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Metathesis (linguistics)

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Metathesis (linguistics)

Sound change and alternation

Metathesis (; from Greek μετάθεσις, from μετατίθημι "I put in a different order"; Latin: trānspositiō) is the re-arranging of sounds or syllables in a word, or of words in a sentence. Most commonly it refers to the switching of two or more contiguous sounds, known as adjacent metathesis[1] or local metathesis:[2]

  • foliage > **foilage
  • cavalry > **calvary

Metathesis may also involve switching non-contiguous sounds, known as nonadjacent metathesis, long-distance metathesis,[1] or hyperthesis:[3]

  • Latin parabola > Spanish palabra 'word'
  • Latin miraculum > Spanish milagro 'miracle'
  • Latin periculum > Spanish peligro 'danger, peril'
  • Latin crocodilus > Italian coccodrillo 'crocodile'

Many languages have words that show this phenomenon, and some use it as a regular part of their grammar, such as in Hebrew and the Fur language. The process of metathesis has altered the shape of many familiar words in the English language, 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, including English "ask" (see below), it is not possible to settle with certainty on the original version.


  • Rhetorical metathesis 1
  • Examples 2
    • English 2.1
    • French 2.2
    • Spanish 2.3
    • Greek 2.4
    • Danish 2.5
    • Slavic languages 2.6
    • Finnish 2.7
    • Hungarian 2.8
    • Egyptian Arabic 2.9
    • Hebrew 2.10
    • Amharic 2.11
    • Japanese 2.12
    • Navajo 2.13
    • Rotuman 2.14
    • Straits Saanich 2.15
    • Telugu 2.16
    • Turkish 2.17
    • Urdu and Hindi 2.18
    • American Sign Language 2.19
  • See also 3
  • Notes 4
  • Bibliography 5
  • External links 6
  • In popular culture 7

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 metathesis.



Metathesis is responsible for some common speech errors, such as children acquiring spaghetti as pasketti. The pronunciation /ˈæsk/ for ask, now considered standard, descends from a northern version of the verb that in most midland and southern texts through the 1500s was spelled with "x" or "cs", showing pronunciation as /ˈæks/. Chaucer, Caxton, and the Coverdale Bible use "ax"; Shakespeare and the King James Bible have "ask".[4]

Some other frequent English pronunciations or pronunciation errors that display metathesis are:

  • iron > iern /ˈaɪərn/
  • comfortable > comfterble /ˈkʌmftərbəl/[5]
  • nuclear > nucular /ˈnjuːkjələr/ (re-analysed as nuke + -cular suffix in particular, binocular)
  • asterisk > asterix /ˈæstərɪks/
  • cavalry > calvary /ˈkælvəri/
  • foliage > foilage /ˈfɔɪlɪdʒ/
  • introduce > interduce /ɪntərˈd(j)uːs/
  • integral > intergal /ˈɪntərɡəl/ or intregal /ˈɪntrɪɡəl/
  • pretty > purty /ˈpərti/
  • relevant > revelant /ˈrɛvələnt/
  • prescription > perscription /pərˈscrɪpʃən/

The process has shaped many English words historically. Bird and horse came from Old English bryd and hros; wasp and hasp were also written wæps and hæps. Likewise, it explains why the 'r' moved after the vowel in third and thirteen, even though they originally had it before like three still does.

The Old English beorht "bright" underwent metathesis to bryht, which became Modern English bright.

The Old English þreo "three" formed þrid "thrid" and þreotene "thriteen". These underwent metathesis to forms which became Modern English third and thirteen.

The Old English verb wyrcan "to work" had the passive participle worht "worked". This underwent metathesis to wroht, which became Modern English wrought.

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.

Metathesis is also a common feature of the West Country dialects.

Some people call the mercury compound thiomersal ‘thimerosal’, resulting from metathesis of the ‘o’ and ‘mer’.


