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Sound change and alternation

In phonology, epenthesis (; Greek ) means the addition of one or more sounds to a word, especially to the interior of a word (at the beginning prothesis and at the end paragoge are commonly used). The word epenthesis comes from epi- "in addition to" and en "in" and thesis "putting". Epenthesis may be divided into two types: excrescence, for the addition of a consonant, and anaptyxis for the addition of a vowel. The opposite process where one or more sounds are removed is referred to as elision.


Epenthesis arises for a variety of reasons. The phonotactics of a given language may discourage vowels in hiatus or consonant clusters, and a consonant or vowel may be added to make pronunciation easier. Epenthesis may be represented in writing or be a feature only of the spoken language.

Separating vowels

A consonant may be added to separate vowels in hiatus. This is the case with linking and intrusive R.

  • drawing -> drawring

Bridging consonant clusters

A consonant may be placed between consonants in a consonant cluster where the place of articulation is different (e.g., where one consonant is labial and the other is alveolar).

  • something -> somepthing
  • *a-mrotos -> ambrotos (see below)

Breaking consonant clusters

A vowel may be placed between consonants to separate them.

Regular examples in English are -i-, used in forming Latinate words such as equidistant, and -o-, used in forming words on Greek roots or general compounds, as in speedometer.

Other contexts

While epenthesis most often occurs between two vowels or two consonants, it can also occur between a vowel and a consonant, or at the ends of words. For example, the Japanese prefix ma- ((), pure ..., complete ...) transforms regularly to ma'- ((), (gemination of following consonant)) when followed by a consonant, as in masshiro ((?), pure white). The English suffix -t, often found in the form -st, as in amongst (from among + -st), is an example of terminal excrescence.


Excrescence, also known as vyanjanabhakti (/?vj?:ndn?'b?:kti/; from Sanskrit: /?j?ndn?bkt?i/) is the epenthesis of a consonant.

Historical sound change

Synchronic rule

In French, /t/ is inserted in inverted interrogative phrases between a verb ending in a vowel and a pronoun beginning with a vowel: il a ('he has') > a-t-il ('has he?'). There is no epenthesis from a historical perspective since the a-t is derived from Latin habet ('he has'), and so the t is the original third-person verb inflection. However it is correct to call it epenthesis when viewed synchronically since the modern basic form of the verb is a and so the psycholinguistic process is therefore the addition of t to the base form.

A similar example is the English indefinite article a, which becomes an before a vowel. It originated from Old English ?n ("one, a, an"), which retained an n in all positions, so a diachronic analysis would see the original n disappearing except if a following vowel required its retention: an > a. However, a synchronic analysis, in keeping with the perception of most native speakers, would (equally correctly) see it as epenthesis: a > an.

In Dutch, whenever the suffix -er (which has several meanings) is attached to a word already ending in -r, an additional -d- is inserted in between. For example, the comparative form of the adjective zoet ("sweet") is zoeter, but the comparative of zuur ("sour") is zuurder and not the expected *zurer. Similarly, the agent noun of verkopen ("to sell") is verkoper ("salesperson"), but the agent noun of uitvoeren ("to perform") is uitvoerder ("performer").

Variable rule

In English, a stop consonant is often added as a transitional sound between the parts of a nasal + fricative sequence:

  • English hamster often pronounced with an added p sound, GA: ['hmpst?] or RP: ['hampst?]
  • English warmth often pronounced with an added p sound, GA: ['wmp?] or RP: ['wo:mp?]
  • English fence often pronounced ['f?nts]
  • English else by some speakers pronounced ['ts][]

Poetic device

  • Latin reliqui?s "remnants, survivors" (accusative plural) > poetic relliqui?s

The three short syllables in reliqui?s do not fit into dactylic hexameter because of the dactyl's limit of two short syllables so the first syllable is lengthened by adding another l. However, the pronunciation was often not written with double ll, and may have been the normal way of pronouncing a word starting in rel- rather than a poetic modification.

In Japanese

A limited number of words in Japanese use epenthetic consonants to separate vowels. An example is the word harusame ((?), spring rain), a compound of haru and ame in which an /s/ is added to separate the final /u/ of haru and the initial /a/ of ame. That is a synchronic analysis. As for a diachronic (historical) analysis, since epenthetic consonants are not used regularly in modern Japanese, the epenthetic /s/ could be from Old Japanese. It is also possible that Old Japanese /ame2/ was once pronounced */same2/; the /s/ would then be not epenthetic but simply an archaic pronunciation. Another example is kosame ((), "light rain").

