 'custom, practice', one would expect *tapaton when in fact it is tavaton. Historically this suffix was *-ttojn, with a long -tt-. When gradation was introduced, this was not immediately fully shortened, but remained for a period an intermediate quantity, *-t̆t-. This mid-length consonant was still able to trigger gradation of the root, and, when they were changed to be realized as a short, the effects on gradation remained; thus: *tapattoin → *tabat̆tointavaton. This change is also the cause for the present surface forms of the Finnish passive.

Gradation also expanded to include a pattern *s → *h, presumed to reflect a former pattern *s → *z. [1] In cases of root-medial *s, this pattern is generally not in evidence (e.g. Finnish pesä 'nest' : plural pesät), though Votic later reintroduced a gradation pattern /s/ : /z/ here (pezäd). This type of gradation only systematically survives in cases of word-final *s, which between vowels uniformly becomes -h-, i.e. according to the conditions for rhythmic gradation: Finnish pensas 'bush' has the genitive pensaan < *pensahen, but also the essive pensaana < *pensahena (with *h appearing in an open syllable). An example is also found after a stressed syllable, however, in the exceptional monosyllabic root *mees : *meehe- 'man'; and in a fossilized form, in the postpositions lähellä 'near' vs. läsnä 'present', reflecting the adessive and the essive of a root *läse- 'vicinity'.

Several roots developed from bisyllabic to monosyllabic (e.g. *päŋi > *pää 'head'), which is taken into account by rhythmic gradation (partitive: *pää-tä, not **pää-ðä).

Veps and Livonian have largely leveled the original gradation system and reflect both weak and strong grades of single stops as /b d g/; this may be an archaism or a substitution of voiced stops for fricatives due to foreign influence (Russian for Veps, Latvian for Livonian). Escept for northernmost Veps dialects, both grades of geminate stops are also reflected as /p t k/.


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Finnish consonant gradation generally preserves the Proto-Finnic pattern fairly well. The conditioning of syllable structure is still visible in most cases, but it is no longer productive: gradation has become a grammatical feature.

Historical sound changes affecting realization of weak grades

  • The weak grades *p̆p, *t̆t, *k̆k of geminates coincided with plain *p, *t, *k.
  • The weak grades *mb, *nd, *ŋg of nasal+stop clusters were assimilated to geminate nasals /mm/, /nn, /ŋŋ/ (ng).
  • The weak grades *lð, *rð of liquid+/t/ clusters were similarly assimilated to geminate liquids /ll/, /rr/.
  • *β merged with *ʋ (v). This may have been lost later. For example, the 3rd person singular suffix *-pi is represented by a chroneme, i.e. a lengthening of the preceding vowel; e.g. *tule-βi 's/he comes' → Old Finnish tuleu → Modern Finnish tulee.
  • Between two unstressed short vowels (i.e. in the weak grade of suffixal gradation), *ð and *h were lost (but not after a diphthong, cf. illative plurals in -oihin, verbs in -oida); these may be preserved in a variety of dialects.
  • After a stressed vowel, *ð remained up until the dissolution of the Finnish dialects. It was lost entirely in Eastern Finnish, while Western Finnish dialects have varying reflexes: /ɾ/ or /r/ in Ostrobothnian dialects, /l/ in the old Tavastian dialects, /ð/ in archaic Southwestern and Northwestern dialects. As the area of /ð/ shrunk throughout the 17th—19th centuries, standard Finnish /d/ developed as a spelling pronunciation of orthographical d, modeled after other languages such as Swedish, German and Russian.
  • *ɣ also remained until the dissolution of the Finnish dialects. It was generally lost, but in the western dialects it may have become /j/ (most widely between a liquid and /e/, as in kylki, järki above) or /ʋ/ (between two close labial vowels, as in puku above).
  • The geminate affricate *cc : *c̆c (found in e.g. *meccä 'forest') was fronted to a dental fricative *θθ : *θ. This sound has been lost in most dialects. Widely in Eastern dialects, both grades became /ht/, leading to loss of gradation. Standard Finnish was left with an unalternating /ts/ (metsä : metsän), a spelling pronunciation similar to the case of /d/. Other patterns found include unalternating /tt/; alternating /tt/ : /t/ (coinciding with original *tt); alternating /ht/ : /h/ (in Eastern dialects, coinciding with original *ht); alternating /ht/ : /t/; and alternating /ss/ ~ /s/.

