In technical terms, palatalization refers to one of several things:
- A phonetic term of the secondary articulation of consonants by which the body of the tongue is raised toward the hard palate and the alveolar ridge during the articulation of the consonant. Such consonants are phonetically palatalized, and in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) they are indicated by a superscript ⟨j⟩, as with for a palatalized .
- A common assimilatory process or the result of such a process, which involves front vowels (that is, sounds with a higher second formant such as and ) and/or the palatal approximant causing nearby phones to shift towards (though not necessarily coming to) the palatal articulatory position or to positions closer to the front of the mouth.
The first may be the result of the second, but they are often different. A vowel may "palatalize" a consonant (sense 2), but the result might not be a palatalized consonant in the phonetic sense (sense 1), or the phonetically palatalized (sense 1) consonant may occur irrespective of adjacency to front vowels.
The word "palatalization" may also be used for the effect a palatal or palatalized consonant exerts on nearby sounds, as in the history of Old French where Bartsch's law turned low vowels into or after a palatalized velar consonant, or in the Uralic language Erzya, where the near-open low front unrounded vowel only occurs as an allophone of the open vowel after a palatalized consonant, as seen in the pronunciation of the name of the language itself, . Something similar may have been the case for some or even all low vowels in Old French, which could explain the palatalization of almost all velar plosives before /a/. However, while the process may be called palatalization, the resulting vowel is not called a palatalized vowel in the phonetic sense. Terminology such as "palatal vowel" is found, but this is primary and not secondary articulation.
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