Consonant Gradation

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What is Consonant Gradation?

When a word is conjugated, declined or derived, an alternation occurs in the consonants which are in the middle of the word. It is something like the English alteration in "wife" - "wives", but much more regular and productive:

  • Mun viegan dávjá. [QI] (I run often.)
  • Mun liikon viehkat. [QII] (I like to run.)
  • Mun lean viehkki. [QIII] (I'm a runner/jogger.)
  • Dás ledje ollu váttis sánit. [QI] (There were a lot of hard words in this.)
  • Dát lea váttis sátni. [QII] (This is a difficult word.)
  • Son lea hui sádnái. [QIII] (He/She is extremely good with words).

Consonant Quantities and Grades

The consonants between a stressed syllable and an unstressed syllable are called stem consonants. The Saami language has many different types of stem consonants, single consonants (-g-, -đ-, -v-, -ŋ-, -n-, -m-, etc.), double consonants (-gg-, -kk-, -dd-, -tt-, -bb-, -pp-, -ss-, -mm-, etc.) and consonant clusters (-sk-, -tn-, -rdn-, etc.). Consonant clusters consist of two or more different consonants. Here are some examples of stem consonants: single consonant: lávu 'Lavvu [gen. sg.]', double consonant: lávvu 'lavvu [nom. sg.]', consonant clusters: lávdi '(window)sill; stage', lavdnji 'peat [used as roofing]'.

In Saami, stem consonants can come in three different quantities: quantity I, quantity II and quantity III, which are represented here as: QI, QII and QIII, respectively. (See the examples above with [QI], [QII] and [QIII] notation.) Single consonants are QI. Double consonants and consonant clusters can represent both as QII and QIII.

Usually QIII is said to be longer than QII. In the modern orthography it is impossible to see the difference between double consonants of quantity II and quantity III because both quantitative grades are represented orthographically with two letters: QIII: guossi 'guest', QII: guossit 'guests'. An exception to this is "-llj-", which is quantity III, and "-lj-", which is quantity II. Quantity-II consonant clusters can, of course, contain more orthographic letters than quantity III consonant clusters, and therefore the shorter quantities may appear as longer orthographic clusters, e.g., QIII: juolgi 'leg; foot'; QII: juolggit 'legs; feet'.

Words undergo changes between two or even three grades when they are inflected. Most instances of consonant gradation can be dealt with using the notions weak and strong grade, where some inflectional forms take a strong grade, while others take a weak grade.

In the alternation "quantity II" and "quantity I", quantity II always represents the strong grade, and quantity I the weak grade, e.g. máhtu - máđut 'worm - worms'. Likewise, in the alternation "quantity III" and "quantity II", quantity III always represents the strong grade, and quantity II the weak grade, e.g. máhttu - máhtut 'skill - skills'.

Examples are given with strong grade on the left and weak grade on the right:

Consonant gradation
QII-QI QIII-QII
viessu - viesut guossi - guossit
báhčit - bážán áhčči -áhči
vuodja - vuoja áddjá-ádjá

Some word stems can be attested in all three quantities, e.g. viega [QI] 'run!', viehkat [QII] 'to run', viehkku [QIII] 'let's run [du.]'. Other word stems are only attested in two quantities, e.g. áddjá [QIII] 'grandfather', ádjá [QII] 'grandfather [gen. sg.]'.

Consonant Gradation and Different Stem Types

Verbs, nouns, numerals, pronouns and adjectives are divided into three stem types, namely vowel stem, consonant stem and contracted stem types. Words are divided into these groups according to consonant gradation and the number of syllables in the final foot of the word.

A foot, as in the study of poetry, is a group of syllables where the first syllable has stress. sáme-giella 'the Saami language' and vil-bealli 'cousin [male]' are compound words, both of which have two feet, despite the number of syllables. The word gonagas 'king', on the contrary, only has one foot; the main stress falls on the first syllable.

Vowel stem nouns, numerals, pronouns and adjectives have two syllables in the final foot. This group of words has strong-grade stem consonants in the nominative singular, illative singular and essive (QII or QIII), and weak-grade stem consonants in the plural, e.g. gussa - gusat 'cow - cows', vilbealli - vilbealit 'cousin - cousins [male]'.

