Vowel Length and Palatalization


Vowel length

Vowels are capable of being continued during a longer or shorter period. All English vowels (with the exception of diphthongs) are generally divided into long and short.

In the similarly accented position, all English vowels are fully long when they are final, eg. see . They are almost as long as that when a weak voiced consonant follows them in the closed syllable, eg. seed . They are considerably shorter than strong voiceless consonants in closed syllables, eg. seat .

All English vowels are longer when they are strongly stressed and when they are in the nuclear syllable, eg. brass .


It is the quality or state of being palatalized, producing a sound with the front of the tongue against or near the hard palate (the roof of the mouth, separating the mouth cavity from the nasal cavity).

Palatalization is a place assimilatory process in which consonants assimilate to a following (in the case of regressive assimilation) or to the preceding (in the case of the progressive assimilation) front vowel or palatal glide (i.e. front vocoid). The most common triggers of palatalization are the front vowels.

The term ‘palatalization’ denotes a phonological process by which consonants acquire secondary palatal articulation or shift their primary place towards or close to the palatal region. This usually happens under the influence of an adjacent front vowel and or a palatal glide (e.g. kiàkji, tjaàʧa). As such, palatalization is a type of consonant-vowel interaction. The term may also refer to a phonemic contrast between consonants with secondary palatal articulation and their non-palatalized counterparts (e.g. pja vs. pa).

Palatalization has been typically viewed as a classical example of a ‘natural’ phonological process – the one that is widely attested across world languages and has a clear phonetic motivation, such as in consonant-to-vowel coarticulation .

However, many formal accounts of palatalization undertaken over the last forty years have faced considerable challenges. These challenges partly stem from the fact that palatalization processes show a wide range of manifestations – across languages and within a given language. Many synchronic palatalization processes also exhibit complex phonological and morphological conditioning and pervasive opacity effects, reflecting complicated historical sound changes and paradigmatic restructuring.

English, in fact, has at least three kinds of alternations that fall under the general definition of palatalization processes.

Coronal palatalization

So-called coronal palatalization involves an alternation between alveolars [t d s z] and palato-alveolars [ʧ ʤ ʃ ʒ] . In these examples, the palato-alveolars occur before a palatal glide (in an unstressed syllable), while alveolars occur elsewhere.

These alternations can be analyzed as a process – a change of alveolars to palato-alveolars in the context of [j] (Chomsky & Halle 1968; Borowsky 1986, among others).

  • t - ʧ perpe[t]uity perpe[ʧ]ual
  • d - ʤ resi[d]ue resi[ʤ]ual
  • s - ʃ gra[s]e gra[ʃ]ious
  • z - ʒ plea[z]e plea[ʒ]ure

This can also be exhibited across words, as in go [ʧ] you , plea [ʒ] e yourself , etc.

Velar softening

The second process – velar softening – is exhibited by alternations between velar stops [k], [g] and coronal fricatives or affricates [s] and [ʤ] respectively. The coronal alternants are found before certain Latinate or Greek suffixes beginning with (mainly) front vowels; the velar alternants are found elsewhere.

Given this, the alternations are usually analyzed as a palatalizing change of velars to coronals triggered by front vowels (Chomsky & Halle 1968; Borowsky 1986). Unlike coronal palatalization, this process is more complex, as it actually involves two non-identical changes – a shift of the voiced velar stops to the palato-alveolar affricate and a shift of the voiceless velar stop to the alveolar fricative . While the outputs of velar softening are not identical in terms of minor place of articulation and continuancy, they are both sibilant coronals.

  • a . k - s medi[k]ation medi[s]ine criti[k] criti[s]ize
  • b . g - ʤ analo[g] analo[ʤ]y pedago[g]ue pedago[ʤ]y


The third process – spirantization – exhibits alternations between the alveolar stop [t] and the alveolar fricative [s] (or [ʃ] in conjunction with coronal palatalization). The latter segment occurs before suffixes with an unsyllabified [i] , and this process is assumed to involve a change of stop to fricative before the high front vowel (Borowsky 1986). As such, the process does not involve a change in place of articulation, but a change in continuancy and sibilancy.

  • t Ŕ s secre[t] secre[s]y regen[t] regen[s]y emergen[t] emergen[s]y

The three palatalization processes manifested by alternations in (1)-(3) differ in several respects. The targets of palatalization are anterior coronals (alveolars) in (1) and (3), and dorsals in (2). The outputs are posterior coronals (palato-alveolars) in (1) and (2b) and anterior coronals in (2a) and (3).

The triggers are [j] in (1) and high front vowels in (2) and (3). (The processes are also obviously different in terms of their phonological or morphological conditioning: morpheme boundaries, particular suffixes, stress, etc.) What the processes have in common, however, is that they appear to be triggered by front vocoids and result in coronal segments, notably, all sibilants.