These changes have made qualitative gradation has become more complex, especially in the case of k. In standard Finnish, k is the phoneme with the most possible changes. It can disappear as in jalka 'foot' → jalan 'foot-Gen', or:[2]

Environment Change Strong Weak
kv puku
kj kylki
/k/→/ŋ/ sänky

Short t also has developed more complex gradation due to various assimilations. Patterns include t : d (tietää : tiedän), rt : rr (kertoa : kerron), lt : ll (pelto : pellon), and nt ~ nn (antaa ~ annan).

Alternation patterns for p include p : v (tapa : tavan) and mp : mm (lampi : lammen).

Analogical extension of gradation

The consonant clusters /ht/ and /hk/ were, comprising two obstruents, not originally subject to gradation (as is still the case for similar clusters such as /sp/, /st/, /tk/). However, gradation pairs ht : *hð and hk : *hɣ were at one point introduced. The first of these patterns remains common in modern Finnish, e.g. vahti : vahdit 'guard(s)'. The second is only found in a limited number of words, e.g. pohje : pohkeet 'calf : calves', but rahka : rahkat 'quark(s)'. Usage varies for some words with /hk/, e.g. for the plural of nahka 'leather, hide', both nahat and nahkat are acceptable.

Quantitative consonant gradation has expanded to include in addition to the pairs kk : k, pp : p, tt : t, also gg : g and bb : b (but not dd : d) in a number of recent loanwords, such as blogata : bloggaan 'to blog'; lobata : lobbaan 'to lobby'.

Historical sound changes affecting conditions of gradation

One important change was the loss of word-final *-k and *-h early on in the history of Finnish. This resulted in many open syllables with weak grades. In particular, the majority of nouns ending in -e are affected by this, with a weak grade in the nominative form. The imperative form of verbs also ended in a now-lost -k. For examples, side 'bandage', from *siðe, earlier *siðek (cf. Veps sideg, Eastern Votic sidõg); hakea 'to get' → hae! 'get! (imp.)' from *haɣe, earlier *haɣek. Traces of the original syllable closure can be seen in sandhi effects: these classes of words can still be analyzed to contain the assimilative word-final 'consonant' ˣ, realized as lengthening of the next word's initial consonant. Therefore, hae side varastosta 'get a bandage from storage!' is pronounced [hɑe‿sːide‿ʋːɑrɑstostɑ], where the weak grades indeed occur in closed syllables.

The loss of -k combined with loss of d were responsible for the modern Finnish infinitive ending, which was historically *-tak/täk. The final *-k triggered gradation, so that the ending normally became *-dak/däk. In turn, following the loss of d between unstressed vowels, and the loss of final *-k only *-aˣ/äˣ remained. Thus, hakea (originally *hakedak) has only -a as the d was lost. But juo-da 'to drink' kept its d because of the stressed syllable preceding it. In the case of tulla 'to come', the earlier form was *tul-ðak, but the was assimilated to the l according to the rules above. The original strong grade was preserved in hais-ta 'to stink' because of the preceding obstruent s which prevented gradation.

The situation appears differently in the many verbs ending in -ata/ätä. These verbs seem to have preserved the strong grade in the infinitive ending, going counter to the rules of gradation. However, historically it is in fact a weak grade: the stem of the verb itself ended in *-at/ät-, and this is still visible in the 3rd person imperative ending -atkoon/ätköön. Thus, when combined with the infinitive ending, the verb ended in *-attak/ättäk (similar to the origin of the -ton/tön suffix described above). The -k then weakened the consonant from a geminate *-tt- to a single *-t-, and later loss of -k resulted in the final form -ata/ätä. However, even though this is now a single consonant, it was originally a geminate and therefore triggers the weak grade on the syllable before it. So whereas the infinitive may be for example hypätä 'to jump', its original stem was *hyppät-, as can be seen in the first-person singular form hyppään 'I jump', from earlier *hyppäðen with loss of *-ð-.