Consonant stem nouns, numerals, pronouns and adjectives have three syllables in the final foot in the nominative plural, e.g. rieban - riebanat 'fox - foxes', nisu - nissonat 'woman - women'. The nominative singular and essive have weak-grade stem consonants, while the other forms have strong-grade stem consonants. It should be noted, however, that not all consonant stem nouns, numerals, pronouns and adjectives are subject to consonant gradation.

Contracted-stem nouns, numerals, pronouns and adjectives have two syllables in the final foot in both the singular and plural, just as in their vowel stem counterparts. Consonant gradation, however, is like that found in consonant stem nouns, numerals, pronouns and adjectives. They are weak-grade ([QI] or [QII]) in the nominative singular and strong-grade ([QIII]) in the plural, e.g. boazu - bohccot [QI - QIII] 'reindeer - reindeer [nom. pl.]', bálggis - bálgát [QII - QIII] 'path - paths'.

Note that the illative singular is strong-grade in all three stem types.

Verbs are divided into the same stem types, but it is only vowel stem verbs which undergo consonant gradation. Vowel stem verbs have two syllables in the final foot. In the indicative present, seven of the nine person forms are strong-grade, while the first and second persons singular are weak-grade, hence Son čállá. (He/She writes.), but Mun čálán. (I write.) Don čálát. (You [sg.] write.) In the indicative preterite, six persons are weak-grade, while the first and second persons singular and the third person plural are strong-grade, hence Son čálii. (He/She wrote.), but Mun čállen. (I wrote.) Don čállet. (You [sg.] wrote.) Sii čálle. (They wrote.) Note that the third person plural forms are always strong-grade. The indicative connegation forms of the main verb are always weak-grade, e.g. Son ii 'čále'. (He/She doen't write.) Moai ean 'boađe'. (We [du.] are not coming.)

Consonant Gradation Patterns

There are many consonant gradation patterns in Northern Saami. In the outline, below, all the patterns are divided into two parts, double consonant alternations in one and consonant cluster alternations in the other. Single consonants can alternate with both double consonants and consonant clusters, and they are divided between the two groups. For example, the single consonant 'n' can be the weak grade of the double consonant 'nn' or of consonant cluster 'tn', mánná - mánát, 'child - children', sátni - sánit, 'word - words'.

Double consonants are subject to three types of alternation. They can alternate with single consonants or identical double consonants. In the latter alternation the modern orthography does not lend itself to identifying a distinction between QII and QIII. Double consonants can also alternate with other double consonants. In this situation, the strong grade is indicated with voiced consonants, and the weak grade with voiceless consonants. Examples are given with strong grade on the left and weak grade on the right:

  • golli - gollit 'gold'
  • guolli - guolit 'fish'
  • spábba - spáppat 'ball'
  • ddi - báttit 'rope'

Consonant clusters feature many alternations. The most common is that the final consonant of a cluster is doubled in the weak grade. Some clusters have additional alternations as well. In consonant clusters beginning in "-k-", the "-k-" alternates with "-v-" in the weak grade. Consonant clusters beginning with "-h-" have double consonants in quantity III, and they can also alternate with single consonants in quantity I. Here are some examples, with the strong grade on the left and the weak grade on the right:

  • vuolgit - vuolggán 'to leave'
  • baste - basttet 'spoon'
  • čaa - čavčča 'autumn'
  • lohkki - lohkit 'lid'
  • lohkat - logan 'to read'

In consonant clusters that consist of a plosive (k, g, t, d, p, b) and a nasal (ŋ, n, nj, m), it is the plosive that alternates. In the strong grade we have a voiced plosive [QIII], and in the weak grade the plosive is voiceless [QII]. These consonant clusters can also alternate with single consonants [QI], that is, the plosive is dropped leaving only the nasal. Here are some examples, with strong grade on the left and weak grade on the right:

  • biebmat - biepman 'to feed'
  • doapmat - doaman 'to rush'
  • tni - sánit 'word'
  • ednot - eanu 'maternal uncle'

