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Sound change and alternation

I-mutation (also known as umlaut, front mutation, i-umlaut, i/j-mutation or i/j-umlaut) is a type of sound change in which a back vowel is fronted, or a front vowel is raised, if the following syllable contains /i/, /ī/ or /j/ (a voiced palatal approximant, sometimes called yod, the sound of English <y> in yes). It is a category of regressive metaphony, or vowel harmony.

The term is usually used by scholars of the Germanic languages: i-mutation is particularly important in the history of the Germanic languages because inflectional suffixes containing an /i/ or /j/ led to many vowel alternations that are important in the morphology of these languages today: see Germanic umlaut.


The terms i-mutation and i-umlaut are usually applied to processes in the early Germanic languages. The phenomenon exists in many other languages, but is often referred to by different names. For example, i-mutation explains the alternations between Portuguese fiz < */fetsi/ "I did" vs. fez < */fetse/ "he did". It is still productive in some Romance languages, including Central Venetian where final -i is still visible te parchigi < */parchégi/ "you park your car" vs. parchégio "I park". But i-mutation in the Romance languages is more commonly called metaphony (from Ancient Greek, meaning "process of changing sounds", of which German umlaut is a translation). Meanwhile, in the Celtic languages, it is referred to as affection.

History in Germanic

I-mutation took place separately in the various Germanic languages starting around 450 or 500 AD in the North Sea area, and affected all of the early languages[1] except for Gothic.[2] It seems to have taken effect earliest, and was most complete in its implementation, in Old English and Old Norse. It took place later in Old High German: by 900 AD its effects are consistently visible only in the spelling of Germanic */a/.


  1. See Fausto Cercignani, Early "Umlaut" Phenomena in the Germanic Languages, in «Language», 56/1, 1980, pp. 126-136.
  2. See Fausto Cercignani, Alleged Gothic Umlauts, in «Indogermanische Forschungen», 85, 1980, pp. 207-213.

See also