I am exploring the phonological system of Kyrgyz Language.

In casual speech people tend to change b > w when b occurs between two vowels or preceeds l, r, y and followed by vowel. Are there other languages where b changed into w? What may be the reasons for it?

1 Answer 1


This is a common process called lenition.

Consider a language that has a phoneme /b/ as its only voiced bilabial phoneme. Speakers will then often pronounce /b/ without complete closure of the airway, giving a fricative [β] or approximant [β̞] realization.

A very similar phenomenon occurs in Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan, where intervocalic /b/ is realized as [β̞]. For example, Spanish bobo /ˈbo.bo/ will be pronounced [ˈbo.β̞o]. Japanese similarly often realizes /b/ as /β/.

In this case, the (voiced bilabial) stop turns into an approximant. Kyrgyz lacks a /w/ phoneme, so there is no need to distinguish /b/ from /w/. Since the bilabial approximant [β̞] sounds similar to the bilabial-velar approximant [w], it is not surprising that [w] is another possible realization. Such shifting between various labial sounds and [w] is very common cross-linguistically; examples include:

  • Ancient Greek /w/ (Εὐρώπη /ewrɔ̀ɔ́pɛɛ/) → modern /v/ (Ευρώπη /evˈro.pi/ 'Europe') (in the coda, before a voiced segment)
  • Classical Latin /w/ (vīvere /ˈwiː.we.re/, 'to live') → Romance /v/ → Spanish /b~β̞/ (vivir /biˈbir/ [biˈβ̞ɪr] 'to live')
  • Germanic /w/ (English will /wɪl/) → Dutch /ʋ~β̞/ (wil /ʋɪl/ 'want' 1sg), German /v/ (will /ˈvɪl/ 'want to' 1sg)
  • Old Japanese /p/ (/pa/, topic marker) → /ɸ/ → modern /w/ (⟨は⟩ /wa/, topic marker) (sometimes)

Another such transformation is Ancient Greek βῆτα [bɛ́ɛ̀.ta] 'the letter beta' -> Modern Greek Βήτα [ˈvi.ta], where the /b/ was lenited to /β/, which was replaced with the cross-linguistically-more-common labiodental phone.

  • 2
    Korean also has lenition in the verb paradigm: some roots ending in -b such as 무겁다 mugeop-da have conjugated forms ending in -w like 무거워 mugeow-eo.
    – jogloran
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 1:25
  • 1
    In Irish, the lenited form of /b/, written "bh", is pronounced /v/ or /w/ depending on dialect, from what I've read. I rather suspect that it is sometimes /β/, but I don't know that for sure. In Finnish, /p/ becomes /v/ when the syllable is closed.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 22:46
  • The Japanese topic marker is written は but pronounced /wa/.
    – jogloran
    Commented Jan 22, 2013 at 5:55
  • @jogloran: Fixed. Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 5:50

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.