Palatalization (sound change)

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In linguistics, palatalization /ˈpælətəlˌzʃən/ is a sound change that either results in a palatal or palatalized consonant or a front vowel, or is triggered by one of them. Palatalization involves change in the place or manner of articulation of consonants, or the fronting or raising of vowels. In some cases, palatalization involves assimilation or lenition.

An example of palatalization in English is the colloquial pronunciation of did you? as [dɪdʒuː] rather than [dɪdjuː]


Palatalization is sometimes an example of assimilation. In some cases, it is triggered by a palatal or palatalized consonant or front vowel, but in other cases, it is not conditioned in any way.


Palatalization changes place of articulation or manner of articulation of consonants. It may add palatal secondary articulation or change primary articulation from velar to palatal or alveolar, alveolar to postalveolar.

It may also cause a consonant to change its manner of articulation from stop to affricate or fricative. The change in the manner of articulation is a form of lenition. However, the lenition is frequently accompanied by a change in place of articulation.

Palatalization of velar consonants commonly causes them to front, and apical and coronal consonants are usually raised. In the process, stop consonants are often spirantised except for palatalized labials.[citation needed]

Palatalization, as a sound change, is usually triggered only by mid and close (high) front vowels and the semivowel [j]. The sound that results from palatalization may vary from language to language. For example, palatalization of [t] may produce [tʲ], [tʃ], [tɕ], [tsʲ], [ts], etc. A change from [t] to [tʃ] may pass through [tʲ] as an intermediate state, but there is no requirement for that to happen.

In some Zoque languages, [j] does not palatalize velar consonants but it turns alveolars into palato-alveolars. In the Nupe language, /s/ and /z/ are palatalized both before front vowels and /j/, while velars are only palatalized before front vowels. In Ciluba, /j/ palatalizes only a preceding /t/, /s/, /l/ or /n/. In some variants of Ojibwe, velars are palatalized before /j/, but apicals are not. In Indo-Aryan languages, dentals and /r/ are palatalized when occurring in clusters before /j/, but velars are not.


Palatalization sometimes refers to vowel shifts, the fronting of a back vowel or raising of a front vowel. The shifts are sometimes triggered by a nearby palatal or palatalized consonant or by a high front vowel. The Germanic umlaut is a famous example.

A similar change is reconstructed in the history of Old French in which Bartsch's law turned open vowels into [e] or [ɛ] after a palatalized velar consonant. If it was true for all open vowels in Old French, it would explain the palatalization of velar plosives before /a/.[1]

In Erzya, a Uralic language, the open vowel [a] is raised to near-open [æ] after a palatalized consonant, as in the name of the language, [erzʲæ].

In Russian, the back vowels /u o/ are fronted to central [ʉ ɵ], and the open vowel /a/ is raised to near-open [æ], near palatalized consonants. The palatalized consonants also factor in how unstressed vowels are reduced.


Palatalization is sometimes unconditioned or spontaneous, not triggered by a palatal or palatalized consonant or front vowel.

In southwestern Romance, clusters of a voiceless obstruent with /l/ were palatalized once or twice. This first palatalization was unconditioned. It resulted in a cluster with a palatal lateral [ʎ], a palatal lateral on its own, or a cluster with a palatal approximant [j]. In a second palatalization, the /k/ was affricated to [tʃ] or spirantized to [ʃ].

> Istriot ciamà /tʃaˈma/, Portuguese chamar /ʃɐˈmaɾ/

In the Western Romance languages, Latin [kt] was palatalized once or twice. The first palatalization was unconditioned: the /k/ was vocalized to [i̯t] or spirantized to [çt]. In a second palatalization, the /t/ was affricated to [tʃ]:

> Spanish noche, western Occitan nuèch, Romansh notg

In many dialects of English, the back vowel /uː/ is fronted to near-back [u̟ː], central [ʉː], or front [yː]. This vowel shift is unconditioned, happening in all cases, and not triggered by another sound.

A similar change is reconstructed for Ancient Greek. In the Attic dialect before the Classical period, the back vowels /u uː/ were fronted to [y yː]. During the Koine or Medieval Greek period, they were unrounded to [i iː], and they finally merged as short [i], the pronunciation that they have in Modern Greek.

Anticipatory and progressive

When palatalization is assimilatory or triggered by a consonant or vowel, it is triggered by a following sound (anticipatory) or by a preceding sound (progressive).