An opposite effect was caused by the loss of *h and *ð between unstressed vowels. Loss of h affected nouns and adjectives ending in *-s or *-h, such as kuningas 'king'. In the nominative, this -s appeared as usual, and as the preceding syllable was closed, the weak grade ng appeared. But when a case ending such as the genitive -(e)n was added, the result was originally *kuninkasen, which was then weakened to *kuninkahen, and the loss of -h- then resulted in the modern form kuninkaan. The intermediate steps are seen in mies 'man'. Here, following a stressed syllable, the -h- was not lost, so that its genitive is miehen.

Similar changes affected the illative ending, which was -hVn where V was the same as the vowel preceding the ending. The h is preserved after stressed syllables, as in maahan 'into the land' (from maa), but lost otherwise as in kotiin 'into the home' (from earlier *kotihin, from koti). This explains why kotiin retains a strong grade even though a closed syllable follows it. The Pohjanmaa dialect of Finnish retains the -h-, however.

Words that now end in -e are in fact very similar to those ending in -s. These originally ended with -k or -h so that the nominative ended in a consonant just as kuningas and therefore the preceding syllable was in the weak grade. But after an ending was added, the weak grade g appeared, which eventually disappeared just as h did.

Analogical limitation of gradation

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While syllabic gradation remains generally productive, the distortions of its original phonetic conditions have left it essentially a morphologically conditioned process. This is particularly visible in forms that display a strong grade where a weak would be historically expected, or vice versa. Possessive suffixes, in particular, are always preceded by the strong grade, even if the suffix may cause the syllable to be closed. For example, 'our bed' is sänkymme, not ˣsängymme.

Strong grades may also be found in closed syllables in contractions such as jotta enjotten.

Several recent loans and coinages with simple /p, t, k/ are also left entirely outside of gradation, e.g. auto (: auton) 'car', eka (: ekan) 'first', muki (: mukin) 'mug', peti (: petin ) 'bed', söpö (: söpön) 'cute'. A number of proper names such as Alepa, Arto, Malta, Marko belong in this class as well.[3]

Suffixal gradation has been largely lost, usually in favor of the weak grade. While the partitive plurals of kana 'hen' and lakana 'bedsheet' still show distinct treatment of the original *-ta (kanoja, lakanoita), the partitive singulars in modern Finnish both have the weak grade (kanaa, lakanaa), although in several dialects of older Finnish the form lakanata occurred for the latter. Similarly the participle ending *-pa is now uniformly -va, even after stressed syllables; e.g. syö-vä 'eating', voi-va 'being able'. (The original forms may remain in diverged sense or fossilized derivatives: syöpä 'cancer', kaikki-voipa 'almighty'.)


Karelian consonant gradation is quite similar to Finnish: *β *ð *ɣ have been lost in a fashion essentially identical to Eastern Finnish (and may have occurred in the common ancestor of the two), with the exception that assimilation rather than loss has occurred also for *lɣ and *rɣ. E.g. the plural of jalka 'foot' is jallat, contrasting with jalat in Finnish and jalad in Estonian.

Karelian still includes some gradation pairs which Finnish does not. The consonants /t k/ undergo consonant gradation when following a coronal obstruent /s š t/: muistua 'to remember' → muissan 'I remember', matkamatan 'trip' (nom. → gen.). This development may be by analogy of the corresponding liquid clusters. On the other hand, some Karelian dialects (such as Livvi or Olonets) do not allow for gradation in clusters beginning on nasals. Thus, the Olonets Karelian equivalent of Finnish vanhemmat (cf. vanhempi 'older') is vahnembat.

The Karelian phoneme inventory also includes the affricate /tʃ/ (represented in the orthography as č), which may be found geminated and is such subject to quantitative gradation: meččä 'forest' → mečäššä 'in (the) forest'.


