The LINGUIST List is dedicated to providing information on language and language analysis, and to providing the discipline of linguistics with the infrastructure necessary to function in the digital world. LINGUIST is a free resource, run by linguistics students and faculty, and supported primarily by your donations. Please support LINGUIST List during the 2018 Fund Drive (
Ask Your Question

Why and when did Italian replace the letter L with I in certain words?

asked 2018-04-09 17:18:50 -0400

I noticed that in Italian, words that in other Romance languages (sometimes English) generally follow the pattern consonant-L-vowel instead replace the L with I. For example: bianco (ES blanco, FR blanc) and related words like imbiancare (FR blanchir) fiasco (FR flasque, EN flask/bottle)

When did Italian change these words, and is there a reason? Is there a name for this process?

edit retag flag offensive close merge delete

1 answer

Sort by ┬╗ oldest newest most voted

answered 2018-04-17 22:20:41 -0400

    Instead of "letters", it's more accurate to think in terms of *sounds*, since the *i* in those Italian words represents a "y-sound" like the first sound in English *yank*.
    Here is the theory accepted by most Romance historical linguists:
    In Latin words beginning with *pl-*, *cl-* (pronounced [kl]), *fl-* and sometimes *bl-*, in some parts of Spain as well as Italy, the /l/ phoneme took on a "brighter" sound, like the *l* in *some* English-speakers' pronunciation of *million*.  Phonetically, the place of articulation moved from the alveolar ridge to the hard *palate*, so the change is called "palatalization".
    The new sound at first maintained its *lateral* quality, meaning it allowed the airstream to flow to one *side* of the tongue, the same as with the original "l-sound".
    After that, the Spanish and Italian dialects parted ways.  
    In standard Spanish, the initial consonant was lost, leaving the palatal lateral sound at the beginning of the word.  Spanish spelling uses a double *l* for that sound, so in Spanish we have (Latin > Spanish) *plenum* > *lleno*, *clavem* > *llave*, etc.
    In Italian, the initial consonant was preserved, but the palatal lateral lost its lateral quality (if you want a name for this change, call it "delateralization").  The result was the "y-like" sound as in *pieno*, *chiave*, *fiore*, etc.  (Compare the pronunciation by some English-speakers of *million* as "miyun".) 
    This scenario is supported by a transitional form that preserves both the initial consonant and the palatal lateral (the "bright" *l*), in [Ribagor├žan](, a dwindling dialect of the Ribagorza region of northern Spain, transitional between Castilian and Catalan.  When Spanish spelling is used to represent this dialect, the palatal lateral sound appears as double *l*:  *plleno*, *fllama*, etc.  Some spelling errors in 12th-century manuscripts suggest that the palatalization was happening by that time in Spain, but it's hard to pinpoint a date when this process began, because it was probably during a period of the early Middle Ages when early Romance dialects were not yet being put into writing.
edit flag offensive delete link more
Login/Signup to Answer

Question Tools

1 follower


Asked: 2018-04-09 17:18:50 -0400

Seen: 49 times

Last updated: Apr 09