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Why is it, that in words like plaza to piazza, or blanca to bianca, the l in spanish turns into an i in italian? Is there a preference for this kind of sound in Italian, or is there another reason?

  • I didn't know that, that is very interesting. Bavarian has gone through the same sound change. Many words which have an "l" in German have an "i" in Bavarian. Examples are (from German to Bavarian) "Spiel" -> "šbui", "Ball" -> "boi", "Mühle" -> "mui". – Matthias Schreiber Jun 30 '16 at 8:20
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Spanish and Italian are both languages descended from Latin. As such, many of their words are cognate sharing a common Latin ancestor, but the sounds in these words evolved over time and evolved differently in each language.

In Spanish, pl-, fl- and cl- generally became ll- (pronounced the same as Italian 'gl'):

6.3 Latin initial pl-, fl- and cl-

As regards /pl-/, /ɸl-/ and /kl-/, these have /ʎ/ as their normal reflex in Old Spanish and Modern Spanish:

  • plānum > llano ‘flat’
  • flammam > llama ‘flame’
  • clāvem > llave1 ‘key’

Note, however, popular exceptions such as

  • plateam > plaza ‘square’
  • flōrem > flor ‘flower’
  • clavīc(u)lam > clavija ‘peg’.

(The sequences [pl], [ɸl] and [kl] also occurred in postconsonantal position, and in that case the reflex is the affricate /tʃ/, generally with loss of the preceding consonant if this is not a nasal:

  • amplum > ancho ‘wide’
  • inflāre > hinchar1 ‘to swell’
  • masc(u)lum > macho ‘male’ )

In Italian, the 'l' in these clusters became an 'i':

  • planum > piano
  • flammam > fiamma
  • clavem > chiave

  • plateam > piazza1
  • florem > fiore
  • clavīc(u)lam > cavicchia1

  • amplum > ampio
  • inflāre > enfiare
  • masc(u)lum > maschio1

1. Though Italian does have the occasional doublet of these words retaining the Latin consonants, these are invariably learned borrowings or loanwords via other Romance languages that didn't undergo these changes, e.g. platea (borrowed); caviglia (through Old Provençal), clavicola (borrowed), masculo (borrowed) etc. Such learned borrowings also occur in Spanish e.g. clave, inflar etc.

 • Latin Alive: The Survival of Latin in English and the Romance Languages (p204-205)

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It is not Spanish /l/ that "turns into" Italian /i/. It is that the Latin clusters pl-, bl-, fl- became /pj/, /bj/, /fj/ in Italian.

  • Okay, but why does Italian pronounce these differently then Spanish? – user2146 Oct 20 '13 at 21:58
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    I think, the tense of "become" in fdb's answer misleads you. It was a sound change in the past: Spanish and Italian have their own sets of changes, but they "started" from more or less same point, namely - Latin. Thus, it is no longer a productive rule in Italian (i.e., a loan with pl- doesn't become pi- "automatically": see examples here). – har-wradim Oct 21 '13 at 22:32
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    For some reason it is usual in linguistic discourse to use the historic present to describe sound changes. But of course you are right: the shift of /pl/ to /pj/ etc. is not productive in modern Italian. – fdb Oct 22 '13 at 19:22
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    The /l/ in those clusters didn't palatalise in Spanish as it did in Italian. But Latin 'cl' went even further in Spanish than in Italian. In Italian it went to /kj/ ('clamare'-> 'chiamare') but in Spanish the 'l' palatalised and then the 'k' disappeared ('clamare' -> 'llamar') – Colin Fine Oct 23 '13 at 23:33
  • @Tony The only real answer would be "no one knows" IMHO. Of course there are likely and unlikely sound changes, but there's no way of predicting them or tell why a certain changed occurred. – cyco130 Oct 25 '13 at 7:24
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I would say, /l/ in specific Latin clusters was simply vocalized in Italian. That means the consonant became a vowel, which is not all that uncommon for a sound like this. Take for example r-vocalizations in German wer /veːɐ̯/ and English bear /bɛːə̯/. /l/ has been vocalized in Cockney, I think, feel [fiu̯], in Dutch goud 'gold' and Bavarian German varieties spui german 'Spiel'.
In an l-sound some part of the tongue touches the roof of the mouth but [!] lets the air escape at the sides[!]. If a speaker does not do this, what remains is a vowel because the air stream is unhindered. This can sometimes facilitate the articulation.

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Just for (a random) curiosity :D : Latin pl, cl and fl bacame [ʃ] in portuguese (written ch).

Example: planum > chão (doublet of "plano") plattus > chato (doublet of "prato") plenum > cheio (doublet of "pleno") clamare > chamar (doublet of "clamar") clave > chave ("doublet of "clave") flama > chama (doublet of "flama") flor > chor (later replaced by the relatinazed word "flor")

Except in words that entered later in the language, in this case, pl, cl, fl etc became pr, cr, fr etc.

Exemple: plata > prata plato > prato claro > craro (later replaced by the relatinazed word "claro") flecha > frecha (later replaced by the relatinazed word "flecha")

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