In linguistics, palatalization ( /ˌpælətəlaɪˈzeɪʃən/ or /ˌpælətəlɨˈzeɪʃən/), also palatization, may refer to two different processes by which a sound, usually a consonant, comes to be produced with the tongue in a position in the mouth near the palate.
In describing the phonetics of an existing language (i.e., in synchronic descriptions), a palatalized consonant is one pronounced with a palatal secondary articulation. This means that the consonant is pronounced as if followed very closely by the sound (a palatal approximant, like the sound of "y" in "yellow"). For example, in the Polish word kiedy ("when"), the letters ki represent a palatalized, indicated in IPA notation as, with a superscript "j". This sound is similar to the combination of "k" and "y" in English "thank you".
The other meaning of palatalization is encountered in historical linguistics, and refers to a sound change in which a consonant's place of articulation becomes closer to the palatal position. This change is often triggered by a following sound or a front vowel. For example, in Italian, before the front vowels e and i, the letter c (which otherwise represents, a velar consonant), has come to be pronounced as the palato-alveolar consonant, like English "ch" (see hard and soft c).
Palatalization of both types is widespread across languages in the world, though its actual manifestation varies. In some languages, such as the Slavic languages, palatal or palatalized consonants are frequently referred to as soft consonants, with others called hard consonants.
The term palatalized vowel is also sometimes used, to refer to a vowel that has become fronter or closer.