Alternation

Try reading the following sentence out loud and see how many versions of the indefinite article "a" you hear:

Alternation Alternation

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    I bought a great book, so maybe I can take a break from studying for an exam.

    Did you notice that "a" sometimes sounds like "ay" (/eɪ/) and other times like "uh" (/ə/)? And then there's "an" before the word "exam." Alternation is responsible for the different versions of the indefinite article "a." This little experiment was an example of phonological alternation, which means alternating sounds based on the other sounds in the word.

    Alternation Definition

    Before we dig into the different types of alternation, let's begin with the definition of alternation itself.

    Alternation is when part of a word is pronounced or spelled differently because of the surrounding word elements.

    A variant form of a word in the process of alternation is called an alternant. For example, the various forms of the indefinite article "a"— /eɪ/ and /ə/—are each a variant.

    An example of alternation is seen in how the word "thief" ends with the voiceless fricative /f/ (i.e., the sound made by forcing air through the teeth), but this changes when we want to pluralize the word. The fricative /f/ changes to the voiced sound /v/, and "thieves" becomes the appropriate alternant.

    Remember, a voiced sound is produced through the vocal cords' vibration. A voiceless sound may be made using the same articulators (as with /f/ and /v/, which both force air through the space between the upper lip and lower teeth) but without the vibration of the vocal cords.

    So, the /f/ alternates to a /v/ because of the addition of the /s/ to the word thief. The important thing to remember is that two (or more) alternants represent a single unit of meaning, called a morpheme. The production of the morpheme may change with alternation—i.e., it will change from /f/ to /v/—but the basic meaning of the word does not. In other words, we're simply talking about multiple thieves instead of one thief; the root of the word is the same.

    For example, the article “a” is realized (which means produced from an abstract linguistic concept) differently in a variety of contexts; it might be pronounced /ə/ or /eɪ/ depending on the situation. Alternation never changes the meaning, only the way the word is pronounced or, in some cases, spelled.

    This explanation contains phonetic transcription to represent individual speech sounds. For guidance, see the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) chart below.

    Alternation Alternation definition International phonetic alphabet chart StudySmarterFig. 1 - The IPA contains a character to represent each speech sound, which has helped standardize written linguistic data and reduce confusion.

    Alternation is not specific to just English, and it’s seen across many languages, which is why it’s widely studied in linguistics.

    Alternation in Linguistics

    You may also hear alternation in linguistics referred to as morphological alternation because it is a subfield of morphology.

    Morphology is the study of the segments of language that carry meaning.

    Alternation is called allomorphy in the context of morphology.

    When two sounds alternate in the same word or word stem, depending on the context, there must be a restriction on the distribution of a phonological rule that doesn’t apply to the other.

    What is a phonological rule? To put it plainly, phonological rules explain how a speaker of a language might go from the conceptual representation of a word or piece of language in their brain to the production of that language (i.e., speaking).

    As an example, the word meat is pronounced /mit/, with the consonant /t/ at the end, but the word meaty is pronounced /miɾi/ where the /t/ is replaced with a quick flap /ɾ/.

    Heard easiest in a standard American English accent, you make the /ɾ/ sound by briefly bringing your tongue to the ridge of your mouth behind your teeth.

    This means that the voiceless /t/ is switched for the voiced /ɾ/. This change is due to the fact that the letter “t” is placed between a stressed and unstressed vowel (other examples include butter and wedding).

    Alternation often occurs to make something easier to pronounce. In this instance, the /ɾ/ sound will be easier to pronounce by reducing the amount of time to pause for the /t/ sound.

    There are specific conditions that can trigger an alternation to occur. The realization of the alternant may be due to its phonological, morphological, or lexical environment - let's learn more about these processes now.

    Phonological Alternation

    Phonological alternation is where the surrounding sound structure creates the conditions for the alternants. The “flapping” of the /ɾ/ sound in the word meaty is an example of the sounds creating an environment where alternation might take place.

    Look at the following word pairs for another example of phonologically conditioned alternation:

    Bat+s = /bæts/

    Bag+s = /bægz/

    House+s = /haʊzɪz/

    Notice that despite the affix (-s) remaining the same among the three words, each takes a different alternant to represent the sound of the letter "s." Each requires the "s" to take a distinct spoken form that matches whether the previous phoneme is voiced or voiceless. Because /t/ is voiceless, it takes the voiceless alternant /s/, and because /g/ is voiced, it takes the voiced /z/ alternant.

