In linguistics, lenition is a kind of sound change that alters
consonants, making them more sonorous. The word lenition itself means
"softening" or "weakening" (from
1.1 Opening 1.2 Sonorization
2.1 Diachronic 2.2 Synchronic
2.2.1 Allophonic 2.2.2 Grammatical
220.127.116.11 Spirantization 18.104.22.168 Loss of secondary articulation 22.214.171.124 Debuccalization 126.96.36.199 Elision 188.8.131.52 Reduction of place markedness
2.3 Blocked lenition
7.1 Notes 7.2 General references
Types Lenition involves changes in manner of articulation, sometimes accompanied by small changes in place of articulation. There are two main lenition pathways: opening and sonorization. In both cases, a stronger sound becomes a weaker one. Lenition can be seen as a movement on the sonority hierarchy from less sonorous to more sonorous, or on a strength hierarchy from stronger to weaker. In examples below, a greater-than sign indicates that one sound changes to another. The notation [t] > [ts] means that [t] changes to [ts]. The sound change of palatalization sometimes involves lenition. Lenition includes the loss of a feature, such as deglottalization, in which glottalization or ejective articulation is lost: [kʼ] or [kˀ] > [k]. The tables below show common sound changes involved in lenition. In some cases, lenition may skip one of the sound changes. The change voiceless stop > fricative is more common than the series of changes voiceless stop > affricate > fricative. Opening In the opening type of lenition, the articulation becomes more open with each step. Opening lenition involves several sound changes: shortening of double consonants, affrication of stops, spirantization of stops or affricates, debuccalization, and finally elision.
[tt] or [tː] > [t] (shortening) [t] > [ts] (affrication) [t] or [ts] > [s] (spirantization) [t] > [ʔ]; [s] > [h] (debuccalization) [t], [ts], [s], [ʔ], [h] > ∅ (elision)
geminated stop → stop → affricate → fricative → placeless approximant → no sound
original sound → degemination → affrication → spirantization (deaffrication) → debuccalization → elision
[pp] or [ppʰ] → [p] or [pʰ] → [pɸ] → [ɸ] → [h] → (zero)
→ [pf] → [f] →
[tt] or [ttʰ] → [t] or [tʰ] → [tθ] → [θ] →
→ [ts] → [s] →
[kk] or [kkʰ] → [k] or [kʰ] → [kx] → [x] →
Sonorization The sonorization type involves voicing. Sonorizing lenition involves several sound changes: voicing, approximation, and vocalization.[clarification needed]
[t] > [d] (voicing) [d] > [ð] (approximation) [d] > [i] (vocalization)
Sonorizing lenition occurs especially often intervocalically (between vowels). In this position, lenition can be seen as a type of assimilation of the consonant to the surrounding vowels, in which features of the consonant that are not present in the surrounding vowels (e.g. obstruction, voicelessness) are gradually eliminated.
stop → voiced stop → continuant (fricative, tap, etc.) → approximant → no sound
original sound → voicing (sonorization) → spirantization, flapping → approximation → elision
[p] → [b] → [β]
[t] → [d] → [ð]
→ [ð̞] →
→ [ɹ] →
[k] → [ɡ] → [ɣ] → [ɰ]
[j], [w] →
Note: Some of the sounds generated by lenition are often subsequently "normalized" into related but cross-linguistically more common sounds. An example would be the changes [b] → [β] → [v] and [d] → [ð] → [z]. Such normalizations correspond to diagonal movements down and to the right in the above table. In other cases, sounds are lenited and normalized at the same time; examples would be direct changes [b] → [v] or [d] → [z]. Vocalization L-vocalization is a subtype of the sonorization type of lenition. It has two possible results: a velar approximant or back vowel, or a palatal approximant or front vowel. In French, l-vocalization of the sequence /al/ resulted in the diphthong /au/, which was monophthongized, yielding the monophthong /o/ in Modern French.
lateral approximant → semivowel → vowel
[l] → [w] [ɰ] → [u] [o]
→ [j] → [i]
Sometimes a particular example of lenition mixes the opening and
sonorization pathways. For example, [kʰ] may spirantize or open to
[x], then voice or sonorize to [ɣ].