Deliberate metathesis 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, 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:

  • laisse tomber > laisse ton
  • ci > ci
  • français > fran

Some words were metathesized more than once:

  • arabe > beur > rebeu

Ordinary metathesis exists as well and has shaped some words, such as fromage (from formage, "shaping").


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-Jazāʼir).

Lunfardo, an argot of Spanish from Buenos Aires, is fond of vesre, metathesis of syllables. The word vesre itself is an example:

  • revés > vesre "back, backwards"

Gacería, an argot of Castile, incorporates metathesized words:

  • criba > brica

Some frequently heard pronunciations in Spanish display metathesis:

  • calcomanía > calcamonía
  • dentífrico > dentrífico
  • croqueta > cocreta


In Greek, the present stem often consists of the root with a suffix of y (ι˰ in Greek). If the root ends in the vowel a or o, and the consonant n or r, the y switches position with the consonant and is written i:

  • *cháryō > chaírō "I am glad" — echárē "he was glad"
  • *phányō > phaínō "I reveal" — ephánē "he appeared"

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


Some common mispronunciations of Danish words employ metathesis.

  • billeder > bidler "pictures"
  • gennem > gemmen "through"

But metathesis has also historically changed some words

  • kros > kors "(christian) cross"
  • vesp > hveps "wasp"

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 e.g. Polish mleko vs. English milk.


In western dialects of Finnish, historical stem-final /h/ has been subject to metathesis (it is lost in standard Finnish). This leads to variant word forms such as:

  • orhi "stallion" (standard *orih > ori)
  • sauhu "smoke" (standard *savuh > savu)
  • valhe "lie" (standard *valeh > vale)
  • venhe "boat" (standard *veneh > vene)

Some words have been standardized in the metathetized form, e.g.:

  • *mureh > murhe "sorrow"
  • *pereh > perhe "family"
  • *uroh > urho "hero"
  • *valehellinen > valheellinen "untrue"

Sporadic examples include the word vihr "green", which derives from older viherä, and the vernacular change of the word juoheva "jovial" to jouheva (also a separate word meaning "bristly").


In case of a narrow range of Hungarian nouns, metathesis of a h sound and a liquid consonant occurs in nominative case, but the original form is preserved in accusative and other suffixed forms:

  • kehely chalice, but kelyhet (accusative), kelyhem (possessive), kelyhek (plural)
  • teher burden, but terhet (acc.), terhed (poss.), terhek (pl.)
  • pehely flake, but pelyhet (acc.), pelyhe (poss.), pelyhek (pl.)

Egyptian Arabic

A common appearance of metathesis in Egyptian Arabic is when the order of the word's root consonants has changed.

  • Classical Arabic zawǧ > Egyptian Arabic gōz "husband"
  • Classical Arabic mil‘aqah > ma‘la’a "spoon"
  • Persian zanjabil > Egyptian Arabic ganzabīl ~ zanzabīl "ginger"[6]

The following examples of metathesis have been identified in Egyptian Arabic texts, but are not necessarily more common than their etymological spellings:[7]

  • Allāh yil‘an > Allāh yin‘al "God curse!"
  • fir’a masṛaḥiyyah > fir’a maṛsaḥiyya "theatre troupe"
  • falsafah > falfasa "philosophy"

The following loanwords are also sometimes found with metathesis:

  • manalog > malanōg "monologue"
  • isbitalya > istibalya "hospital"

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).


In Hebrew the verb conjugation (binyan) hiṯpaʿʿēl (התפעל) undergoes metathesis if the first consonant of the root is an alveolar or postalveolar fricative. Namely, the pattern hiṯ1a22ē3 (where the numbers signify the root consonants) becomes hi1ta22ē3. Examples:

  • No metathesis: root lbš לבש = hiṯlabbēš הִתְלַבֵּש ("he got dressed").
  • Voiceless alveolar fricative: root skl סכל = histakkēl הִסְתַּכֵּל ("he looked [at something]").
  • Voiceless postalveolar fricative: root šdl שׁדל = hištaddēl הִשְׁתַּדֵּל ("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 ṣlm צלם = hiṣṭallēm הִצְטַלֵּם ("he had a photograph of him taken"); with assimilation of the T of the conjugation.