    Alternation Phonological alternation Voiced vocal cords vs voiceless vocal cords StudySmarterFig. 2 - Vocal cords vibrate much like a plucked guitar string when air is pressed from the lungs through the throat to create a "voiced" sound.

    Morphological Alternation

    Morphological alternation is where the choice of alternants depends on the morphological context.

    The words bat, bag, and house all took the affix "-s" to make them plural, but each presented differing phonemes to represent the "-s" due to the surrounding phonemes in the words. Similarly, some words, when pluralized, exhibit morphologically conditioned alternants.

    SingularPlural
    OxOxen
    ChildChildren
    ThiefThieves

    These words are unlike other nouns that typically receive the suffix -s to make them plural. Oxen is an alternant of ox, and so on.

    Lexical Alternation

    Lexical alternation is where the choice of alternants depends on a particular lexeme, which is essentially the basic form of a word with zero inflection. These are cases where neither the phonological nor the morphological surroundings can help, so the choice of alternants can't be derived by rules. Lexical alternation requires the memorization of alternants.

    For example, the English past participle suffix -en; speakers have to learn which verbs take this suffix.

    Take - taken

    Broke - broken

    Give - given

    These words are lexically conditioned to receive the suffix -en instead of the alternant -ed, which most other verbs take in the past participle. You might hear children say, "taked" or "broked" before they learn that these words are lexically conditioned in the past participle.

    Alternation Example Outside of English

    The plural morpheme in Turkey has two alternants: /lɛr/ and /lɑr/. The appearance of these alternants is phonologically conditioned. The rules of major vowel harmony in Turkish require the vowels of some words to change so that the language flows smoothly.

    The rule is:

    • if the last vowel in the word is a, ı, o, or u: use the /lɑr/ form
    • if the last vowel in the word is e, i, ö, or ü: use the /lɛr/ form
    SingularPlural (/lɛr/)Plural (/lɑr/)
    Kedi (cat)Kediler (cats)
    Telefon (telephone)Telefonlar (telephones)
    Göz (eye)Gözler (eyes)
    Dakika (minute)Dakikalar (minutes)

    Notice that the final vowel in the words that took the /lɛr/ altnernant was i and ö, while the final vowel in the words that took the /lɑr/ alternant was a and o. This is in keeping with the rule of major vowel harmony.

    Alternation vs. Alteration

    A quick word here about the difference between alternation and alteration, as these words are easily confused with one another. If you happen to forget the 'n' in the middle of the word alternation and accidentally spell alteration, you will not be discussing a different linguistic phenomenon—alteration is not the name of a specific linguistic event like alternation.

    Alteration simply means the act or process of altering something in some way. This word may be used to describe anything from hemming your pants to editing a manuscript.

    Alternation - Key takeaways

    • Alternation is when part of a word is pronounced or spelled differently because of the surrounding word elements.
    • Two (or more) alternants represent a single unit of meaning, called a morpheme.
    • Alternation is not specific to just English, and it’s seen across many languages, which is why it’s widely studied in linguistics.
    • The realization of the alternant may be due to its phonological, morphological, or lexical environment.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 - International Phonetic Alphabet (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8f/IPA_chart_2020.svg) by International Phonetic Association (https://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/IPAcharts/IPA_chart_orig/IPA_charts_E.html) licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:Creative_Commons)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Alternation

    What is meant by alternation?

    Alternation is when part of a word is pronounced or spelled differently because of the surrounding word elements. 

    What is an example of alternation?

    An example of alternation is in how the suffix -s is pronounced differently between the words bats and bags. In bats, it’s a voiceless /s/ sound, while in bags it’s a voiced /z/ sound.

    What is phonological alternation?

    Phonological alternation is where the surrounding sound structure creates the conditions for the alternants.

    What is the difference between alternation and alteration?

    The difference between alternation and alteration is that alteration is not a linguistic phenomenon, and simply means to change or alter something.

    What part of speech is alternation?

    Alternation can take place among different parts of speech, such as verbs, articles, nouns, and so on. This is determined by whether the alternants are phonologically, morphologically, or lexically determined.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: two (or more) alternants represent a single unit of meaning.

    What is a morpheme?

    True or false: the realization of the morpheme changes with alternantion, as well as the meaning.

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