Metathesis in Language 2.0


Language Family


A long vowel and a following consonant metathesize.

A velar stop metathesizes with an adjacent bilabial stop.

Type(s) of metathesis

Type Status Optionality Position Location
a. CV Synchronic Obligatory Adjacent Root-internal
b. CC Synchronic Obligatory Adjacent Between root and suffix

Case types and qualities


CV metathesis: CV:CV ---> CCV:- ka
mi:nu-ka ---> mɳi:-ka 'fish'
pe:nu-ka ---> pɳe:-ka 'lice'

CC metathesis: -k + p- ---> -p + k-
gok-pi-n-esi ---> gop-ki-n-esis 'cought continuously-he'
mek-pi-t-u ---> mep-ki-t-u 'plucked-they'


No conditions could be found


a. CC Metathesis
Acoustic and Auditory Similarity (Hume 1997, 1998, 2001): The observation that only a labial and velar stop undergo metathesis but no others can be attributed to the acoustic and auditory similarity between the two consonants. This similarity is recognized in the feature geometry of Jakobson, Fant & Halle (1952) in which labials and velars are classified as [grave], a class which includes sounds having energy predominantly in the lower end of the spectrum.

Perceptual Enhancement (Hume 2001): An experimental study of the salience of consonant place in the context VCCV suggests that positioning a dorsal stop consonant in the onset, even when unstressed, provides a greater boost in perceptibility than it does for a labial stop consonant (Winters 1999). As the result of metathesis, the two consonants occur in the contexts which maximize their individual salience as well as the overall salience of the pair. Thus, contrast is strengthened along both syntagmatic and paradigmatic dimensions.


ɳ = retroflex dental nasal

A consonant/consonant metathesis essentially identical to the one observed here is found in the related language Kui .


Note that an absolute prohibition against a long vowel in a closed syllable cannot be forcing metathesis since you do get such sequences, e.g. e@n cdu [cup your hand pl.], ma@tcpia@- to plan

Question: But what's the frequency of one sequence over the other? Could the sequence with the long vowel + coda consonant be less frequent?

Answer: Total words in vocabulary list provided by Israel: over 3,100 words.
Count of words where the first syllable contained a long vowel followed by (a) a single CV and (b) CCV.

V:CV 699
V:CCV 194
In this last group, 164 of the consonants are homorganic, while only 30 are non-homorganic (e.g., p?, pk, pl, brc, bnc, tck, sk, sp, vr, ncb, ncp, ncv, rp, rv, rct, rcg, rk, lg, ?m, ?l, ?v, h?).

Conclusion: Superheavy closed initial syllables are not disallowed but they are significantly less frequent than heavy open syllables. The sequences that metathesize are also disfavoured (though not excluded) given that they are, for the most part, non-homorganic.

Note: What about the fact that you're creating complex onsets by metathesis? That is, you're supposedly simplifying one structure but making another structure more complex. This is supported by the numbers: there are only 150 words listed that have an initial consonant cluster (all with a sonorant consonant as the second member). This means that the observation that initial clusters are not numerous does not impede metathesis from occurring. In fact, as Israel points out, there are new clusters being created by metathesis.

Israel also notes that new clusters of consonants are being fromed by metathesis and in his list he includes words with short vowels as well as long vowels.

grcu:- 'to knock against something'
gncu:- 'id'
drcova 'basket'
kncupa 'berry of a tree'
krcupa 'id'


  • Hume, Elizabeth. 2001. Metathesis: Formal and Functional Considerations. In E. Hume, N. Smith & J. van de Weijer, Surface Syllable Structure and Segment Ordering. Leiden, NL: HIL.
  • Israel, M. 1979. A grammar of the Kuvi language. Dravidian Linguistics Association. Vanchiyoor, Trivandrum, India.