Here I define a "spoonerism" as the exchange of onset sounds between initially accented words in a phrase:

  • "sh(oving l)eopard" instead of "loving shepherd"
  • "f(ighting a l)iar" instead of "lighting a fire"

This can be seen as long-distance metathesis like that which produced Spanish palabra, milagro, peligro. Or it can be infixation of modifiers ("loving" into "shepherd") or of VP heads into their nouns ("lighting" into "fire"), though I find that less likely because the article is also infixed.

Runny Babbit by Shel Silverstein is a "billy sook" of poetry that takes place in a fictional setting in which talking animals use spoonerisms as a normal part of their grammar. This got me wondering if any natural languages grammaticalize this sort of long-distance metathesis of onsets. And if so, is it commonly analyzed as infixation or metathesis?

I know of about two languages with grammatical metathesis. One is Fur, spoken in southwestern Republic of the Sudan, which moves a verb's onset after its first vowel if the preceding pronoun ends in a consonant. Wikipedia's article about Fur gives these examples: lem- "lick" > -elm-; ba- "drink" > -ab-. Rotuman has similar adjacent metathesis for all but the last morpheme of a phrase. This is metathesis but not the sort that can produce spoonerism, as it could be analyzed as an epenthetic vowel that takes the following vowel's quality due to an umlaut-like spreading phenomenon (Fur lem- > *-e-lem- > -elm).


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