Lenition can be seen in Canadian and American English, where [t] and
[d] soften to a tap [ɾ] (flapping) when not in initial position and
followed by an unstressed vowel. For example, both rate and raid plus
the suffix -er are pronounced [ˈɹeɪ̯ɾɚ]. In many British English
dialects, a different lenition that affects only [t] takes place: [t]
> [ʔ] (see T-glottalization). The Italian of Central and Southern
Italy has a number of lenitions, the most widespread of which is the
deaffrication of /t͡ʃ/ to [ʃ] between vowels: post-pausal cena
[ˈt͡ʃeːna] 'dinner' but post-vocalic la cena [laˈʃeːna] 'the
dinner'; the name Luciano, although structurally /luˈt͡ʃano/, is
normally pronounced [luˈʃaːno]. In Tuscany, /d͡ʒ/ likewise is
realized [ʒ] between vowels, and in typical speech of Central
Tuscany, the voiceless stops /p t k/ in the same position are
pronounced respectively [ɸ θ x/h], as in /la kasa/ → [laˈhaːsa]
'the house', /buko/ → [ˈbuːho] 'hole'.
Diachronic lenition is found, for example, in the change from Latin
into Spanish, in which the intervocalic voiceless stops [p t k] first
changed into their voiced counterparts [b d ɡ], and later into the
approximants or fricatives [β̞ ð̞ ɣ̞]: vita > vida, lupa >
loba, caeca > ciega, apotheca > bodega. One stage in these
changes goes beyond phonetic to have become a phonological
restructuring, e.g. /lupa/ > /loba/ (compare /lupa/ in Italian,
with no change in the phonological status of /p/). The subsequent
further weakening of the series to phonetic [β̞ ð̞ ɣ̞], as in
[loβ̞a] is diachronic in the sense that the developments took place
over time and displaced [b, d, g] as the normal pronunciations between
vowels. It is also synchronic in an analysis of [β̞ ð̞ ɣ̞] as
allophonic realizations of /b, d, g/: illustrating with /b/, /bino/
'wine' is pronounced [bino] after pause, but with [β̞]
intervocalically, as in [de β̞ino] 'of wine'; likewise, /loba/ →
A similar development occurred in the Celtic languages, where
non-geminate intervocalic consonants were converted into their
corresponding weaker counterparts through lenition (usually stops into
fricatives but also laterals and trills into weaker laterals and
taps), and voiceless stops became voiced. For example, Indo-European
intervocalic -t- in *teu̯teh₂ "people" resulted in Proto-Celtic
/b/ → [β]: baca [ˈbaka] "cow" → sa baca [sa ˈβaka] "the cow"
/d/ → [ð]: domu [ˈdɔmu] "house" → sa domu [sa ˈðɔmu] "the house"
/ɡ/ → [ɣ]: gupu [ˈɡupu] "ladle" → su gupu [su ˈɣupu] "the ladle"
A series of synchronic lenitions involving opening, or loss of
occlusion, rather than voicing is found for post-vocalic /p t k/ in
much of Tuscany, in Central Italy. Stereotypical Florentine, for
example, has the /k/ of /kasa/ as [ˈkaːsa] casa 'house' in a
post-pause realization, [iŋˈkaːsa] in casa 'in (the) house'
post-consonant, but [laˈhaːsa] la casa 'the house' intervocalically.
Word-internally, the normal realization is also [h]: /ˈbuko/ buco
'hole' → [ˈbuːho].
