Consonant harmony

Consonant harmony is a type of "long-distance" phonological assimilation, akin to the similar assimilatory process involving vowels, i.e. vowel harmony.


In Athabaskan languages

One of the more common harmony processes is coronal harmony, which affects coronal fricatives, such as s and sh. Then, all coronal fricatives belong to the +anterior class (s-like sounds) or the -anterior class (sh-like sounds). Such patterns are found in the Dene (Athabaskan) languages such as Navajo (Young and Morgan 1987, McDonough 2003), Tahltan (Shaw 1991), Western Apache, and in Chumash on the California coast (Applegate 1972, Campbell 1997). In Tahltan, Shaw showed that coronal harmony affects three coronal fricatives, s, sh and the interdental th. The following examples are given by de Reuse: in Western Apache, the verbal prefix si- is an alveolar fricative, as in the following forms:

  • siką̄ą̄ "a container and its contents are in position"
  • sitłēēd "mushy matter is in position"
  • siyį̄į̄ "a load/pack/burden is in position"
  • sinéʼ "three or more flexible objects are in position"
  • siłāā "a slender flexible object is in position"
  • siʼą̄ą̄ "a solid roundish object is in position"
  • sitsooz "a flat flexible object is in position"
  • siziid "liquid matter is in position"

However, when the prefix si- occurs before a verb stem that contains a post-alveolar affricate, the si- surfaces as the post-alveolar shi-:

  • shijaa "three or more solid rigid inanimate objects are in position"

Thus, all sibilant obstruents (fricatives and affricates) in these languages are divided into two groups, +anterior (s, ts, dz) and -anterior (sh, ch, j). In Navajo, as in most languages with consonant harmony, there is a constraint on the shape of roots (a well-formedness constraint) that is identical to the harmony process. All roots with sibilant affricates or fricatives have the same value for anteriority. Shaw (1991) provides a phonological analysis of this process, using data from research on Tahltan.

There are two interesting aspects of the process in Navajo. Firstly, morphemes that participate are domain-specific, only the last two domains are affected (conjunct + stem). Verbal morphemes from the outer or 'disjunct' domain are not affected by the process: the process is morphologically conditioned. Secondly, the lateral affricate and fricative (dl, and ł) appear with both values. Young and Morgan (1987) offer an extensive sets of examples of this type of morpheme alternation in Navajo.

In Sanskrit

A different example of coronal harmony, sometimes referred to as NATI rule, occurs in Sanskrit, where [n] is retroflexed to [ɳ] if it is preceded by a retroflex continuant, mainly [ɽ] and [ʂ], in the same word, even at a distance. The retroflexion spreads from left to right affecting any coronal nasal until the word boundary is reached. This phenomenon, however, is blocked whenever a coronal plosive is placed between [ɽ]/[ʂ] and [n]. For instance, in the noun ब्राह्मण brāhmaṇa "Brahmin priest" (derived from the root *bṛh "to make strong" + the suffix -man- + the thematic vowel -a), the original coronal [n] (IAST: n) of the action noun suffix -man changes to a retroflex [ɳ] (IAST: ) due to consonant harmony triggered by [ɽ] (IAST: r). On the other hand, in the word अर्चन arcana "homage, praising" (from *ṛc "to praise" + -man- + -a) consonant harmony is prevented by the coronal stop [t͡ʃ] (IAST: c) which blocks the assimilation.

In Old Chinese

Old Chinese probably had some constraint governing the shape of disyllables. According to modern reconstructions of Old Chinese phonology, type A and B syllables almost never co-occur in a disyllabic word. In the latest reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology proposed by Baxter and Sagart (2014), this type A vs. type B distinction can be traced back to the presence or the absence of pharyngealization respectively, cf. < OC *nˤup "to bring into" (type A) and < OC *nup "to enter" (type B) only differing by the [±pharyngeal] trait of the initial consonant. Onsets of type B syllables, lacking of pharyngealization, are subject to palatalization in Middle Chinese (indicated by a palatal medial -j- in Baxter's notation), while type A pharyngealized onsets failed to palatalize. In many ancient disyllabic words type A and type B characters do not mix, there are almost solely bisyllabic morphemes either with type A syllables, such as:

  • 蝴蝶 húdié < MC hu dep < OC *gˤalˤep "butterfly"
  • 邂逅 xièhòu < MC hɛH huwH < OC *gˤre-sgˤro-s "carefree"
  • 窈窕 yǎotiǎo < MC ʔewX dewX < OC *ʔˤewʔlˤewʔ "beautiful and gentle (said of a woman)"

or with type B syllables, including:

  • 麒麟 qílín < MC gi lin < OC *gərən "Qilin" (a mythical beast)
  • 蟋蟀 xīshuài < MC srit srwit < OC *sritsrut "cricket"
  • 參差 cēncī < MC tsrhim tsrhje < OC *tsʰrumtsʰraj "uneven, irregular"

Such pattern seems to suggest the existence of some sort of pharyngeal harmony in Old Chinese. However, there are notable, though infrequent, exceptions to this tendency, manifesting in ancient compounds that are generally hard to analyze. From this list the following word is often mentioned:

In Maghrebi Arabic

Consonant harmony can also be observed in Moroccan Arabic and some southern dialects of Algerian Arabic in sequences of sibilants:

  • جوجžūž as opposed to ‏زوجzūž ("two")
  • شمشšəmš as opposed to ‏شمسšəms ("sun")

In other languages

Various Austronesian languages have consonant harmony among the liquid consonants, with [r] assimilating at a distance to [l] or vice versa.

Guaraní shows nasal harmony, and certain affixes have alternative forms according to whether the root includes a nasal (vowel or consonant) or not. For example, the reflexive prefix is realized as oral je- before an oral stem like juka "kill", but as nasal ñe- before a nasal stem like nupã "hit". The ã makes the stem nasal.

Some Finnish-speakers find it hard to pronounce both 'b' and 'p' in loanwords (pubi, pub) and so they voice (bubi) or devoice (pupi) the entire word. It should, however, be noted that the distinction between the consonants is not native to Finnish. Native Finnish words do not use /b/.

In the Ngeté-Herdé language of Cameroon, voicing of word-medial obstruents is strongly influenced by voicing of the word-initial consonant. Generally, all obstruents in a word are either voiced or voiceless.

In spoken German various suffixes of the type -n̩, written -en, like the infinitive and the 1st and 2nd person plural verbal suffix, will inherit their place of articulation from the preceding consonant when realised. Thus gehen ("to go") and beten ("to pray") will be realised as /geːn/ and /beːtn̩/ but fragen ("to ask") and haben ("to have") will wield /fʁaːgŋ̩/ and /haːbm̩/. Some dialects reduce this even further to /fʁaːŋ/ and /ham/.

See also


  1. ^ Feature Spreading in Sanskrit.
  2. ^ Miyake (2015).
  3. ^ Possibly an old and opaque compound from 風皇 fēng huáng < MC pjuwng hwang < OC *prəmɢʷˤaŋ "sovereign of the winds" with affixes (Miyake 2015).
  4. ^ Guerrero, Jairo (2015). "Preliminary notes on the current Arabic dialect of Oran (Western Algeria)". Romano Arabica 15: 219–233.
  5. ^ Finnish has one native voiced stop, /d/, but it is not subject to similar behavior: tädit ("aunts"). That may be because the distinction between /t̪/ and /d/ involves the place of articulation (dental vs. alveolar) in addition to voice.
  6. ^ Sachnine, M (1982). Le Lame: Un parler zime du Nord-Cameroun (langue tchadique): Phonologie - Grammaire. Societe d'Etudes Linguistiques et Anthropologiques de France: Langues et Cultures Africaines, 1. With l'Agence de Cooperation Culturelle et Technique.


  • Applegate, Richard. (1972). Ineseño Chumash Grammar. (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley).
  • Baxter, William H.; Sagart, Laurent (2014). Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199945375.
  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Miyake, Marc (2015). "Old Chinese type A/type B in areal perspective".
  • de Reuse, Willem J. (2006). A practical grammar of the San Carlos Apache language. LINCOM Studies in Native American Linguistics 51. LINCOM.
  • Rose, S. and R. Walker (2004). "A Typology of Consonant Agreement as Correspondence." Language 80:3: 475–531.
  • McDonough, J. M. (2003). The Navajo Sound System. Dordrecht, Kluwer.
  • Shaw, P. (1991). Consonant harmony systems: the special status of coronal harmony. The special status of Coronal Harmony Ed. Prunet, Academic Press.
  • Young, R. and W. Morgan (1987). The Navajo Language. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press.

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