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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.

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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.


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