In the Celtic languages, the phenomenon of intervocalic lenition
historically extended across word boundaries. This explains the rise
of grammaticalised initial consonant mutations in modern Celtic
languages through the loss of endings. A
Synchronic lenition in
/p/ → /v/ bog /pok/ "soft" → glé bhog /kleː vok/ "very soft"
/pj/ → /vj/ (before a back vowel) beò /pjɔː/ 'alive' → glé bheò /kleː vjɔː/ 'very alive'
/kʰ/ → /x/ cas /kʰas̪/ "steep" → glé chas /kleː xas̪/ "very steep"
/kʰʲ/ → /ç/ ciùin /kʰʲuːɲ/ "quiet" → glé chiùin /kleː çuːɲ/ "very quiet"
/t̪/ → /ɣ/ dubh /t̪uh/ "black" → glé dhubh /kleː ɣuh/ "very black"
/tʲ/ → /ʝ/ deiseil /tʲeʃal/ "ready" → glé dheiseil /kleː ʝeʃal/ "very ready"
/k/ → /ɣ/ garbh /kaɾav/ "rough" → glé gharbh /kleː ɣaɾav/ "very rough"
/kʲ/ → /ʝ/ geur /kʲiaɾ/ "sharp" → glé gheur /kleː ʝiaɾ/ "very sharp"
/m/ → /v/ maol /mɯːl̪ˠ/ "bald" → glé mhaol /kleː vɯːl̪ˠ/ "very bald"
/mj/ → /vj/ (before a back vowel) meallta /mjaul̪ˠt̪ə/ "deceitful" → glé mheallta /kleː vjaul̪ˠt̪ə/ "very deceitful"
/pʰ/ → /f/ pongail /pʰɔŋɡal/ "exact" → glé phongail /kleː fɔŋɡal/ "very exact"
/pʰj/ → /fj/ (before a back vowel) peallagach /pʰjal̪ˠakəx/ "shaggy" → glé pheallagach /kleː fjal̪ˠakəx/ "very shaggy"
Loss of secondary articulation
/n̪ˠ/ → /n/ nàdarra /n̪ˠaːt̪ərˠə/ "natural" → glé nàdarra /kleː naːt̪ərˠə/ "very natural"
/rˠ/ → /ɾ/ rag /rˠak/ "stiff" → glé rag /kleː ɾak/ "very stiff"
/l̪ˠ/ → /lˠ/ lag /l̪ˠak/ "weak" → glé lag /kleː lˠak/ "very weak" (in Harris Gaelic only)
/s̪/ → /h/ sona /s̪ɔnə/ "happy" → glé shona /kleː hɔnə/ "very happy"
/ʃ/ → /h/ seasmhach /ʃes̪vəx/ "constant" → glé sheasmhach /kleː hes̪vəx/ "very constant"
/ʃ/ → /hj/ (before a back vowel) seòlta /ʃɔːl̪ˠt̪ə/ "sly" → glé sheòlta /kleː hjɔːl̪ˠt̪ə/ "very sly"
/t̪ʰ/ → /h/ tana /t̪ʰanə/ "thin" → glé thana /kleː hanə/ "very thin"
/tʰʲ/ → /h/ tinn /tʲiːɲ/ "ill" → glé thinn /kleː hiːɲ/ "very ill"
/tʰʲ/ → /hj/ (before a back vowel) teann /tʰʲaun̪ˠ/ "tight" → glé theann /kleː hjaun̪ˠ/ "very tight"
/f/ → Ø fann /faun̪ˠ/ "faint" → glé fhann /kleː aun̪ˠ/ "very faint"
/fj/ → /j/ (before a back vowel) feòrachail /fjɔːɾəxal/ "inquisitive" → glé fheòrachail /kleː jɔːɾəxal/ "very inquisitive"
Reduction of place markedness
In the modern
/ɲ/ → /n/ neulach /ɲial̪ˠəx/ "cloudy" → glé neulach /kleː nial̪ˠəx/ "very cloudy"
/ʎ/ → /l/ leisg /ʎeʃkʲ/ "lazy" → glé leisg /kleː leʃkʲ/ "very lazy"
Blocked lenition Some languages which have lenition have in addition complex rules affecting situations where lenition might be expected to occur but does not, often those involving homorganic consonants. In Scottish Gaelic, for example, there are three homorganic groups:
d n t l s (usually called the dental group in spite of the non-dental nature of the palatals) c g (usually called the velar group) b f m p (usually called the labial group)
In a position where lenition is expected due to the grammatical environment, lenition tends to be blocked if there are two adjacent homorganic consonants across the word boundary. For example:
aon 'one' (which causes lenition) → aon chas 'one leg' vs aon taigh 'one house' (not aon *thaigh) air an 'on the' (which causes lenition) → air a' chas mhòr 'on the big leg' vs air an taigh donn "on the brown house" (not air an *thaigh *dhonn)
ad "hat" (a feminine noun causing lenition) → ad dhonn "a brown hat" (although some highly conservative speakers retain ad donn) caileag "girl" (a feminine noun causing lenition) → caileag ghlic "a smart girl" (not caileag *glic)