Votic has two quantities for consonants and vowels, which basically match up with the Finnish counterparts. The Votic phoneme inventory includes a set of fully voiced stops, which Paul Ariste (A Grammar of the Votic Language) describes as being the same as in Russian. Thus, in addition to quantitative alternations between /pː tː kː/ and /p t k/, Votic also has a system of qualitative alternations in which the distinguishing feature is voicing, and so the voiceless stops /p t k/ are known to alternate with /b d ɡ/.

As in Estonian, Karelian, and Eastern dialects of Finnish, the weak grade *ð of /t/ in inherited vocabulary has been lost or assimilated to adjacent sounds in Votic; the weak grade *β of /p/ has similarly become /v/, or assimilated to /m/ in the cluster /mm/. However, the weak grade of /k/ survives, as /ɡ/ before a back vowel or /j ~ dʲ ~ dʒ/ before a front vowel.[4]

A noticeable feature of Votic is that gradation has been extended to several consonant clusters that were not originally affected. As in Finnish, this includes the clusters /ht/ and /hk/ with a voicing-neutral first member, but also further clusters, even several ones introduced only in Russian loans.

Voicing alternations in Votic gradation
Gradation Example Translation Notes
sz isäizässä 'father' → 'father (elat.)'
rsrz karsiakarzid 'to trim' → 'you trim'
hs [hs]hz [ɦz] lahsi lahzõd 'child' → 'children'
/tʃ/ /dʒ/ retširedžed 'sleigh' → 'sleighs'
ntš /ntʃ/ndž /ndʒ/ tšentšätšendžäd 'shoe' → 'shoes'
ltš /ltʃ/ldž /ldʒ/ jältšijäldžed 'footprint' → 'footprints'
kg lukulugud 'number' → 'numbers' From Proto-Finnic *k → *ɣ.
hk [hk]hg [ɦɡ] tuhkatuhgassa 'ash' → 'ash (elat.)'
ŋkŋg aŋkoaŋgod 'pitchfork' → 'pitchforks' Retained intact from Proto-Finnic *ŋk → *ŋg.
pkbg šāpkašābgad 'hat' → 'hats' A recent Russian loanword.
tkdg mutkamudgad 'hook, curve' → 'hooks, curves'
skzg pǟskopǟzgod 'swallow' → 'swallows'
šk /ʃk/žg /ʒɡ/ šiškašižgad 'rag' → 'rags' A recent Russian loanword.
tšk /tʃk/džg /dʒɡ/ botškabodžgad 'barrel' → 'barrels' A recent Russian loanword.
lklg jalkajalgad 'foot' → 'feet' From Proto-Finnic *lk → *lɣ.
rkrg purkāpurgad 'to take apart you take apart From Proto-Finnic *rk → *rɣ.

The alternations involving the voiced affricate are only found in the Eastern dialects. In the Western dialects, there are several possible weak grade counterparts of :

Gradation of in Western Votic
Gradation Example Translation Notes
retširēd 'sleigh' → 'sleighs'
ntš /ndʲ/ tšentšätšenďäd 'shoe' → 'shoes'
ltšll jältšijälled 'footprint' → 'footprints'
rtšrj särtšisärjed 'roach' → 'roaches'
htšhj mähtšämähjäd 'rye porridge' → 'rye porridges'
stšzz iskeäizzed 'to strike' → 'you strike'

Further minor variation in these gradation patterns was found down to the level of individual villages.

Votic also has a number of alternations between continuants which are short in the 'weak' grade, and geminates in the 'strong' grade (kassā 'to sprinkle/water' vs. kasan 'I sprinkle/water'), as well as more voicing alternations between palatalized stops, and the alternations between nasal+consonant~nasal+chroneme found in Finnish. Votic also includes alternations in which the 'strong' grade is represented by a short consonant, while the 'weak' grade is represented by a geminate: ritõlõn vs. riďďõlla. For comparison, the Finnish equivalents of these is riitelen 'I quarrel' vs. riidellä 'to quarrel'.


