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Palatalization denotes several processes of assimilation in phonetics and phonology, by which the articulation of a consonant is changed under the influence of a preceding or following front vowel or a palatal or palatalized consonant. This is especially likely to occur with the palatal approximant [j] . As a general term, palatalization can cover various different phonetic and phonological processes such as phonological palatalization, phonetic palatalization, assibilation, and coronalization. The term 'palatalization' is sometimes used by European linguists (German Palatalisierung) to refer to a type of vowel mutation more commonly referred to as i-umlaut (UK: i-mutation). The French term mouillure (German Mouillierung) is another word for (phonemic) palatalization.

Palatalization as a phonetic phenomenon

Palatalization in synchronic language analysis - i.e. at one point in time - usually refers to a phonetic process by which a consonant acquires a secondary palatalized articulation under the influence of a front vowel or palatal or palatalized consonant. This process manifests itself in varying degrees. If only the middle of the tongue is raised, there is only a superficial degree of palatalization. In the IPA this is indicated by a small superscript [j] . This phonetic process is sometimes called 'pure' palatalization. It is best known from Slavic languages such as Russian which have a contrast between palatalized consonants and their non-palatalized counterparts, e.g. in Russian: [brɑt] ('brother') vs. [brɑtj] ('to take').[1]

The term palatalization can also be used to describe a change in primary articulation towards the hard palate. This is found, for instance, in the velar fronting of Italian parci ('parks'; plural) in which the velar plosive is fronted as compared to the non-fronted velar of the singular parco; and in English kin, in which initial [k] is fronted as compared to the [k] in words like cool. Palatalization may also produce a laminal articulation in apical consonants such as [t] .

The related phenomena of assibilation and coronalization are usually subsumed under the term palatalization, as both terms denote a greater degree of palatalization. The affected consonant becomes an affricate or sibilant, found in English gotcha for 'got you', in which the sequence [t + j] becomes assimilated into the affricate [tʃ] . Another example is Italian amici, in which the original [k] assibilates to [tʃ] .

Phonological palatalization

Where language is viewed synchronically, palatalization can be either allophonic or phonemic. It remains allophonic as long as the palatalization is mechanically conditioned by the linguistic context. Thus, [k] in English kin and [kj] in Italian parci are examples of allophonic palatalization because the alternation results from the different linguistic environments and the sounds are thus in complementary distribution.

However, when the palatalization feature is independent from any conditioning factor (through syncope), this is called phonemic palatalization. Palatalized and non-palatalized versions of the same consonant may alternate within morphological paradigms (e.g. to indicate grammatical number or different nominal cases).

In diachronic language description - i.e. change over time - phonemic palatalization is described as the result of a phonemic split. Through loss of the conditioning environment, palatalization becomes an independent feature in words and contexts that once had that conditioning environment, but not in other words, so that these different words continue different reflexes of the same original consonant. One example is the split of original Germanic * [k] in Old English [k] and [tʃ] under influence of neighboring vowels, as in the word chin (from West Germanic *kinni (with * [k] ). A similar example of velar palatalization took place in later Latin, resulting in words like French chambre with [ʃ] from original [k] .

The relationship between palatalization proper and assibilation (or coronalization) remains disputed. It seems likely that assibilation is a second step in a historical development of palatalized consonants, though some scholars have argued for direct coronalization of non-palatalized consonants.


  • D.N.S. Bhat. 1974. “A General Study of Palatalization.” Working Papers on Language Universals 14, 17-58. [Repr. in Joseph H. Greenberg ed. 1978. Universals of Human Language. Stanford: Stanford University Press, vol. 2, 47-92.]
  • Andrea Calabrese. 2005. Markedness and Economy in a Derivation Model of Phonology. Studies in Generative Grammar 80. Berlin/New York: Mouton De Gruyter. ISBN 3110184656 (Chapter 4: On coronalization and affrication in palatalization processes: an inquiry into the nature of a sound change; pp. 301-352)
  • Aditi Lahiri and Vincent Evers. 1991. “Palatalization and Coronality.” Carole Paradis and Jean-François Prunet eds. Phonetics and Phonology vol.2. The Special Status of Coronals: Internal and External Evidence. San Diego: Academic Press, 79-100. ISBN 0125449666 (alk. paper) or ISBN 0125449674 (pbk, alk. paper)
  • Jerzy Rubach. 1981. Cyclical Phonology and Palatalization in Polish and English. Rozprawy Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego 219. Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego. ISSN 05097177


  1. Peter Ladefoged. 1982. A Course in Phonetics. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p.210. ISBN 0155151789.