Letters that simply intrude into our words
The Monitor’s language columnist looks at the way some words gain sounds and others lose them to make them easier to pronounce.
Last week's researches into the "wards" words – who says "toward" and who says "towards," and why – led me down a path with the exotic-sounding name of "epenthesis." Deadlines called me back before I could do much exploring, but this week I've returned to this particular part of the enchanted forest that is language.
Epenthesis is, simply, the insertion of a vowel or consonant into a word to make it easier to pronounce. The word comes from Greek and has the same rhythm as another Greek-derived term, hypothesis.
When Yogi Bear talks about swiping "pick-a-nick" baskets in Jellystone Park, it sounds as if he's just having fun, but he's also demonstrating "epenthesis," inserting a vowel to avoid the consonants bumping up against each other. The "a" sound people insert in "Realtor" is another familiar example.
Epenthesis occurs especially in combinations involving nasal sounds – "m" and "n" – with what phoneticians call "fricatives" – sounds made by pushing air out through a small space between your teeth and tongue or lips, such as "f," "z," and "th."
Can you pronounce hamster or warmth without putting a "p" in them? Can you pronounce incidence differently from incidents? I've been trying, and I haven't succeeded, though I can see that only one is actually spelled with a "t."
Sometimes the "intrusive" letter makes itself so completely at home that it gets adopted into the spelling. The "b" in words such as humble, mumble, and nimble, is epenthetic – not there in the root words from which they grew. So is the "d" in thunder.