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Sound change and alternation

Debuccalization is a sound change in which an oral consonant loses its original place of articulation and moves it to the glottis (usually [h], [ɦ], or [ʔ]).[1] The pronunciation of a consonant as [h] is sometimes called aspiration but in phonetics, aspiration is the burst of air accompanying a stop. The word comes from Latin bucca, meaning "cheek" or "mouth".

Debuccalization is usually seen as a sub-type of lenition, often defined as a consonant mutation involving the weakening of a consonant by progressive shifts in pronunciation.

Debuccalization processes occur in many different types of environments such as the following:[2]

  • word-initially, as in Kannada
  • word-finally, as in Burmese
  • intervocalically, as in a number of English varieties (e.g. litter [ˈlɪʔə])

Glottal stop[edit]


/q/ is debuccalized to /ʔ/ in several Arabic varieties, such as Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian, Urban Palestinian and Jordanian (partially and especially by females) Arabic dialects.

British and American English[edit]

Most English-speakers in England and many speakers of American English debuccalize /t/ to a glottal stop [ʔ] in two environments: in word-final position before another consonant (American English IPA)

  • get ready [ˈɡɛʔˈɹɛɾi]
  • not much [ˈnɑʔˈmʌtʃ]
  • not good [ˈnɑʔˈɡʊd̚]
  • it says [ɪʔˈsɛz]

and before a syllabic [n̩] following /l/, /r/, /n/, or a vowel. Here the /t/ may also be nasally released. (American English IPA)

  • Milton [ˈmɪlʔn̩]
  • Martin [ˈmɑɹʔn̩]
  • mountain [ˈmæʊnʔn̩]
  • cotton [ˈkʰɑʔn̩]
  • Latin [ˈlæʔn̩]

Cockney English[edit]

In Cockney English, /t/ is often realized as a glottal stop [ʔ] between vowels, liquids and nasals (notably in the word bottle), a process called t-glottalization.


In German, voiceless stops are commonly debuccalized before syllabic nasals in the following clusters: /mpm̩, ltn̩, ntn̩, ŋkŋ̍/, which thus become [mʔm̩, lʔn̩, nʔn̩, ŋʔŋ̍]. For example, Lumpen (“rags, tatters”) is pronounced [lʊmʔm̩]. In some dialects, debuccalization may also occur before syllabic [l̩], though this is less common.

Voiced stops are not usually debuccalized. However, many Upper German and East Central German dialects merge voiced and unvoiced stops at least word-internally and these merged consonants will be debuccalized. Thus in Bavarian, Anten (“ducks”) and Anden (“Andes”) are both pronounced [ˈɑnʔn̩]. Speakers are often unaware of this.

Glottal fricative[edit]


All coda consonants in Slavey must be glottal. When a non-glottal consonant would otherwise be positioned in a syllable coda, it debuccalizes to [h]:[3]

  • /ts’ad/[ts’ah] ('hat')
  • /xaz/[xah] ('scar')
  • /tl’ulʒ/[tl’uh] ('rope')

Scots/Scottish English[edit]

In some varieties of Scots (and Scottish English), particularly on the West coast, a non word-final /θ/ th shifted to [h], a process called th-debuccalization. For example, /θɪn/ is realised as [hɪn].


In Proto-Greek, /s/ shifted to [h] initially and between sonorants (vowels, liquids and nasals).

Intervocalic /h/ was lost by the time of Ancient Greek, and vowels in hiatus were contracted in the Attic dialect.

  • post-PIE *ǵénesos → Proto-Greek *génehosIonic géneos (γένεος) : Attic génous (γένους) "of a race"

Before a liquid or nasal, an /h/ was assimilated to the preceding vowel in Attic-Ionic and Doric and to the following nasal in Aeolic. The process is also described as loss of /h/ and subsequent lengthening of a vowel or consonant to keep the syllable the same length (compensatory lengthening).

  • PIE *h₁ésmi → Proto-Greek *ehmi → Attic-Ionic ēmí (εἰμί) : Aeolic émmi (ἔμμι) "I am"


In Sanskrit, /s/ becomes [h] (written in transliteration) when utterance-final, e.g., kā́mas "erotic love" becomes kā́maḥ.

West Iberian[edit]


A number of Spanish dialects debuccalize /s/ at the end of a syllable to [h] or [ɦ].