Allophony and phonemic split

Palatalization may result in a phonemic split, a historical change by which a phoneme becomes two new phonemes over time through palatalization.

Old historical splits have frequently drifted since the time they occurred and may be independent of current phonetic palatalization. The lenition tendency of palatalized consonants (by assibilation and deaffrication) is important. According to some analyses,[2] the lenition of the palatalized consonant is still a part of the palatalization process itself.

In Japanese, allophonic palatalization affected the dental plosives /t/ and /d/, turning them into alveolo-palatal affricates [tɕ] and [dʑ] before [i], romanized as ⟨ch⟩ and ⟨j⟩ respectively. Japanese has only recently regained phonetic [ti] and [di] from borrowed words, and the originally allophonic palatalization has thus become lexical. A similar change has also happened in Polish and Belarusian. That would also be true about most dialects of Brazilian Portuguese if not it were nor for the strong phonotactical resistancy of its native speakers that turn dental plosives into post-alveolar affricates even in loanwords: McDonalds [mɛ̞kiˈdõnɐwdʑ(is)].

For example, Votic has undergone such a change historically, *keelitšeeli ‘language’, but there is currently an additional distinction between palatalized laminal and non-palatalized apical consonants. An extreme example occurs in Spanish, whose palatalized ('soft') g has ended up as [x] from a long process where Latin /ɡ/ became palatalized to [ɡʲ] (Late Latin) and then affricated to [dʒ] (Proto-Romance), deaffricated to [ʒ] (Old Spanish), devoiced to [ʃ] (16th century), and finally retracted to a velar, giving [x] (c. 1650). (See History of the Spanish language and Phonological history of Spanish coronal fricatives for more information).


Palatalization has played a major role in the history of English, and of other languages and language groups throughout the world, such as the Romance, Greek, Slavic, Baltic, Finnic, Mordvinic, Samoyedic, Iranian, Indo-Aryan, Goidelic, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Twi and Micronesian languages.



In Anglo-Frisian, the language that gave rise to English and Frisian, the velar stops /k g/ and the consonant cluster /sk/ were palatalized in certain cases and became the sounds /tʃ/, /dʒ/ and /j/, and /ʃ/. Many words with Anglo-Frisian palatalization survive in Modern English, and the palatalized sounds are typically spelled ⟨ch, (d)ge, y, sh⟩ in Modern English.

Palatalization only occurred in certain environments, and so it did not apply to all words from the same root. This is the origin of some alternations in cognate words, such as speak and speech /ˈspiːk ˈspiːtʃ/, cold and chill /ˈkoʊld ˈtʃɪl/, burrow and bury /ˈbʌroʊ ˈbɛri/, dawn and day /ˈdɔːn ˈdeɪ/. Here ⟨k⟩ originates from unpalatalized /k/ and ⟨w⟩ from unpalatalized /g/.

Some English words with palatalization have unpalatalized cognates from the Northumbrian dialect and from Old Norse, such as shirt and skirt /ˈʃərt ˈskərt/, church and kirk /ˈtʃərtʃ ˈkərk/, ditch and dike /ˈdɪtʃ ˈdaɪk/. German only underwent palatalization of /sk/: cheese /tʃiːz/ and Käse /kɛːzə/; lie and lay /ˈlaɪ ˈleɪ/, liegen and legen /ˈliːgən ˈleːgən/; fish and Fisch /fɪʃ/.

The pronunciation of wicca as [ˈwɪkə] with a hard c is a spelling pronunciation, since the actual Old English pronunciation gave rise to witch.


Later in English, another palatalization called yod-coalescence occurred. Alveolar stops and affricates were palatalized before the palatal approximant /j/, changing into [dʒ tʃ ʃ ʒ]. In standard English, yod-coalescence applies only in unstressed syllables and causes the words educate /ˈɛdʒʊkeɪt/, nature /ˈneɪtʃər/, pressure /ˈprɛʃər/, measure /ˈmɛʒər/ to have the sounds sometimes spelled ⟨j ch sh zh⟩.

In other dialects, yod-coalescence also applies in stressed syllables, and affects words like dew /ˈdʒuː/, tune /ˈtʃuːn/, assume /əˈʃuːm/, and resume /rəˈʒuːm/.

Romance languages

The Romance languages developed from Vulgar Latin, the colloquial form of Latin spoken in the Roman Empire. Various palatalizations occurred during the historical development of the Romance languages. Some groups of the Romance languages underwent more palatalizations than others. One palatalization affected all groups, some palatalizations affected most groups, and one affected only a few groups.


