Word Stories - March 1, 2024 - 3 min

Metathesis: Sounds on the Move

The linguistic phenomenon called metathesis is more common and straightforward than the word may look at first glance. The Greek prefix meta- here means “after”, and the Greek suffix -thesis comes from the verb tithenai, meaning “to place”. Metathesis is therefore the act of switching sounds around in words. You’ve probably witnessed this phenomenon firsthand, in the form of a child saying pa-sketti instead of spaghetti, or maybe an adult saying nook-yuh-ler instead of nuclear. Sometimes people just feel more comfortable wrapping their mouths around words if they swap out a sound or two. The word comfortable is itself a case in point: a whole lot of us find it easier to move the r over behind the t and say cumf-ter-bull instead. This Word Stories instalment looks at a few historical cases of metathesis, where these little slips of the tongue shaped English as we know it today.


Modern speakers of standard English sometimes raise an eyebrow when they hear people say “I axed a question” instead of “I asked a question”, but the metathesis involved actually has deep roots in the language. Old English developed the verb ascian (“to ask”) from the Germanic root *aiskōn and apparently thereby the lost Proto-Indo-European root *heys (“to request” or “to wish”). In the West Saxon dialect of southern Great Britain, though, the process known as metathesis switched the sounds around to produce the variant form acsian. Richard Arnold’s Chronicle of 1508 therefore offers answers to “him that axith”, and the Coverdale Bible of 1535 quotes Jesus as saying, “Axe, and it shal be geuen you: Seke, and ye shall fynde” (Matthew 7:7).

When the rise of the printing press standardized the English crown’s “Chancery” variants in spelling and pronunciation, ask crowded out aks in books and the speech of the upper classes who had ready access to books. The variant aks was stigmatized as somehow “vulgar” (The Writing Scholar’s Companion, 1695), and the power of the printed word enthroned ask as the “proper” standard English pronunciation. In the modern world, axing questions is only recognized as a legitimate variant in African American Vernacular English (AAVE).


The word bird appears very early on in the written record of the English language, carrying a few surprises. In the Old English of the Wessex Gospels (recorded around the year 1000), the word refers to a young bird. By the 1200s, we find its use being extended to mean a bird of any age, and in the 1400s some people were stretching it in other directions, as a term for a young animal of any kind. The meaning that stuck was the conservatively generalized one, and the everyday literal meaning of bird is still something like “a member of an avian species” today.

The word’s history of figurative usage comes with its own surprises. The 20th century habit of men using bird as an admiring name for a woman has some historical precedent (as seen in Thomas Middleton’s No Wit, Help like a Woman’s, 1657), but bird was put to use earlier and more often in referring to a man—especially a man who was seen as no good (Frederick J. Furnivall’s Early English Poems and Lives of Saints, 1561).

As a final surprise, the historical usages mentioned above were all spelled bridde. Nobody wrote bird (or byrde or berde) until the 1400s, and some people in the 1500s can still be found using the older form—as seen in the Tyndale Bible’s statement that “The bryddes of the aier have their nestes” (Matthew 8:10). At some point, then, for some reason, the native English word that sounded like brid-uh or breed-uh succumbed to a process of metathesis resulting in the current form bird pronounced as burd—perhaps due to the fact that the mere act of saying the br in bridde already sounds like “burr”, supplying the word with a similar vowel sound built in at the front end.


The modern English word bright is derived from the Old English bryht (“bright”), a metathetic transformation of the Anglian byrht (“bright”). The English word is thereby connected to the Germanic root *berhtaz (“bright”) and ultimately the theoretical lost Proto-Indo-European root *bherhg (“to shine brightly”). The meaning of the word has therefore shone quite steadily throughout its long evolution, but its forms on the tongue and on the page have not. Older forms of the word put the r sound after the vowel, and this preference only really died out around the turn of the 12th century, in the passing of the Old English variant beorcht (which was still used in works of the Middle Ages like the anonymous Peri Didaxeon or Aelfric of Eynsham’s Catholic Homilies). In some languages related to English, the priority of the vowel sound has in fact survived, as in the Norwegian bjart (“bright") and the Welsh berth (“fair”). Others joined English in flipping the sounds around, though, as in the Dutch brecht and the Scots bricht (which both mean “bright”). Apparently the English speakers of the Middle Ages were not alone in deciding that bright rolls off the tongue a bit more easily than birght.

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