In linguistics, apophony (also ablaut, gradation, alternation, internal modification, stem modification, stem alternation, replacive morphology, stem mutation, internal inflection) is the alternation of sounds within a word that indicates grammatical information (often inflectional).


Apophony is exemplified in English as the "internal" vowel alternations that produce such related words as

* sing, sang, sung, song
* rise, raise
* bind, bound
* goose, geese

The difference in these vowels marks variously a difference in tense or aspect (e.g. "sing/sang/sung"), transitivity ("rise/raise"), part of speech ("sing/song", "bind/bound"), or grammatical number ("goose/geese").

Similarly, there are consonant alternations which are also used grammatically:

* belief, believe
* house (noun), house (verb) (phonetically: IPA| [haʊs] (noun), IPA| [haʊz] (verb))

That these sound alternations function grammatically can be seen as they are often equivalent to grammatical suffixes (an "external modification"). Compare the following:


A-mutation and U-mutation are processes analogous to umlaut but involving the influence of an "a" (or other non-high vowel) or "u" respectively instead of an "i".

Note that in Indo-European historical linguistics the terms "ablaut" and "umlaut" refer to different phenomena. They are not interchangeable.

The Germanic scholars who coined the terms "ablaut" and "umlaut" in the 19th century used them to distinguish two types of vowel alternation patterns with differing origins and differing reflexes in the modern languages. In this usage, "umlaut" is a specific case of vowel alternation that has developed from a historical instance of regressive vowel harmony. Indo-European "ablaut" is a different vowel alternation of uncertain origin. In purely descriptive (synchronic) terms, Germanic umlaut is a regular system that always involves vowel fronting, whereas in the modern languages "ablaut" appears to have no regularity.

This traditional distinction is retained by historical (diachronic) linguists, and is particularly important in the context of Indo-European evolution. It is rather less important for descriptive studies, where for most purposes the vowel alternation in "foot/feet" is analogous to that in "sing/sang/sung". However, the regularity of Germanic "umlaut" means that this distinction remains standard in textbooks for learners of German, Dutch and Scandinavian languages. (As an illustration, the preceding examples translate as follows into German: "Fuß/Füße" [Umlaut] , "singen/sang/gesungen" [Ablaut] .)

Later linguists have broadened the meaning of "ablaut" to refer to vowel alternation generally, and of "umlaut" to refer also to other types and instances of regressive vowel harmony. When the terminology is used in this more inclusive way, "umlaut" is considered a sub-set of ablaut. Ambiguity can of course be avoided by using alternative terms ("apophony", "gradation", "alternation", "internal modification") for the broader sense of the word.

Types of apophony

Apophony may involve various types of alternations, including vowels, consonants, prosodic elements (such as tone, syllable length), and even smaller features, such as nasality (on vowels).

The sound alternations may be used inflectionally or derivationally. The particular function of a given alternation will depend on the language.

Vowel apophony (ablaut)

Apophony often involves vowels. Indo-European ablaut (also called Indo-European "vowel gradation") is a well attested example. The English example cited above demonstrates vowel ablaut. Another example is from Dinka:


Prosodic apophony

Various prosodic elements, such as tone, syllable length, and stress, may be found in alternations. For example, Vietnamese has the following tone alternations which are used derivationally:


Prosodic alternations are sometimes analyzed as not as a type of apophony but rather as prosodic affixes, which are known, variously, as "suprafixes", "superfixes", or "simulfixes".

Consonant apophony (mutation)

Consonant alternation is commonly known as consonant mutation or consonant gradation. Bemba indicates causative verbs through alternation of the stem-final consonant. Here the alternation involves spirantization and palatalization:


A more complicated example comes from Chickasaw where the positive/negative distinction in verbs displays vowel ablaut along with prefixation ("ak-") and infixation ("-'-"):


Apophony vs. transfixation (root-and-pattern)

The nonconcatenative root-and-pattern morphology of the Afro-Asiatic languages is sometimes described in terms of apophony. The alternation patterns in many of these languages is quite extensive involving vowels and consonant gemination (i.e. doubled consonants). The alternations below are of Modern Standard Arabic (the symbol IPA|< ː > indicates gemination on the preceding consonant):


For other examples, see archaic plurals in Amharic, Broken plural, Triconsonantal root.

Other analyses of these languages consider the patterns not to be sound alternations, but rather discontinuous roots with discontinuous affixes, known as "transfixes" (sometimes considered "simulfixes" or "suprafixes"). Some theoretical perspectives call up the notion of morphological templates or morpheme "skeletons".

Note that it would also be possible to analyze English in this way as well, where the alternation of "goose/geese" could be explained as a basic discontinuous root "g-se" that is filled out with an infix "-oo-" "(singular)" or "-ee-" "(plural)". Many would consider this type of analysis for English to be less desirable as this type of infixal morphology is not very prevalent throughout English and the morphemes "-oo-" and "-ee-" would be exceedingly rare.

Replacive morphemes and apophony

Another analytical perspective on sound alternations treats the phenomena not as merely alternation but rather a "replacive" morpheme that replaces part of a word. In this analysis, the alternation between "goose/geese" may be thought of as "goose" being the basic form where "-ee-" is a replacive morpheme that is substituted for "oo".

: "goose" → "g-ee-se"

This usage of the term "morpheme" (which is actually describing a replacement process, and not a true morpheme), however, is more in keeping with Item-and-Process models of morphology instead of Item-and-Arrangement models. (See Morphology (linguistics) for further discussion of morphological models.)

ee also

* Alternation (linguistics)
* Consonant mutation
* Metaphony
* Morphology (linguistics)
* Nonconcatenative morphology


* Anderson, Stephen R. (1985). Inflectional morphology. In T. Shopen (Ed.), "Language typology and syntactic description: Grammatical categories and the lexicon" (Vol. 3, pp. 150-201). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Especially section 1.3 "Stem modifications").
* Asher, R. E. (Ed.). (1994). "The Encyclopedia of language and linguistics". Oxford: Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-035943-4.
* Bauer, Laurie. (2003). "Introducing linguistic morphology" (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
* Bauer, Laurie. (2004). "A glossary of morphology". Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
*Hamano, Shoko. (1998). "The Sound-Symbolic System of Japanese". CSLI Publications,Stanford.
* Haspelmath, Martin. (2002). "Understanding morphology". London: Arnold.
* Kula, Nancy C. (2000). The phonology/morphology interface: Consonant mutations in Bemba. In H. de Hoop & T. van der Wouden (Eds.), "Linguistics in the Netherlands 2000" (pp. 171-183). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
* Nguyễn, Đình-Hoà. (1997). "Vietnamese: Tiếng Việt không son phấn". Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. ISBN 1-55619-733-0.
* Sapir, Edward. (1921). "Language: An introduction to the study of speech". New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
* Spencer, Andrew; & Zwicky, Arnold M. (Eds.). (1998). "The handbook of morphology". Oxford: Blackwell.
* 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.

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