Metaphony (Romance languages)

In the Romance languages, metaphony was an early vowel mutation process that operated in all Romance languages to varying degrees, raising (or sometimes diphthongizing) certain stressed vowels in words with a final /i/ or /u/ or a directly following /j/. This is conceptually similar to the umlaut process characteristic of the Germanic languages. Metaphony is most extensive in the Italo-Romance languages, and applies to nearly all languages of Italy. However, it is absent from Tuscan, and hence from Standard Italian.

Italo-Romance languagesEdit

Raising-type metaphony in Servigliano, in the Marches of Italy[1]
Unaffected Mutated
/ˈmetto/ "I put" /ˈmitti/ "you put"
/ˈkwesto/ "this (neut.)" /ˈkwistu/ "this (masc.)"
/moˈdɛsta/ "modest (fem.)" /moˈdestu/ "modest (masc.)"
/ˈprɛdoko/ "I preach" /ˈprediki/ "you preach"
/ˈfjore/ "flower" /ˈfjuri/ "flowers"
/ˈsposa/ "wife" /ˈspusu/ "husband"
/ˈmɔre/ "he dies" /ˈmori/ "you die"
/ˈmɔʃa/ "depressed (fem.)" /ˈmoʃu/ "depressed (masc.)"
Diphthongization-type metaphony in Calvello, in the Basilicata region of southern Italy[2]
Unaffected Mutated
/ˈpɛre/ "foot" /ˈpjeri/ "feet"
/ˈlɛddʒe/ "light (fem.)" /ˈljeddʒi/ "light (masc.)"
/ˈpɛnʒo/ "I think" /ˈpjenʒi/ "you think"
/ˈmese/ "month" /ˈmisi/ "months"
/ˈmette/ "he puts" /ˈmitti/ "you put"
/ˈvɔsko/ "woods" /ˈvwoski/ "woods (pl.)"
/ˈɣrɔssa/ "big (fem.)" /ˈɣrwossu/ "big (masc.)"
/ˈmɔvo/ "I move" /ˈmwovi/ "you move"
/kaˈvrone/ "coal" /kaˈvruni/ "coals"
/ˈsola/ "alone (fem.)" /ˈsulu/ "alone (masc.)"
/ˈkorre/ "he runs" /ˈkurri/ "you run"

Metaphony in central and southern Italo-Romance (i.e. excluding Tuscan) affects stressed mid-vowels if the following syllable contains /i/ or /u/. As a general rule, the high-mids /e o/ are raised to /i u/, and the low-mids /ɛ ɔ/ are raised to /e o/ or diphthongized to /je wo/.[1] Metaphony is not triggered by final /o/. The main occurrences of final /i/ are as follows:

  • The plural of nouns in -o (< nominative plural ).
  • The plural of nouns in -e (either a regular development of third-declension plural -ēs, or from analogical plural ).
  • The second-person singular present tense (a regular development of -ēs in verbs in -ere, -ēre, -īre and analogical in verbs in -āre; in Old Italian, the regular ending -e is still found in -are verbs).
  • The first-person singular past indicative (< ).

The main occurrences of final /o/ are as follows:

  • The first-person singular present indicative (< ).
  • Masculine "mass" nouns, and "neuter" (mass-noun) demonstratives (disputed origin).

The main occurrence of final /u/ is in masculine "count" nouns (< -um).

Metaphony in the northern Italian languages (those to the north of Tuscany) is triggered only by final /i/. In these languages, as in Tuscan, final /u/ was lowered to /o/; it evidently happened prior to the action of metaphony. In these languages, metaphony also tends to apply to final /a/, raising it to /ɛ/ or /e/.

In most Italian languages, most final vowels have become obscured (in the south) or lost (in the north), and the effects of metaphony are often the only markers of masculine vs. feminine and singular vs. plural.

Western Romance languagesEdit

In all of the Western Romance languages, metaphony was triggered by a final /i/ (especially of the first-person singular of the preterite), raising mid-high stressed vowels to high vowels. (It does not normally occur in the nominative plural noun forms in Old French and Old Occitan that have a reflex of nominative plural /i/, suggesting that these developments were removed early by analogy.) Examples:

  • vīgintī "twenty" > *vigintī > PIR /veˈenti/ > Italian venti; but > pre-PWR /veˈinti/ > PWR /veˈinte/ > Old Spanish veínte (> modern veinte /bejnte/), Old Portuguese veínte (> viínte > modern vinte), Old French vint (> modern vingt /vɛ̃/).
  • fēcī, fēcit "I did, he did" (preterite) > Italian feci, fece; but > pre-PWR /ˈfedzi, ˈfedzet/ > /ˈfidzi, ˈfedzet/ > PWR /ˈfidze, ˈfedzet/ > Old Spanish fize, fezo[3](> fize, fizo > modern hice, hizo), Portuguese fiz, fez, Old French fis, fist (< *fis, feist).


In some of the Astur-Leonese dialects, in northern Spain, a distinction between mass and count nouns appeared at an early stage.[4] Count nouns from Latin masculines preserved the -u (<um) from Latin accusative, while mass nouns from Latin masculines (traditionally called "mass-neuter") were marked by -o. In addition, Astur-Leonese marked masculine plurals with /os/ (< -ōs).[5]

In this situation, only masculine singular count nouns developed metaphony, as they were the ones marked with a /-u/, and mass nouns and plurals, marked with /-o/, did not.[6] This ending system has been preserved in only central Asturian dialects. Unlike metaphony, which is considered dialectal, it has also been included in the standard version of Asturian.

