Alternation (linguistics)

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In linguistics, an alternation is the phenomenon of a phoneme or morpheme exhibiting variation in its phonological realization. Each of the various realizations is called an alternant. The variation may be conditioned by the phonological, morphological, and/or syntactic environment in which the morpheme finds itself.

Alternations provide linguists with data that allow them to determine the allophones and allomorphs of a language's phonemes and morphemes and to develop analyses determining the distribution of those allophones and allomorphs.

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Phonologically conditioned alternation

An example of a phonologically conditioned alternation is the English plural marker commonly spelled s or es.[1] This morpheme is pronounced /s/, /z/, or /ɨz/, depending on the nature of the preceding sound.

  • mass /ˈmæs/, plural masses /ˈmæsɨz/
  • fez /ˈfɛz/, plural fezzes /ˈfɛzɨz/
  • mesh /ˈmɛʃ/, plural meshes /ˈmɛʃɨz/
  • mirage /mɨˈrɑːʒ/, plural mirages /mɨˈrɑːʒɨz/
  • church /ˈtʃɜrtʃ/, plural churches /ˈtʃɜrtʃɨz/
  • bridge /ˈbrɪdʒ/, plural bridges /ˈbrɪdʒɨz/
  • mop /ˈmɒp/, plural mops /ˈmɒps/
  • mat /ˈmæt/, plural mats /ˈmæts/
  • pack /ˈpæk/, plural packs /ˈpæks/
  • cough /ˈkɒf/, plural coughs /ˈkɒfs/
  • myth /ˈmɪθ/, plural myths /ˈmɪθs/

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