These consonant clusters can be components of other consonants clusters where they are preceded by another consonant. When the preceding consonant is "-r-", the alternation remains the same, that is to say with regard to the alternation between voiced (g, d, b) and voiceless (k, t, p) plosives. When the cluster begins with other consonants, the nasal is lengthened orthographically to a double consonant in the weak grade, and the plosive (g, d, b) disappears. Examples are given with strong grade on the left and weak grade on the right:

  • čorbmat - čorpman 'to hit with the fist'
  • suorbma - suorpmat 'finger'
  • suoidni - suoinnit 'hay'
  • suoldni - suolnni 'dew'

Double Consonant Alternation

Double consonants alternate with single consonants of the same type or identical double consonants. Note that combinations hll, llj, lj, nnj and hrr are double consonants, and not consonant clusters. Additionally, it should be noted that the orthographic combinations hl, nj and hr represent single consonants.

Group 1
QIII QII QI Examples
đđ đđ đ gođđi, gođđit, gođán 'to knit'
ff ff f stáffu 'boat landing', jáffu, jáfut 'flour'
ll ll l golli - gollit 'gold', gulli - gullá - gulan 'to hear'
hll hll hl cuhlli, cuhllat, cuhlai 'to mutter'
llj lj duollji, duoljit 'hide, skin'
mm mm m lumma - lummat 'pocket', njammat - njaman 'to suckle'
nn nn n unni - unnit 'little', mánná - mánát 'child'
nnj nnj nj mannjái, mannji, manjit 'daughter-in-law'
ŋŋ ŋŋ ŋ maŋŋá, maŋŋái, maŋis 'after'
rr rr r orru, orrut, orun 'to live; to seem'
hrr hrr hr čahrri, čahrrat, čahrai 'to chatter'
ss ss s guossi - guossit 'guest', bassat - basan 'to wash'
šš šš š rišša - riššat 'match', riššut - rišui 'to shower'
ŧŧ ŧŧ ŧ muoŧŧái, muoŧŧá, muoŧát 'aunt [maternal, younger than mother]'
vv vv v govvet, govva, govat 'photograph'

Double consonants can also alternate with double consonants of a different type. A good rule of thumb is that the voiced consonants represent strong grade, and the voiceless consonants represent weak grade. Note that ddj and dj are double consonants, and not consonant clusters. The voiceless sound dj can represent the strong pair when it alternates with the single consonant j.

Group 2
QIII QII QI Examples
bb pp čibbi - čippit 'knee'
dd tt báddi - báttit 'rope'
ddj dj j áddjá - ádját 'grandfather', vuodja - vuoja 'butter'
gg kk vuogga - vuokkat 'lure; hook'
zz cc vázzit - váccán 'to walk'
žž čč čuožžut - čuoččun 'to stand'

Consonant Cluster Alternations

Group 3: Consonant clusters beginning in "-h-", have a double consonant after "-h-" in quantity III, and a single consonant after "-h-" in quantity II. QII can alternate with QIII, or with QI, which is a single consonant.

Group 3: "h" combinations
QIII QII QI Examples
hcc hc z gihcci - gihci '(goat) kid', báhcit - bázán 'to remain'
hčč ž áhčči - áhčit 'father', bohčit - božan 'to milk'
hkk hk g áhkku - áhkut 'grandmother', lohkat - logan 'to read'
hpp hp b diehppi - diehpit 'tassel', doahput - doabun 'to snatch'
htt ht đ Máhtte - Máhte 'Máhtte [name]', sihtat - siđan 'to want'

Group 4: Consonant clusters that consist of one plosive and one nasal can alternate with single consonants or with a similar consonant cluster. In QIII we have a voiced plosive, and in QII a voiceless plosive.

Group 4: combinations with plosive+nasal
QIII QII QI Examples
bm pm m biebmu - biepmu 'food', doapmat - doaman 'to hurry'
dn tn n eadni - eatnit 'mother', fitnan - finan 'to visit, to go somewhere'
dnj tnj nj boadnji - boatnjit 'husband', suotnjat - suonjan 'to crawl through/into'
ŋ duogŋat - duokŋan 'to patch', čikŋa - čiŋat 'decoration'

Group 5: This group consists of plosive+nasal combination in compound with a preceding "-r-". There are only two grades; quantity III is the strong grade and quantity II is the weak grade. In the strong grade, we have a voiced plosive, and in the weak grade a voiceless plosive. In the strong grade you can hear glide vowel between the "-r-" and the consonant cluster: bárᵊdni 'boy'.

