/f/ to /theta/ Sound Changes
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Some months ago I posted a query on The LINGUIST List asking for
any attested instances of a historical /f/ > /theta/ change, or for any
dialect variation between /f/ and /theta/ in which /f/ has become /theta/
in the innovative dialect.
Many thanks to the following people for responding to my query:
Kelly Lynne Maynard
I also have responded to each of these people individually. I apologize
to them (and all other interested folks) for not posting this summary
The responses were of four types, and are grouped below.
(I) Attested /f/ > /theta/ changes:
Mikael Parkvall and Emerson Odango noted that in Pulo-Annan
(Chuukic), Proto-Micronesian *f became /ð/ (orthographic
becoming /f/ in all other Chuukic languages.
The motivation for this change is unclear, though it may have been
influenced by areal contact with Palauan, which has /ð/. The Chuukic
language Ulithian also has /ð/, but as a regular reflex of Proto-
Joseph Salmons and Gary Taylor also pointed out an example of a
conditioned /f/ > /theta/ change: Gothic reflexes of early Germanic /fl-/
often show up as /theta+l/.
(a) Schiko Oda’s thesis “The Syntax of Pulo Annan”
(b) pp. 4-5 of Bender, Byron, Ward Goodenough, Frederick Jackson,
Jeffrey Marck, Kenneth Rehg, Ho-min Sohn, Stephen Trussel & Judith
Wang (2003): Proto-Micronesian Reconstructions 1. Oceanic
Linguistics 42 (1), pp 1-110.
(c) Joseph Salmons and Gregory Iverson (1993) "Gothic /þl-/ ~ /fl-/
Variation as Lexical Diffusion." Diachronica 10.87-96.
(d) Jones, Mark J. (2002). "More on the instability of interdental
fricatives." Word 53(1): 1-8.
(II) Reconstructed (but unattested) /f/ > /theta/ changes:
James Brookes, citing Stuart-Smith (2004), suggested that Proto-Indo-
European /dh/ may have passed through /f/ on its way to becoming
Latin /d/. I repeat the argument more or less verbatim:
"...in Latin and Sabellian the PIE so-called voiced aspirated stop /dh/
went through a lenition stage in medial positions, /dh/ > /d/ > /theta/ >
/f/. In Sabellian, the lenition remained, so /f/ is found in words like
mefiaí '(in the) middle' < PIE *medh-yos.
In Latin, /f/ is not the actual medial reflex of PIE /dh/, but rather /d/, so
the lexical equivalent of Sab. mefiaí is Lat. medius. Smith therefore
supposes that in Latin /f/ underwent some kind of re-fortition to /d/ in
the medial position; the only way to account for fortition is through a
stepwise reversal, which should naturally involve a /theta/ stage."
(a) Jane Stuart-Smith (2004). "Phonetics and philology: sound change
in Italic." Oxford University Press.
(III) Lexically isolated /f/ > /theta/ changes
In his own extensive diachronic work, Martin Kümmel found only one
potential case of a /v/ > /ð/ change, localized to the Eastern Iranian
Pamir languages of the Shughni group (including Yazghulami) and
neighbouring Sanglichi. This was a conditioned change, with "voiced /v/
[becoming] the corresponding dental fricative before /m/ from /n/" in a
The word for 'sleep,' which "originally must have had /fn/ voiced to
/vn/," ultimately reaching /ðm/, with "the labial feature...gone over to the
nasal." The diachronic trajectory of this change might then have been
/fn/ > /vn/ (> /vm/) > /ðm/. Martin speculated that this final stage may
have been dissimilatory in nature.
Martin also notes that (unsurprisingly) /theta/ > /f/ changes were
widespread in his survey (p.193f).
Daniela Müller found a single case of /f/ > /th/ in a dialect of Occitan:
Latin /febrem/ 'fever' is realized as /ther/. However, this may not
represent a true /f/ > /th/ change, but rather a mediated /f/ > ... > /fth/ >
/th/ change. As Daniela writes:
"...it is an /fj/-cluster that developed into the interdental fricative,
because of the diphthongisation of the Latin short /e/. The palatal glide
in stop+palatal onset clusters sometimes develops into /th/ in those
dialects, so that in the word for 'fever,' the evolution /fjer/ > /fther/ >
/ther/ is more likely. (Only the /f/ is phonemic in general Occitan.)"
(a) p.220 of M. J. Kümmel, Konsonantenwandel: Bausteine zu einer
Typologie des Lautwandels und ihre Konsequenzen für die
vergleichende Rekonstruktion. Wiesbaden: Reichert 2007.
(b) Point 9 of the Atlas Linguistique du Limousin et de l'Auvergne (La
(IV) /f/ ~ /theta/ dialect variation
Kelly Lynne Maynard reported that some sub-dialects of Albanian show
conditioned /f/ ~ /th/ variation. The varieties in question are two North
Gheg dialects (Borgo Erizzo/Arbanasi and Peshter).
In Borgo Erizzo/Arbanasi, f > θ / _ t, e.g. [prift] > [priθt] 'priest'. In
Peshter, Standard Albanian /ferra/ 'thorny bush' is realized as /therra/.
This change is not due to a general ban on /fe/ sequences in Peshter:
cf. Peshter /i fell/ vs. Standard Albanian /thell/ 'deep.'
All Albanian dialects have phonemic /f v θ ð/, so these changes are
(potentially) neutralizing. Again, Kelly notes that the opposite shift (/th/
> /f/) is quite common in Albanian dialects, as the above forms for
Finally, Rémy Viredaz suggested that Tsakonian Greek underwent a
conditioned /f/ > /th/ change. Rémy writes that "a change of /f/ to /theta/
(sometimes /khi/) [occurred] in Tsakonian, however only before syllabic
and asyllabic /i/ (from Ancient Greek /iota/ as well as /eta/, though not
from /ypsilon/, which is known to have merged with /i/ only later, and
not before /e/); this change does not affect recent loans from
mainstream Modern Greek."
Rémy points out that this change is likely linked to palatalization, as
"Tsakonian also changes the sequences /ti/ and /pi/ to /ki/ (so written,
but obviously with palatalized /k/; /k/ is palatalized before /e i/ in
modern Standard Greek)."
He also observes that this potential /f/ > /theta/ change is not the result
of a pull-chain or 'slot-filling' shift: though "Ancient Greek /theta/ shifted
to /s/ already in Antiquity (Laconian), Tsakonian nevertheless
possesses /theta/, e.g. /tha/ (future tense) or /tha’ssa/ (mainstream
Greek /tha’lassa/, ‘sea’)," independently of the /f/ > /th/ change.
(a) Weigand, Gustav. (1911) Der Gegische dialect von Borgo Erizzo
bei Zara in Dalmatien.
(b) Tagliavini, Carlo. (1937) L’albanese di dalmazia contributi alla
conoscenza del dialetto Ghego di Borgo Erizzo presso Zara.
(c) p.104 of Latif Mulaku and Medhi Bardhi (1972) "Mbi të folmen
Shqipe të Peshterit," in Gjurmime Albanologjike.
(d) G.P. Anagnostopulos (1926). Tsakonische Grammatik, Berlin–
Once again, many thanks to those of you who replied. My deepest
apologies if I have misrepresented any of your responses.
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