Raising-type metaphony in masculine central Asturian nouns. Northwestern Iberia
Mutated Unaffected
Masc. sing. Mass Masc. plural
pilu /ˈpilu/ pelo /ˈpelo/ pelos /ˈpelos/
quisu /ˈkisu/ queso /ˈkeso/ quesos /ˈkesos/
fiirru /ˈfjiru/ fierro /ˈfjero/ fierros /ˈfjeros/

However, at later stages, Eastern Astur-Leonese dialects (Eastern Asturias and Cantabria) lost the u/o distinction in noun gender markers. Some of those dialects also lost metaphony and the noun count/mass distinction altogether, keeping it only in their pronoun systems, others, such as Pasiegu from Eastern Cantabria closed all their mid-vowels in word ending syllables, and relied on metaphony as a means for distinguishing mass/count nouns.

Raising-type metaphony in masculine Pasiegu nouns. Northwestern Iberia
Mutated Unaffected
Masc. sing. Mass Masc. plural
pilu /ˈpɨlʉ/ pelu /ˈpelu/ pelus /ˈpelus/
quisu /ˈkɨsʉ/ quesu /ˈkesu/ quesus /ˈkesus/
fiirru /ˈjɨrʉ/ fierru /ˈjeru/ fierrus /ˈjerus/

Some Astur-Leonese dialects also presented i-triggered metaphony. It is also considered dialectal, and it is most prevalent in imperatives (durmi < PIR dormi, sleep!), preterites (vini < PIE veni, I came) and demonstratives (isti < esti, this; isi < esi, that). Sometimes it prevents diphthongation (durmi vs duermi, sleep!; curri vs cuerri, run!) by closing the mid vowel in the verbal stem.


Raising of /ɔ/ to /o/ by a following final /u/ occurs sporadically in Portuguese.[5] Example: porcum, porcōs "pig, pigs" > PIR ˈpɔrku, ˈpɔrkos > Portuguese porco ˈporku vs. porcos ˈpɔrkus; novum, novōs, novam, novās "new (masc., masc. pl., fem., fem. pl.)" > PIR ˈnɔvu, ˈnɔvos, ˈnɔva, ˈnɔvas > Portuguese novo ˈnovu vs. novos, nova, novas ˈnɔvus, ˈnɔva, ˈnɔvas. In this case, Old Portuguese apparently had /u/ in the singular vs. /os/ in the plural, despite the spelling ⟨-o -os⟩; a later development has raised plural /os/ to /us/. Unlike elsewhere, this development is only sporadic and only affects /ɔ/, not /ɛ/. Furthermore, the mass/count distinction is expressed very differently: Only a few "mass neuter" demonstratives exist, and they have a higher rather than lower vowel (tudo "everything" vs. todo "all (masc.)", isto "this (neut.)" vs. este "this (masc.)"). In addition, the original pattern has been extended to some nouns originally in /o/.


Romanian shows metaphony of the opposite sort, where final /a/ (and also /e/, especially in the case of /o/) caused a diphthongization /e/ > /ea/, /je/ > /ja/, /o/ > /oa/:[5] cēram "wax" > ceară; equam "mare" > /*ɛpa/ > /*jepa/ > iapă; flōrem "flower" > floare; nostrum, nostrī, nostram, nostrās "our (masc. sg., masc. pl., fem. sg., fem. pl.)" > /*nostru, nostri, nostra, nostre/ > nostru, noștri, noastră, noastre.


Sardinian likewise has a distinction between final /o/ and /u/ (again with plural /os/), along with metaphony. In the conservative Logudorese and Nuorese dialects, the result of metaphony is a non-phonemic alternation between [e o] (when final /i/ or /u/ occurs) and [ɛ ɔ] (with other final vowels). In Campidanese, final /e o/ have been raised to /i u/, with the result that the metaphonic alternations have been phonemicized.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Kaze, Jeffery W. (1991). "Metaphony and Two Models for the Description of Vowel Systems". Phonology. 8 (1): 163–170. doi:10.1017/s0952675700001329. JSTOR 4420029. S2CID 60966393.
  2. ^ Calabrese, Andrea. "Metaphony" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-09-21. Retrieved 2012-05-15.
  3. ^ fize, fezo < *fize, feze by analogy with the preterite of -ar verbs, e.g. amé, amó "I loved, he loved". Portuguese was unaffected by analogy because the corresponding -ar preterite forms are amei, amou.
  4. ^ Álvaro Arias. El morfema de ‘neutro de materia’ en asturiano. Santiago de Compostela, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, 1999, I Premio «Dámaso Alonso» de Investigación Filológica.
  5. ^ a b c Penny, Ralph (1994). "Continuity and Innovation in Romance: Metaphony and Mass-Noun Reference in Spain and Italy". The Modern Language Review. 89 (2): 273–281. doi:10.2307/3735232. JSTOR 3735232.
  6. ^ Álvaro Arias. «La armonización vocálica en fonología funcional (de lo sintagmático en fonología a propósito de dos casos de metafonía hispánica)», Moenia 11 (2006): 111–139.