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Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Though otherwise closely related to Votic, consonant gradation in Estonian is quite different from the other Finnic languages. One extremely important difference is the existence of three grades of consonants (alternations like strong grade pada 'pot (nom.)', weak grade paja 'pot (gen.)', overlong grade patta 'pot (ill.)'). This can be said to generally correlate with the existence of three degrees of consonant length (e.g. d, t, and tt), but since the alternation d ~ t occurs only after heavy syllables, and the alternations d ~ tt and t ~ tt occur only after light syllables, there is no single paradigm that has this simple alternation. However, weak grades like v, j, or that alternate with stops like b, d, or g originate from the weak grade of these stops, and these may still synchronically alternate with the over-long grades (pp, tt, kk) within the same paradigm, giving paradigms with three underlying grades.

Another extremely important feature of Estonian gradation is that, due to the greater loss of word-final segments (both consonants and vowels), the Estonian gradation is an almost entirely opaque process, where the consonant grade (short, long, or overlong) must be listed for each class of wordform. So, for example, embus 'embrace' has the same form for all cases (e.g. genitive embuse), while hammas 'tooth' has weak grade mm in the nominative hammas and partitive hammast, but strong form mb in the genitive hamba and all other cases of the singular. There is a large number of cases in which inflectional endings are identical except for how they affect the consonant grade, e.g. leht 'leaf' belongs to a declension class in which both the genitive and the partitive singular are formed by adding -e, but the genitive takes the weak form (leh-e), while the partitive takes the strong form (leht-e). In the end, the types of generalizations that can be made are that some inflectional categories always take the strong form (e.g. partitive plural, -ma infinitive), some always take the weak form (e.g. -tud participle), some forms may take the overlong form (some partitive singulars, short illative singular), while other inflectional categories are underdetermined for whether they occur with weak or strong grade. In this last case, within a paradigm some forms are constrained to have the same grade and others are constrained to have the opposite grade; thus all present tense forms for the same verb have the same grade, though some verbs have strong (hakkan 'I begin', hakkad 'you begin', etc.) and others have weak (loen 'I read', loed, 'you read', etc.), and the -da infinitive has the opposite grade from the present (hakata 'to begin', lugeda 'to read').

The system of gradation has also expanded to include gradation of all consonant clusters and geminate consonants (generally quantitative), when occurring after short vowels, and vowel gradation between long and overlong vowels, although these are not written except for the distinction between voiceless stops and geminate voiceless stops (e.g. overlong strong grade tt with weak grade t). E.g. linn [linːː], 'city (nom.)' vs. linna [linːɑ] 'city (gen.)'. In consonant clusters, in the strong grade the first consonant is lengthened, e.g. must [musːt], 'black (nom.)' vs. musta [mustɑ] 'black (gen.)'. Before single consonants, long vowels and diphthongs also become overlong in strong forms and remain merely long in weak forms, e.g. kool [koːːl], 'school (nom.)' vs. kooli [koːli] 'school (gen.)'.

Samic languages

Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Gradation in the Samic languages has developed to a direction similar to Estonian: applying to all consonants, with generally three grades found instead of two, and the original conditions of syllable closure almost entirely obscured. A common feature across Samic is the fortition (usually realized as lengthening) of all consonants in the strong grade. In the languages in closest contact to Finnic (Northern, Inari and Skolt), a number of developments towards the situation in Finnish and Karelian have occurred, such as the representation of the weak grade of *t as /ð/.

Similar to the cases of Veps and Livonian within Finnic, the marginal language South Sami has lost gradation and has /b d g/ for *p *t *k of either grade.

Northern Sámi

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Northern Sámi has a system of three phonological lengths for consonants, and thus has extensive sets of alternations. Not just stops and affricates are subject to gradation, but in addition sonorants and fricatives. Sonorants and fricatives are only subject to quantitative gradation, but stops and affricates are subject to both quantitative and qualitative changes. Some words alternate between three grades, though not all words do. Note that the following apostrophe marking the over-long grade is not used in the official orthography, although it is generally found in dictionaries.