In Gallo-Romance, Vulgar Latin *[ka] became *[tʃa] very early, with the subsequent deaffrication and some further developments of the vowel. For instance:

  • cattus "cat" > chat /ʃa/
  • calva "bald" (fem.) > chauve /ʃov/
  • *blanca "white" (fem.) > blanche /blɑ̃ʃ/
  • catēna "chain" > chaîne /ʃɛn/
  • carus "dear" > cher /ʃɛʁ/

Early English borrowings from French show the original affricate, as chamber /ˈtʃeɪmbəɾ/ "(private) room" < Old French chambre /tʃɑ̃mbrə/ < Vulgar Latin camera; compare French chambre /ʃɑ̃bʁ/ "room".


Mouillé (French pronunciation: ​[muje], moistened) is a term for palatal consonants in the Romance languages. Palatal consonants in the Romance languages developed from /l/ or /n/ by palatalization.

Spelling of palatal consonants
l mouillé n mouillé
Italian gl(i) gn
French (i)ll (i)gn
Occitan lh nh
Catalan ll ny
Spanish ll ñ
Portuguese lh nh

L and n mouillé have a variety of origins in the Romance languages. In these tables, letters that represent or used to represent /ʎ/ or /ɲ/ are bolded. In French, /ʎ/ merged with /j/ in pronunciation in the 18th century; in many dialects of Spanish, /ʎ/ has merged with /ʝ/. Romanian formerly had both /ʎ/ and /ɲ/, but both have merged with /j/: vīnea > *viɲe > Romanian vie /ˈ "vineyard"; mulierem > *muʎere > Romanian muiere /muˈ "woman".

Examples of palatal /ʎ/
Latin meliōrem
Italian migliore orecchio cavallo luna chiave
French meilleur oreille cheval lune clef
Occitan melhor aurelha caval luna clau
Catalan millor orella cavall lluna clau
Spanish mejor oreja caballo luna llave
Portuguese melhor orelha cavalo lua chave
Romanian ureche cal lună cheie
Examples of palatal /ɲ/
Latin seniōrem
Italian signore cognato anno sonno sogno unghia vino
French seigneur an somme songe ongle vin
Occitan senhor cunhat an sòm sòmi ongla vin
Catalan senyor cunyat any son somni ungla vi
Spanish señor cuñado año sueño sueño uña vino
Portuguese senhor cunhado ano sono sonho unha vinho
Romanian cumnat an somn unghie vin

Satem languages

In certain Indo-European language groups, the reconstructed "palato-velars" of Proto-Indo-European (*ḱ, *ǵ, *ǵʰ) were palatalized into sibilants. The language groups with and without palatalization are called satem and centum languages, after the characteristic developments of the PIE word for "hundred":

  • PIE *(d)ḱm̥tóm > Avestan satəm (palatalization)
Latin centum /kentum/ (no palatalization)

Slavic languages

In the Slavic languages, two palatalizations took place. Both affected the Proto-Slavic velars *k *g *x. In the first palatalization, the velars before the front vowels *e *ē *i *ī and the palatal approximant *j changed to *č *ž *š. In the second palatalization, the velars changed to c, dz or z, and s or š before the Proto-Slavic diphthongs *aj *āj, which must have been monophthongized to by this time.

Mandarin Chinese

In many dialects of Mandarin Chinese,[clarification needed] the alveolar sibilants /ts tsʰ s/ and the velars /k kʰ x/ were palatalized before the medials /j ɥ/ and merged in pronunciation, yielding the alveolo-palatal sibilants /tɕ tɕʰ ɕ/. Alveolo-palatal consonants occur in modern Standard Chinese and are written as ⟨j q x⟩ in Pinyin. Postal romanization does not show palatalized consonants, reflecting the dialect of the imperial court during the Qing dynasty. For instance, the name of the capital of China was formerly spelled Peking, but is now spelled Beǐjīng About this sound [peɪ̀.tɕíŋ], and Tientsin and Sian were the former spellings of Tiānjīn About this sound [tʰjɛ́n.tɕín] and Xī'ān [ɕí.án].

See also



  • Bynon, Theodora. Historical Linguistics. Cambridge University Press, 1977. ISBN 0-521-21582-X (hardback) or ISBN 978-0-521-29188-0 (paperback).
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  • Crowley, Terry. (1997) An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press.
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External links