Group 5
QIII QII Examples
rbm rpm čorbma - čorpmat 'fist'
rdn rtn bárdni - bártnit 'boy'
rdnj rtnj skurdnjasa - skurtnjas 'disheartened'
rgŋ rkŋ goargŋut - goarkŋun 'to climb'

Group 6: This is the largest group of alternations. There are only two quantities, and they are quantity III as the strong grade, and quantity II as the weak grade. The last consonant in the strong grade is doubled in the weak grade. In the strong grade a glide vowel is pronounced between the first and second consonants, beađᵊbi 'shoulder blade'. In consonant clusters that begin with a nasal, "-i-", "-s-", "-š-", "-t-" or "-v-" there should not be any glide vowel, nor should there be a glide vowel in the consonant clusters "-ld-" or "-lt-". Below, the groups are divided into tables according to the first letter.

Group 6, "-đ-" combinations
QIII QII Examples
đb đbb beađbi - beađbbit 'shoulder blade'
đg đgg geađgi - geađggit 'stone'
đj đjj guđju - guđjjut 'cover'
đv đvv liđvi - liđvvit 'droopy-eyed'

Group 6, "-i-" combinations
QIII QII Examples
ib ibb gáibi - gáibbit 'chin'
ic icc gáica - gáiccat 'goat'
id idd báidi - báiddit 'shirt'
if iff riifu - riiffut 'slug; rake'
ig igg čuoigat - čuoiggan 'to ski'
ik ikk báiki - báikkit 'place'
il ill biila - biillat 'car'
ihl ihll máihli - máihlli 'sap'
ihm ihmm duihmi - duihmmit 'stupid'
ihn ihnn čáihni - čáihnnit 'woodpecker'
ip ipp biipu - biipput 'pipe'
ir irr áiru - áirrut 'oar'
is iss gáisá - gáissát 'mountain with a snow cap'
it itt heaitit - heittii 'to quit'
iv ivv siivu - siivvu 'travel conditions'
iz izz máizat - máizzai 'to thaw out'

Group 6, "-l-" combinations
QIII QII Examples
lb lbb gálbi - gálbbit 'calf [baby cow]'
lc lcc spalca - spalccas 'wet [of leather]'
ld ldd baldit - balddii 'to frighten'
lf lff spálfu - spálffut 'swallow'
lg lgg juolgi - juolggit 'foot; leg'
lk lkk bálkut - bálkkun 'to throw, to toss'
lj ljj olju - oljju 'oil'
lp lpp vuolpu - vuolpput 'skirt'
ls lss balsa - balssat 'mound'
lšš vuolši - vuolšši '(weaping) inflammation'
lt ltt boltut - bolttui 'to dig through, to quarry'
lv lvv gilvit - gilvvii 'to sow, to plant'
lžž skilži - skilžži 'ice formation on hair'

Group 6, nasal as first consonant
QIII QII Examples
mb mbb bumbá - bumbbát 'chest'
mp mpp gumpe - gumppet 'wolf'
ms mss Romsa - Romssas 'Tromsø'
mšš roamši - roamššit 'wrinkle'
nc ncc gincut - ginccui 'wriggle'
nčč rinči - rinččit 'half-naked being'
nd ndd boanda - boanddat 'farmer'
ns nss šimpánsa - šimpánssat 'chimpanzee'
nt ntt kontu - konttut 'account'
nz nzz bunzarat - bunzzar 'peculiarity'
nžž stánži - stánžžit 'puddle'
ŋg ŋgg seaŋga - seaŋggat 'bed'
ŋk ŋkk boŋkit - boŋkkii 'to stamp'