Some gradation triads include the following:

Continuants Over-long long short
/ð/ đ'đ
'to sleep'
'I sleep'
/r̥/ hr'r
'to snore'
'S/he snored'
/m/ m'm
namma ~ namat
'name' ~ 'names'
/s/ s's
viessu ~ viesut
'house' ~ 'houses'
Stops Over-long long short
/p/ hpp /hːp/ hp /hp/ b /b/~/v/
b'b /bːp/ pp /pː/  
/t/ htt /hːt/ ht /ht/ đ /ð/
d'd /dːt/ tt /tː/  
/k/ hkk /hːk/ hk /hk/ g /k/~/∅/
g'g /ɡːk/ kk /kː/  
/tʃ/ hčč /hːtʃ/ /htː/ ž /tʃ/
ž'ž /dːtʃ/ čč /tʃː/  
/ts/ hcc /h:ts/ hc /hts/ z /ts/
z'z /dːts/ cc /tːs/  

North Sámi also has phonotactic rules which provide for more consonant clusters, which are also subject to alternation. In some dialects the syllable structure is what is alternating, not necessarily consonant length or quality. For example, the word bárdni 'boy' contains a schwa vowel between the r and d, but only in the "strong" form of the word, and is lost when the word alternates: /pærᵊtniː/ ~ /pærtniːʰt/ 'boys'.

Samoyedic languages


Nganasan, alone of the Samoyedic languages (or indeed any Uralic languages east of Finnic), shows systematic qualitative gradation of stops and fricatives. Gradation occurs in intervocalic position as well as in consonant clusters consisisting of a nasal and a stop. Examples of Nganasan consonant gradation can be seen in the following table (the first form given is always the nominative singular, the latter the genitive singular):

Gradation Example Gloss
h : b bahi : babi 'wild reindeer'
t : ð ŋuta : ŋuða 'berry'
k : ɡ məku : məɡu 'back'
s : dʲ basa : badʲa 'iron'
ŋh : mb koŋhu : kombu 'wave'
nt : nd dʲintə : dʲində 'bow'
ŋk : ŋɡ bəŋkə : bəŋɡə 'sod hut'
ns : nʲdʲ bənsə : bənʲdʲə 'all'

The original conditions of the Nganasan gradation can be shown to be identical to gradation in Finnic and Samic; that is, radical/syllabic gradation according to syllable closure, and suffixal/rhythmic gradation according to a syllable being of odd or even number, with rhythmic gradation particularly well-preserved.[5]


A limited form of consonant gradation is found in the Ket dialect of Selkup. In certain environments, geminate stops can alternate with short (allophonically voiced) ones, under the usual conditions for radical gradation. E.g.:

Gradation Example Gloss
pː : b qopːə : qobən skin, hide
tː : d utːa : udan hand

Historical connections

There is no consensus view on the ultimate origin of consonant gradation in the Uralic languages. Three broad positions may be distinguished:

  • Gradation in Finnic, Samic and Samoyedic are all connected to one another.
  • Gradation in Finnic and Samic are connected; gradation in Samoyedic is an unrelated phenomenon.
  • There is no connection between gradation in any of the three language groups, and the similarities are accidental.

Helimski (1995) has argued that in light of the identical conditioning of gradation in all three groups, and in the absence of any evidence of the same system of having existed in any unrelated language in the world, the latter two options should be rejected as implausible.[5]

If a connection exists, it is also disputed what its nature may be, again allowing for three broad positions:

  • Gradation is common inheritance (from either Proto-Uralic or Proto-Finno-Samic).
  • Gradation is an areal phenomenon that has developed through language contact.
  • Gradation has developed independently in Finnic, Samic, and Samoyedic, based on a set of common preconditions inherited from Proto-Uralic.

The great geographical distance between the Finnic and Samic peoples on one hand, and the Nganasans on the other, leads Helimski to reject the second option of these.


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  5. 5.0 5.1 Helimski, Eugene. Proto-Uralic gradation: Continuation and traces - In: Congressus Octavus Internationalis Fenno-Ugristarum. Pars I: Orationes plenariae et conspectus quinquennales. Jyväskylä, 1995. [1]


  • Helimski, Eugene 1998. Nganasan. In: Daniel Abondolo (ed.), The Uralic Languages, pp. 480–515. London / New York: Routledge.

External links

See also