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Sound change and alternation

In linguistics, assibilation is a sound change resulting in a sibilant consonant. It is a form of spirantization and is commonly the final phase of palatalization.

Romance languages[edit]

The word "assibilation" itself contains an example of the phenomenon, as it is pronounced /əsɪbɪleɪʃən/. The Classical Latin -tio was pronounced /tio/ (for example, assibilatio was pronounced /asːibilatio/ and attentio /atːentio/). However, in Vulgar Latin, it assibilated to /tsio/, which can still be seen in Italian: attenzione.

In French, lenition then gave /sj/, which was further palatalized in the English loanword to /ʃ/.

High German consonant shift[edit]

In the High German consonant shift, voiceless stops /p, t, k/ spirantized to /f, s, x/ at the end of a syllable. The shift of /t/ to /s/ (as in English water, German Wasser) is assibilation.


Proto-Indo-European *t and *dʰ (Greek th) shifted to Proto-Greek /s/ before *y[1]

  • *tot-yos -> Homeric tóssos > Attic tósos "this much" (Latin tot)
  • *medʰ-yos > Homeric méssos > Attic mésos "middle" (Latin medius)

*ti shifted to /si/ finally in Attic and Ionic,[2] but not in Doric.[3]

  • Doric títhēti – Attic-Ionic títhēsi "he/she places"

Finnic languages[edit]

Finnic languages (Finnish, Estonian and their closest relatives) had *ti changed to /si/. The alternation can be seen in dialectal and inflected word forms: Finnish kieltää "to deny" → kielti ~ kielsi "s/he denied"; vesi "water" vs. vete-nä "as water".

An intermediate stage /ts/ is preserved in South Estonian in certain cases: tsiga "pig", vs. Finnish sika, Standard (North) Estonian siga.


A characteristic of Mashreqi varieties of Arabic (particularly Levantine and Egyptian) is to assibilate the interdental consonants of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) in certain contexts (defined more culturally than phonotactically). Thus, ṯāʾ, pronounced [θ] in MSA, becomes [s] (as MSA /θaqaːfah/ → Levantine /saqaːfeh/ "culture"); ḏāl, pronounced [ð] in MSA, becomes [z] (as MSA /ðanb/ → Levantine /zamb/ "guilt"); and ẓāʾ, pronounced [ðˤ] in MSA, becomes [] (as MSA /maħðˤuːðˤ/ → Levantine /maħzˤuːzˤ/ "lucky").

Diachronically, the phoneme represented by the letter ǧīm has in, some dialects, experienced assibilation as well. The pronunciation in Classical Arabic is reconstructed to have been [ɡʲ] or [ɟ] (or perhaps both dialectically); it is cognate to [ɡ] in most other Semitic languages, and it is understood to be derived from that sound in Proto-Semitic. It has experienced extensive change in pronunciation over the centuries, and is pronounced at least six different ways across the assorted varieties of Arabic. A common one is [ʒ], the end result of a process of palatalization starting with Proto-West Semitic [ɡ], then [ɡʲ] or [ɟ], then [d͡ʒ] (a pronunciation still current) and finally [ʒ] (in Levantine and non-Algerian Maghrebi). The last pronunciation is considered acceptable for use in MSA, along with [ɡ] and [d͡ʒ].

Varieties of English[edit]

Assibilation can occur without palatalization. For some speakers of African American Vernacular English, /θ/ is alveolarized to /s/ when it occurs at the end of a syllable and within a word before another consonant, leading to such pronunciations as the following:[4]

bathroom - /ˈbæs.ruːm/
birthday - /ˈbɝs.deɪ/

Varieties of Spanish[edit]

Assibilation is known to be present in Spanish and is closely related with the phonetic term sibilation. It is a linguistic phenomenon known to be found in several difference varieties of Spanish including Spanish from Ecuador and Mexico.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Herbert Weir Smyth. Greek Grammar. par. 113: ty, thy > s, ss
  2. ^ Smyth. par. 115: -ti > -si.
  3. ^ Smyth. note 115: Doric -ti.
  4. ^ Phonological Features of African American Vernacular English
  5. ^ Matus-Mendoza, Maríadelaluz (2004-03-01). "Assibilation of /-r/ and migration among Mexicans". Language Variation and Change. 16 (1): 17–30. doi:10.1017/S0954394504161024. ISSN 1469-8021.