Group 6, "-r-" combinations
QIII QII Examples
rb rbb čuorbi - čuorbbit 'clumsy'
rc rcc bircu - birccut 'dice'
rčč skurču - skurččut 'small gorge'
rd rdd vuordit - vurddii 'to wait'
rf rff márfi - márffit 'sausage'
rg rgg bargu - barggut 'work'
rj rjj girji - girjjit 'book'
rk rkk mierká - mierkkát 'fog'
rp rpp gurpat - gurppai 'to make a bundle, to tie'
rs rss hirsa - hirssat 'log'
ršš boršut - borššui 'to froth and foam'
rt rtt bárti - bárttit 'accident'
rv rvv garvit - garvvii 'to avoid'
rz rzz birzi - birzzit 'close (call)'
ržž gárži - gáržžit 'narrow, tight'

Group 6, "s-/š-/t-" combinations
QIII QII Examples
sk skk baski - baskkit 'small, narrow'
sm smm leasmi -leasmmi 'reumatism'
sp spp luspi - lusppit 'estuary'
st stt gastit - gasttii 'to sneeze'
šk škk biškut - biškkui 'to screech'
šm šmm šušmi - šušmmit 'heel'
št štt gušta - gušttat 'broom'
šv švv gišvalit - gišvvihit 'to startle'
tk tkk gotka - gotkkat 'ant'
tm tmm fátmi - fátmmis '[in] one's arms'

Group 6, v-clusters
QIII QII Examples
vd vdd govdut - govddui 'to float'
vg vgg čuovga - čuovggat 'light'
vj vjj gavja - gavjjat 'dust'
vk vkk lávki - lávkkit 'step'
vl vll skuvla - skuvllat 'school'
vhl vhll skoavhli - skoavhllit 'blister'
vp vpp gávpi - gávppit 'shop'
vr vrr stivra - stivrrat 'council, board'
vt vtt bávtat-bávttai 'to form [of aufeis]'
vz vzz ceavzit - cevzzii 'to manage [to do smth]'
vžž čuovža - čuovžžat 'whitefish'

Group 7: Consonant combinations in this group have three or four letters in both quantity II and quantity III. In the strong grade we have a "-đ-", "-i-", "-l-" or "-v-" followed by a plosive+nasal combination. In the weak grade the nasal is doubled and the plosive disappears.

Group 7
QIII QII Examples
đbm đmm gieđbmi-gieđmmit 'kettle'
đgŋ đŋŋ siđgŋat - siđŋŋai 'when needle holes are too wide for the seam'
ibm imm diibmu - diimmu 'hour, clock'
idn inn báidnit - báinnii 'to dye'
igŋ iŋŋ vuoigŋat - vuoiŋŋai 'to breathe'
lbm lmm albmi - almmi 'sky'
ldn lnn suoldni - suolnni 'dew'
lgŋ lŋŋ algŋa - alŋŋa 'gums'
vdn vnn rievdnu - rievnnut 'straight pin'
vdnj vnnj savdnjit - savnnjii 'to shake'

Group 8: This group consists of "-i-", "-n-", "-m-", "-r-" and "-v-" followed by "-s-" and "-š-" combinations. These clusters comply with the patterns that "-s-" and "-š-" compounds follow elsewhere, namely the last consonant in the strong grade is doubled when forming the weak grade.

Group 8
QIII QII Examples
isk iskk beaisku - beaiskkut 'pest'
ist istt luiste - luisttet 'skate [footwear]'
mšk mškk rámškut - rámškkui 'flap'
nsk nskk Murmánska - Murmánskkas 'Murmansk'
nst nstt goansta - goansttat 'trick'
rsk rskk hersko - herskkot 'treat, snack'
rst rstt horsta - horstta 'burlap'
vsk vskk livsku - livskkut 'shred'

Group 9: In this group we have consonant combinations that begin in "-k-" in the strong grade. In the weak grade the "-k-" alternates with "-v-", and the last consonant is geminated.

Group 9, "-k-" combinations
QIII QII Examples
kc vcc gakcut - gavccui 'to climb'
včč čiekčat - čievččai 'to kick'
ks vss raksa - ravssat 'diaper'
kst vstt teaksta - teavsttat 'text'
všš dikšut - divššui 'to nurture'
kt vtt mokta - movtta 'enthusiasm'