AskDefine | Define ablaut

Dictionary Definition

ablaut n : a vowel whose quality or length is changed to indicate linguistic distinctions (such as sing sang sung song)

User Contributed Dictionary



From ablaut < ab + laut.


  1. The substitution of one root vowel for another, thus indicating a corresponding modification of use or meaning; vowel permutation; as, get, gat, and got; sing and song; hang and hung, distinct from the phonetic influence of a succeeding vowel.


Extensive Definition

In linguistics, apophony (also ablaut, gradation, alternation, internal modification, stem modification, stem alternation, replacive morphology, stem mutation, internal inflection) is the alternation of sounds within a word that indicates grammatical information (often inflectional).


Apophony is exemplified in English as the internal vowel alternations that produce such related words as
  • sing, sang, sung, song
  • rise, raise
  • bind, band
  • goose, geese
The difference in these vowels marks variously a difference in tense or aspect (e.g. sing/sang/sung), transitivity (rise/raise), part of speech (sing/song, bind/band), or grammatical number (goose/geese).
Similarly, there are consonant alternations which are also used grammatically:
  • belief, believe
  • house (noun), house (verb)   (phonetically: [haʊs] (noun), [haʊz] (verb))
That these sound alternations function grammatically can be seen as they are often equivalent to grammatical suffixes (an external modification). Compare the following:
The vowel alternation between i and a indicates a difference between present and past tense in the pair sing/sang. Here the past tense is indicated by the vowel a just as the past tense is indicated on the verb jump with the past tense suffix -ed. Likewise, the plural suffix -s on the word books has the same grammatical function as the presence of the vowel ee in the word geese (where ee alternates with oo in the pair goose/geese).
Most instances of apophony develop historically from changes due to phonological assimilation that are later grammaticalized (or morphologized) when the environment causing the assimilation is lost. Such is the case with English goose/geese and belief/believe.

Apophony as a kind of word formation

Ablaut reduplication or ablaut-motivated compounding is a type of word formation of "expressives" in English (such as onomatopoeia). Examples of these include:
  • tick-tock
  • criss-cross
  • cling-clang
  • snip-snap
Here the words are formed by a reduplication of a base and an alternation of the internal vowel. (See English reduplication).
Some examples in Japanese:
  • kasa-koso (rustle)
  • gata-goto (rattle)

In Indo-European linguistics

Indo-European ablaut

In Indo-European linguistics, ablaut is the vowel alternation that produces such related words as sing, sang, sung, and song. The difference in the vowels results from the alternation (in the Proto-Indo-European language) of the vowel e with the vowel o or with no vowel. For a more detailed explanation see Indo-European ablaut.
To cite a few other examples of Indo-European ablaut, English has a certain class of verbs (i.e. strong verbs) in which the vowel changes to indicate a different grammatical tense-aspect.
As the examples above show, a change in the vowel of the verb stem creates a different verb form. (Note that some of the verbs also have a suffix in the past participle form.) (See also English grammar: Irregular verbs.) For a more detailed explanation of how strong verbs are formed in English and related languages, see Germanic strong verb.