In many varieties of Galician as well as in Galician-influenced Spanish, the phoneme /g/ may debuccalize (gheada) to [h] in most or all instances, though [x] and [ħ] are also possible realizations. There is also an inverse hypercorrection process of older or less educated Galician speakers replacing the phoneme /x/ of the Spanish language by [g], what is called gueada.


Portuguese is affected to a much lesser degree by debuccalization, but it occurs, being specially notorious in its Brazilian variety.

All over Brazil, the phoneme /ʁ/ (historically an alveolar trill /r/ that moved to an uvular position by both French and Arab-Berber influence)[citation needed] has a rather long inventory of allophones, or up to [r ɻ̝̊ ç x ɣ χ ʁ ʀ ħ h ɦ], with all but [ɣ] being common. Few dialects, such as sulista and fluminense, give preference to voiced allophones; elsewhere, they are common only as coda, before voiced consonants.

In such dialects, especially among people speaking an educated variety of Portuguese, it is usual for the rhotic coda in the syllable rhyme to be an alveolar tap, as in European Portuguese and many registers of Spanish, or to be realized as [χ] or [x]. In the rest of the country, it is generally realized as [h], even among speakers that do not have this allophone as the dominant, or deleted entirely, as commonplace in the Vernacular.

But in some mineiro and mineiro-influenced fluminense rural registers, what changes is that [h] is used in the rhyme, but as an allophone of /l/ (while rhotic consonants are most often deleted in the rhyme), a mar-mal merger, instead of the much more common and less stigmatized mau-mal merger characteristic of all Brazilian urban centers with the exception of those bordering Mercosur countries, where coda [ɫ] was preserved, and the entire North and Northeast regions. It comes from the process of replacing Amerindian languages and línguas gerais by Portuguese,[citation needed] what created [ɹ], [ɻ] and r-colored vowel as allophones of both /ɾ/ (now mostly /ʁ/) and /l/ (now mostly [ ~ ʊ̯]) phonemes in the coda since their native speakers had difficulty with reproducing them (caipira dialect).[citation needed] Later Portuguese influence from other regions made those allophones get rarer in some areas, but the mar-mal merger did not disappear in such few isolated villages and towns.

Finally, many fluminense registers, specially those of the poor and of the youth, most northern and northeastern dialects and to a much minor degree all other Brazilian dialects, debuccalize /s/ (that is, [ɕ ~ ʑ]), but not in the strength of what is done with Spanish. Still, there is a mar-mas merger or even a mar-mais merger: mas mesmo assim "but even so" or mas mesma, sim "though, right, the same (f) one" [mɐɦ ˈmeɦmə ˈsĩ]; mais light "lighter, more slim", or also "less caloric/fatty" [ˈmaɦ ˈlajtɕ]; mas de mim, não "but from me, no" or mais de mim, não "not more from me" [ˈmaɦ dʑi ˈmĩ ˈnɜ̃w]. A coda rhotic in the Brazilian dialects spoken in the Centro-Sul area is generally not glottal, with few exceptions, and a debuccalized /s/ is rarely likely to be confused with it.


In Romanian, Moldavian dialect, /f/ becomes [h]; să fie becomes să hie etc. as happened in Old Spanish, Old Gascon and Old Japanese.

Goidelic Languages[edit]

In Scottish and Irish Gaelic, s and t changed by lenition to [h], spelled sh and th.


Debuccalization can be a feature of loanword phonology. For example, while Korean allows certain coda obstruents, Japanese does not. Those consonants realized in Korean as unreleased voiceless stops ([p˺ t˺ k˺]) may be realized in Japanese as glottal stops:[4]

  • [tɕuk˺][tɕuʔ] ('porridge')
  • [mok˺][moʔ] ('neck')
  • [mat˺][maʔ] ('flavor')
  • [tap˺][taʔ] ('tower')

Similarly, debuccalization can be seen in Bahasa Indonesia loans into Selayar.[5]



  • O'Brien, Jeremy Paul (2012), An experimental approach to debuccalization and supplementary gestures
  • Smith, Jennifer L. (2008), "X Markedness, faithfulness, positions, and contexts: Lenition and fortition in Optimality Theory", in de Carvalho, Joaquim Brandão; Scheer, Tobias; Ségéral, Philippe, Lenition and Fortition
  • Whang, James Dy (2012), "Perception of Illegal Contrasts: Japanese Adaptations of Korean Coda Obstruents" (PDF), Proceedings of the 36th Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-06-24

External links[edit]