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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?

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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.

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    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
    Dec 19 '12 at 1:25
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    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
    Dec 19 '12 at 22:46
  • The Japanese topic marker is written は but pronounced /wa/.
    – jogloran
    Jan 22 '13 at 5:55
  • @jogloran: Fixed. Jan 25 '13 at 5:50

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