Ablaut vs. umlaut

In Indo-European linguistics, umlaut is the vowel alternation that produces such related words as foot and feet or tell and told. The difference in the vowels results from the influence (in Proto-Germanic or a later Germanic language) of an i or y (which has since been lost) on the vowel which (in these examples) becomes e. For a more detailed explanation see Germanic umlaut or I-mutation.
To cite another example of umlaut, some English weak verbs show umlaut in the present tense.
A-mutation and U-mutation are processes analogous to umlaut but involving the influence of an a (or other non-high vowel) or u respectively instead of an i.
Note that in Indo-European historical linguistics the terms ablaut and umlaut refer to different phenomena. They are not interchangeable. The same terms are also used in linguistics to generally refer to analogous processes as described in the ablaut vs. umlaut section below.
The Germanic scholars who coined the terms ablaut and umlaut in the 19th century used them to distinguish two types of vowel alternation patterns with differing origins and differing reflexes in the modern languages. In this usage, umlaut is a specific case of vowel alternation that has developed from a historical instance of regressive vowel harmony. Indo-European ablaut is a different vowel alternation of uncertain origin. In purely descriptive (synchronic) terms, Germanic umlaut is a regular system that always involves vowel fronting, whereas in the modern languages ablaut appears to have no regularity.
This traditional distinction is retained by historical (diachronic) linguists, and is particularly important in the context of Indo-European evolution. It is rather less important for descriptive studies, where for most purposes the vowel alternation in foot/feet is analogous to that in sing/sang/sung. However, the regularity of Germanic umlaut means that this distinction remains standard in textbooks for learners of German, Dutch and Scandinavian languages. (As an illustration, the preceding examples translate as follows into German: Fuß/Füße [Umlaut], singen/sang/gesungen [Ablaut].)
Later linguists have broadened the meaning of ablaut to refer to vowel alternation generally, and of umlaut to refer also to other types and instances of regressive vowel harmony. When the terminology is used in this more inclusive way, umlaut is considered a sub-set of ablaut. Ambiguity can of course be avoided by using alternative terms (apophony, gradation, alternation, internal modification) for the broader sense of the word.

Types of apophony

Apophony may involve various types of alternations, including vowels, consonants, prosodic elements (such as tone, syllable length), and even smaller features, such as nasality (on vowels).
The sound alternations may be used inflectionally or derivationally. The particular function of a given alternation will depend on the language.

Vowel apophony (ablaut)

Apophony often involves vowels. Indo-European ablaut (also called Indo-European vowel gradation) is a well attested example. The English example cited above demonstrates vowel ablaut. Another example is from Dinka:
(Bauer 2003:35)
The vowel alternation may involve more than just a change in vowel quality. In Athabascan languages, such as Navajo, verbs have series of stems where the vowel alternates (sometimes with an added suffix) indicating a different tense-aspect. Navajo vowel ablaut, depending on the verb, may be a change in vowel, vowel length, nasality, and/or tone. For example, the verb stem -kaah/-ką́ "to handle an open container" has a total of 16 combinations of the 5 modes and 4 aspects, resulting in 7 different verb stem forms (i.e. -kaah, -kááh, -kaał, -kááł, -ka’, -ká, -ką́).
Another verb stem -géésh/-gizh "to cut" has a different set of alternations and mode-aspect combinations, resulting in 3 different forms (i.e. -géésh, -gizh, -gish):

Prosodic apophony

Various prosodic elements, such as tone, syllable length, and stress, may be found in alternations. For example, Vietnamese has the following tone alternations which are used derivationally:
(Nguyễn 1997:42-44)
Albanian uses different vowel lengths to indicate number and grammatical gender on nouns:
(Asher 1994:1719)
English has alternating stress patterns that indicate whether related words are nouns (first syllable stressed) or verbs (second syllable stressed):
Prosodic alternations are sometimes analyzed as not as a type of apophony but rather as prosodic affixes, which are known, variously, as suprafixes, superfixes, or simulfixes.

Consonant apophony (mutation)

Consonant alternation is commonly known as consonant mutation or consonant gradation. Bemba indicates causative verbs through alternation of the stem-final consonant. Here the alternation involves spirantization and palatalization:
(Kula 2000:174)
Celtic languages are well-known for their initial consonant mutations.

Stem alternations and other morphological processes

Stem modifications (i.e. apophony) may co-occur with other morphological processes, such as affixation. An example of this is in the formation of plural nouns in German:
Here the singular/plural distinction is indicated through ablaut and additionally by a suffix -er in the plural form. English also displays similar forms with a -ren suffix in the plural and a -en suffix in the past participle forms along with the internal vowel alternation:
A more complicated example comes from Chickasaw where the positive/negative distinction in verbs displays vowel ablaut along with prefixation (ak-) and infixation (-'-):

Apophony vs. transfixation (root-and-pattern)

The nonconcatenative root-and-pattern morphology of the Afro-Asiatic languages is sometimes described in terms of apophony. The alternation patterns in many of these languages is quite extensive involving vowels and consonant gemination (i.e. doubled consonants). The alternations below are of Modern Standard Arabic (the symbol }} indicates gemination on the preceding consonant):
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