Hebrew also features isolated historical examples of metathesis. For example, the words כֶּֽבֶשׂ keves[8] and כֶּֽשֶׂב kesev[9] both appear in the Torah, both with the meaning "lamb."


Amharic has a few minor patterns of metathesis, as shown by Wolf Leslau.[10] For example, 'matches' [kǝbrit] is sometimes pronounced as [kǝrbit], [mogzit] 'nanny' is sometimes pronounced as [mozgit]. The word 'Monday" is [säɲo], which is the base for 'Tuesday' [maksäɲo], which is often metathesized as [maskäɲo]. All of these examples show a pair of consonants reversed so that the stop begins the next syllable.


  • /fuiNki/ for /fuNiki/ (雰囲気), meaning "atmosphere" or "mood"[11]

Following are not metathesis but slangs in the entertainment business (music, film, etc.) that intended for outsiders not to understand the meaning of conversation.

  • /neta/ for /tane/ (種), the former meaning "content (of news article)", "food ingredient", "material (for joke or artwork)", the latter "seed", "species","source" [12]
  • /Shisu/ for /Sushi/
  • In slang, the word for sorry, gomen, is sometimes reversed informally as mengo, which is the act like an entertainment business person "Gyokaijin".


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

diʼnisbąąs 'I'm in the act of driving some vehicle (into something) & getting stuck' [ < di-ʼa-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 '-).


The Rotuman language of Rotuman Island (a part of Fiji) uses metathesis as a part of normal grammatical structure by inverting the ultimate vowel with the immediately preceding consonant.

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 metathetic 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.


From a comparative study of Dravidian vocabularies, one can observe that the retroflex consonants (ʈ, ɖ, ɳ, ɭ, ɻ) and the liquids of the alveolar series (r, ɾ, 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.[13] 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-


  • = lēta 'young, tender' < *eɭa
  • = rēyi 'night' < *ira
  • rōlu 'mortar' < oral < *ural


Two types of metathesis are observed in Turkish. The examples given are from Anatolian Turkish, though the closely related Azerbaijani language is better known for its metathesis:

  • Close type:
    • prü = rpü 'bridge'
    • toprak = torpak 'ground'
    • kirpi = kipri 'hedgehog'
    • kibrit = kirbit 'match'
    • kou = koşnu 'neighbour'
    • kimse = kisme 'nobody'
    • bayrak = baryak 'flag'
    • ei = eşki 'sour'
  • Distant type:
    • bulgur = burgul 'parched crushed wheat'
    • ödünç = öndüç 'loan'
    • lanet = nalet "curse"

Urdu and Hindi

Like many other natural languages Urdu and Hindi also manifest this phenomenon. The example given hereunder is diachronic.

Sanskrit जन्म (جنمہ) Janma /dʒənmə/ > Urdu جنم and Hindi जनम Janam /dʒənəm/ "Birth"[14]

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. 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.[15]

See also


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd. ed., under "ask".
  5. ^ With a non-rhotic schwa, this is a normal British pronunciation
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Cf. Leviticus 4:32
  9. ^ Cf. Leviticus 3:7
  10. ^ p. 27, 28. Wolf Leslau. 1995. Reference Grammar of Amharic. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden.
  11. ^ 雰囲気 at ウィクショナリー日本語版(Wiktionary)(in Japanese)
  12. ^ [1] at Kotobank (in Japanese)
  13. ^ Krishnamurti, Bhadriraju Telugu Verbal Bases Motilal Banarsidass Publ. ISBN 81-208-2324-9 p. 51–52.
  14. ^
  15. ^


  • 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).
  • 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

External links

  • Ohio State University Dept. of Linguistics Metathesis Page
  • Compare: 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry – metathesis process

In popular culture

  • Metathesis is described by the character of Data in the episode "Hollow Pusuits" in the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired 04/30/1990.
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