There is a significant number of frozen forms involving the other two groups (labials and velars) and environments as well, especially in surnames and place names:
MacGumaraid 'Montgomery' (mac + Gumaraid) vs MacDhòmhnaill 'MacDonald (mac + Dòmhnall) Caimbeul 'Campbell' (cam 'crooked' + beul 'mouth') vs Camshron 'Cameron' (cam + sròn 'nose') sgian-dubh 'Sgian-dubh' (sgian 'knife' + dubh '1 black 2 hidden'; sgian as a feminine noun today would normally cause lenition on a following adjective) vs sgian dhubh "a black knife" (i.e., a common knife which just happens to be black)
Though rare, in some instances the rules of blocked lenition can be invoked by lost historical consonants, for example, in the case of the past-tense copula bu, which in Common Celtic had a final -t. In terms of blocked lenition, it continues to behave as a dental-final particle invoking blocked lenition rules:
bu dona am biadh "bad was the food" versus bu mhòr am beud 'great was the pity
Blocked lenition phenomena are also known to occur in Irish and
Spanish (orthographic b d g retained as [b, d, ɡ] following nasals
rather than their normal lenited forms [β, ð, ɣ]).
Welsh morphology and Irish initial mutations
In the modern Celtic languages, lenition of the "fricating" type is
usually denoted by adding an h to the lenited letter. In Welsh, for
example, c, p, and t change into ch, ph, th as a result of the
so-called "aspirate mutation" (carreg, "stone" → ei charreg "her
stone"). An exception is Manx orthography, which tends to be more
phonetic, although in some cases etymological principles are applied.
In the Gaelic script, fricating lenition (called simply lenition in
Irish grammar contexts) is indicated by a dot above the affected
consonant, while in the Roman script, the convention is to suffix the
letter h to the consonant, to signify that it is lenited. Thus, a
ṁáṫair is equivalent to a mháthair. In
Middle Irish manuscripts,
lenition of s and f was indicated by the dot above, while lenition of
p, t, and c was indicated by the postposed h; lenition of other
letters was not indicated consistently in the orthography.
Voicing lenition is represented by a simple letter switch in the
Brythonic languages, for instance carreg, "stone" → y garreg, "the
stone" in Welsh. In Irish orthography, it is shown by writing the
"weak" consonant alongside the (silent) "strong" one: peann, "pen" →
ár bpeann "our pen", ceann, "head" → ár gceann "our head"
(sonorization is traditionally called "eclipsis" in Irish grammar).
Although nasalization as a feature also occurs in most Scottish Gaelic
dialects, it is not shown in the orthography on the whole as it is
synchronic (i.e., the result of certain types of nasals affecting a
following sound), rather than the diachronic Irish type sonorization
(i.e., following historic nasals). For example taigh [t̪ʰɤj]
"house" → an taigh [ən̪ˠˈd̪ʱɤj] "the house".
Rendaku (a similar phenomenon in the Japanese language)
^ Stifter, David (2006). Sengoídelc:
Old Irish for Beginners.
^ Mensching, G. (1992) Einführung in die Sardische Sprache
Romanistischer Verlag, Bonn
^ a b Oftedal, M. (1956) The Gaelic of Leurbost Norsk Tidskrift for
^ Ternes, E. (1989) The Phonemic Analysis of
Crowley, Terry. (1997) An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. Oftedal, Magne (1985). Lenition in Celtic and in insular Spanish: the secondary voicing of stops in Gran Canaria. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN