In This Article Metathesis

  • Introduction
  • Typological Studies
  • Historical Approaches
  • Regularity of Metathesis
  • Morphological Metathesis
  • Psycholinguistic Approaches
  • Computational Approaches
  • Language Acquisition
  • Uncommon Metathesis Patterns
  • Metathesis and Speech Errors

Linguistics Metathesis
Beth Hume, Scott Seyfarth
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0242


Metathesis is a term used in linguistics to describe a language pattern where a sequence of two sounds occurs in one order in one context and in the opposite order in a related context. For example, a word might have two sounds in one order in its singular form but the opposite order in its plural form; or the relative ordering of two sounds within a word form might change over the history of a language; or a speaker might swap two sounds when speaking quickly. The literature on metathesis dates back at least a century and covers topics concerning its origin, typology, Conditioning Factors, and theoretical status, among others. This bibliography provides a broad overview of the research carried out on the topic. It should be noted, however, that the literature on metathesis is not as expansive as, for example, that of processes such as assimilation or deletion. One reason for this is because metathesis does not occur as pervasively across languages and, as a result, it has been given less attention than other more common processes. This has resulted in the status of metathesis as a regular process being questioned, as discussed in the articles listed under Regularity of Metathesis. While links between metathesis and speech errors have sometimes been assumed (Metathesis and Speech Errors), most work on metathesis focuses on more regular phonological or morphological patterns (Morphological Metathesis), and among these, on metathesis involving a consonant and vowel or two consonants (though see Uncommon Metathesis Patterns). There are several informative works on cross-linguistic patterns of metathesis (see Typological Studies) as well as in-depth studies of metathesis in particular languages (see Language Case Studies). The literature is generally divided as to whether metathesis is analyzed as a synchronic process (see Theoretical Phonology Approaches), or as sound change (see Historical Approaches). In addition to theoretical and descriptive studies, metathesis has been examined to a lesser extent from psycholinguistic and computational perspectives (see Psycholinguistic Approaches, Computational Approaches) and also in terms of first and second language learning (see Language Acquisition). Most articles contain information on the factors conditioning metathesis (see Phonetic and Phonological, Sociolinguistic, and Statistical) which has provided insight into its nature, and has revealed that most of the factors conditioning metathesis are the same as those involved in more common processes (see Conditioning Factors). The authors wish to thank Kylie Fitzgerald for her assistance with this project.

Typological Studies

There are few works that provide extensive cross-linguistic studies of metathesis. Ultan 1978 is a classic reference which describes the array of metathesis types observed in language. Buckley 2011 is more recent and a good starting point for those wanting to learn about the process. The most comprehensive collection of cases can be found on the metathesis website Metathesis in Language. Mielke and Hume 2000 uses the database to study the cross-linguistic distribution of metathesis within words. Additional works to be considered are Blevins and Garrett 1998 and Blevins and Garrett 2004 (cited under Historical Approaches) and the study Hume 2004 on consonant-consonant metathesis, all of which are extensive studies of metathesis patterns and their Conditioning Factors.

  • Blevins, Juliette, and Andrew Garrett. 1998. The origins of consonant-vowel metathesis. Language 74.3 (September): 508–556.

    DOI: 10.2307/417792E-mail Citation »

    An in-depth study into how synchronic patterns of consonant-vowel (CV) metathesis develop historically. Two types are proposed to emerge through distinct historical pathways: perceptual and compensatory metathesis. A third type is classified as pseudo-metathesis. The article provides a good overview of CV metathesis and the types of factors that can influence sequences of sounds involved in the process. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Buckley, Eugene. 2011. Metathesis. In The Blackwell companion to phonology. Vol. 3, Phonological processes. Edited by Marc van Oostendorp, Colin J. Ewen, Elizabeth Hume, and Keren Rice, 1380–1407. Blackwell Companions to Linguistics Series. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    E-mail Citation »

    An informative overview of metathesis with descriptions provided of typical examples of consonant-consonant, consonant-vowel, and vowel-vowel metathesis. The chapter offers a broad perspective and includes recent empirical, theoretical, and experimental research on metathesis. It also includes discussion of synchronic and diachronic cases, and related processes.

  • Hume, Elizabeth. 2004. The indeterminacy/attestation model of metathesis. Language 80.2:203–237.

    DOI: 10.1353/lan.2004.0083E-mail Citation »

    The goal of this study is to develop a model that predicts the conditions under which the order of two sounds may be reversed. Based on thirty-four cases of consonant-consonant metathesis, two general conditions are proposed. First, there is indeterminacy in the acoustic signal due to the listener’s experience with the two sounds and the quality of the sounds’ acoustic cues in context. Second, the phonotactic or syllable structure that is created by reversing the input order must be attested in the language. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Metathesis in Language.

    E-mail Citation »

    This Ohio State University website contains a database of over one hundred cases of metathesis developed by Elizabeth Hume and students. Cases are organized by language and according to whether they involve two consonants or a consonant and vowel. Each entry provides a description of the specific example of metathesis with data, information on Conditioning Factors, and references.

  • Mielke, Jeff, and Elizabeth Hume. 2000. Consequences of word recognition for metathesis. In Surface syllable structure and segment sequencing. Edited by Elizabeth Hume, Norval Smith, and Jeroen van de Weijer, 135–158. Leiden, The Netherlands: Holland Institute of Generative Linguistics.

    E-mail Citation »

    The paper contributes to understanding why metathesis is less common than processes such as assimilation. Part of the reason, it is argued, is because metathesis can disrupt word recognition more so than processes like assimilation. This predicts metathesis to be less likely at word beginnings, important contexts for word recognition. Evidence supporting the hypothesis comes from patterns of metathesis in fifty-four languages.

  • Ultan, Russell. 1978. A typological view of metathesis. In Universals of human language. Vol. 2, Phonology. Edited by Joseph H. Greenberg, Charles Albert Ferguson, and Edith A. Moravcsik, 367–402. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is the first cross-linguistic study of metathesis and provides an informative overview of the range of sounds involved in metathesis. The paper categorizes cases of metathesis according to the factors that condition its occurrence. The author furthers the proposition that metathesis is a regular process that occurs widely across languages.

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