A complex example of epenthesis is massao ((?), deep blue, ghastly pale), from ma- (??(), pure, complete) + ao (?(), blue). It exhibits epenthesis on both morphemes: ma- (()) -> ma'- ((), (gemination of following consonant)) is common (occurring before a consonant), and ao (?()) -> sao (?()) occurs only in the example; it can be analyzed as maao -> masao (intervocalic) -> massao; akin to kirisame ((?), drizzle, light rain) from kiri (?(), fog, mist) + ame (?(), rain).

One hypothesis argues that Japanese /r/ developed "as a default, epenthetic consonant in the intervocalic position".[1]


Epenthesis of a vowel is known as anaptyxis (, "unfolding" in Greek, anaptyctic), or by the Sanskrit term svarabhakti (/?sv?:r?'b?:kti/; from Sanskrit: /s?bkt?i/). Some accounts distinguish between "intrusive vowels", vowel-like releases of consonants as phonetic detail, and true epenthetic vowels, which are required by the phonotactics of the language and acoustically identical with phonemic vowels.

Historical sound change

End of word

Many languages insert a so-called prop vowel at the end of a word to avoid the loss of a non-permitted cluster. The cluster can come about by a change in the phonotactics of the language that no longer permits final clusters. Something similar happened in Sanskrit, with the result that a new vowel -i or -a was added to many words.

Another possibility is a sound change deleting vowels at the end of a word, which is a very common sound change. That may well produce impermissible final clusters. In some cases, the problem was resolved by allowing a resonant to become syllabic or inserting a vowel in the middle of a cluster: Proto-Germanic *akraz "field, acre" > Gothic akrs (syllabic /r/) but Old English æcer (insertion of vowel). In the Gallo-Romance languages, however, a prop vowel was added: MONSTRU > /monstr/ > /monstr?/ (French montre "watch" (clock)).

Middle of word

Examples are common in many Slavic languages, which had a preference for vowel-final syllables in earlier times. An example of this is the Proto-Slavic form *gord? ("town") in which the East Slavic languages inserted an epenthetic vowel to break the cluster -rd-, resulting in (gorod?), which became (gorod) in modern Russian and Ukrainian. The other Slavic languages instead metathesised the vowel and the consonant: Polish gród, Czech hrad, Serbo-Croatian grad.

Other examples exist in Modern Persian in which former word-initial consonant clusters, which were still extant in Middle Persian, are regularly broken up: Middle Persian br?dar > Modern Persian bar?dar "brother" (a is pronounced [æ]), Middle Persian st?n > Early New Persian sut?n > Modern Iranian Persian sot?n "column"; modern borrowings are also affected.

Beginning of word

In the Western Romance languages, a prothetic vowel was inserted at the beginning of any word that began with /s/ and another consonant: Latin spatha "sword" > Spanish/Portuguese espada, Catalan espasa, Old French espede > modern épée (see also espadon, the swordfish).

French has a three level use of initial epenthesis depending on the time of incorporation:

  • developing /e/ and dropping /s/ for the earliest: être < stare; école < schola
  • developing /e/ and keeping /s/: espèce < species; espace < spatium
  • not developing /e/ for the latest: spécial < species; scolaire < schola; spatial < spatium

Poetic device

An example in an English song is "The Umbrella Man" whose meter requires "umbrella" to be pronounced with four syllables, um-buh-rel-là so "any umbrellas" has the meter ány úmberéllas. The same occurs in the song "Umbrella".[]

Grammatical rule

Epenthesis often breaks up a consonant cluster or vowel sequence that is not permitted by the phonotactics of a language. Regular or semi-regular epenthesis commonly occurs in languages with affixes. For example, a reduced vowel /?/ or /?/ (here abbreviated as /?/) is inserted before the English plural suffix -/z/ and the past tense suffix -/d/ when the root ends in a similar consonant: glass -> glasses /'?læs?z/ or /'?l?:s?z/; bat -> batted /'bæt?d/. That is again a synchronic analysis, as the form with the vowel is the original form and the vowel was later often lost.

Borrowed words

Vocalic epenthesis typically occurs when words are borrowed from a language that has consonant clusters or syllable codas that are not permitted in the borrowing language.

Languages use various vowels, but schwa is quite common when it is available:

  • Hebrew uses a single vowel, the schwa (pronounced /?/ in Israeli Hebrew).
  • Japanese generally uses /u/ except after /t/ and /d/, when it uses /o/, and after /h/, when it uses an echo vowel. For example, the English word street becomes /suto?i:to/ in Japanese; the Dutch name Gogh becomes /?ohho/, and the German name Bach, /bahha/.
  • Korean uses [?] except after borrowed /?/, which takes a following /i/ at the end of the word or /ju/ otherwise. For example, English strike becomes /s?taik?/, with three epenthetic vowels and a split of English diphthong into two syllables.
  • Brazilian Portuguese uses /i/, which, in most dialects, triggers palatalization of a preceding /t/ or /d/: bullying > ['bul? ~ bul?j]; nerd > /nd?i/; stress > /istsi/ (which became estresse); McDonald's > /makidonaud?is/ ~ [m?ki'dõn?wd?is] with normal vocalization of /l/ to /u/. Most speakers pronounce borrowings with spelling pronunciations, and others try to approximate the nearest equivalents in Portuguese of the phonemes in the original language. Compare anime /a'nimi/ with animê /ani'me/ (but the word may also be pronounced /a'nimi/ and written anime).
  • Classical Arabic does not allow clusters at the beginning of a word, and typically uses /i/ to break up such clusters in borrowings: ‏/sira:t?/ "street" < Latin str?ta.
  • Persian also does not allow clusters at the beginning of a word and typically uses /æ/ to break up such clusters in borrowings except between /s/ and /t/, when /o/ is added.
  • Spanish does not allow clusters at the beginning of a word with an /s/ in them and adds e- to such words: especie < species, estándar < standard, estrés < stress.
  • Turkish prefixes close vowels to loanwords with initial clusters of alveolar fricatives followed by another consonant: Isparta < Greek (Sparti), setuskur < set screw, uskumru < Greek (skoúmbri), Üsküdar < Byzantine Greek ? (Skoutárion), istimbot < steamboat, ?skoçya < Scotland, istavrit < Greek (stavridís), ?zmir < Greek (Smírni). The practice is no longer productive as of late 20th century and a few such words have changed back: spor < ?spor < French sport.

Informal speech

Epenthesis most often occurs within unfamiliar or complex consonant clusters. For example, the name Dwight is commonly pronounced with an epenthetic schwa between the /d/ and the /w/, and many speakers insert a schwa between the /l/ and /t/ of realtor. Irish English and Scottish English are some of the dialects that may insert a schwa between /l/ and /m/ in words like film, under the influence of Celtic languages.

Epenthesis is sometimes used for humorous or childlike effect. For example, the cartoon character Yogi Bear says "pic-a-nic basket" for "picnic basket." Another example is found in the chants of England football fans in which England is usually rendered as ['?l?nd] or the pronunciation of "athlete" as "ath-e-lete". Some apparent occurrences of epenthesis, however, have a separate cause: the pronunciation of nuclear as nucular arises out of analogy with other -cular words (binocular, particular, etc.) rather than from epenthesis.

Certain registers of colloquial Brazilian Portuguese sometimes have [i] between consonant clusters except those with /l/ (atleta), /?/ (prato) or syllable-ending /s/ (produced [?] in a number of dialects, always postalveolar in fluminense and florianopolitano and before voiceless consonants that are not in the end of the word in nordestino, a rare feature in a few others) (pasta) and so words like tsunami, advogado and abdômen are pronounced /tisu'nami/, /adivo'?adu/ and [abi'dom?j]. Some dialects also use [e] for voiced consonant clusters, which is deemed as stereotypical of the lower classes: people who arrived from rural flight or internal migrations in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Brasília and São Paulo.

In Spanish, it is usual to find epenthetic vowels in sequences of plosive, flap, and vowel or labiodental fricative, flap, and vowel, normally in a non-emphatic pronunciation. For instance, vinagre has the usual [bi'nae] being replaced by [bi'na?(?)?e].

In Finnish

In Finnish, there are two epenthetic vowels and two nativization vowels. One epenthetic vowel is the preceding vowel, found in the illative case ending -(h)*n: maa -> maahan, talo -> taloon. The second is [e], connecting stems that have historically been consonant stems to their case endings: nim+n -> nimen.

In Standard Finnish, consonant clusters may not be broken by epenthetic vowels; foreign words undergo consonant deletion rather than addition of vowels: ranta ("shore") from Proto-Germanic *strand?. However, modern loans may not end in consonants. Even if the word, such as a personal name, is native, a paragogic vowel is needed to connect a consonantal case ending to the word. The vowel is /i/: (Inter)net -> netti, or in the case of personal name, Bush + -sta -> Bushista "about Bush" (elative case).

Finnish has moraic consonants: l, h and n are of interest. In Standard Finnish, they are slightly intensified before a consonant in a medial cluster: -hj-. Some dialects, like Savo and Ostrobothnian, have epenthesis instead and use the preceding vowel in clusters of type -lC- and -hC-, in Savo also -nh-. (In Finnish linguistics, the phenomenon is often referred to as ?vaa; the same word can also mean schwa, but it is not a phoneme in Finnish so there is usually no danger of confusion.)

For example, Pohjanmaa "Ostrobothnia" -> Pohojammaa, ryhmä -> ryhymä, and Savo vanha -> vanaha. Ambiguities may result: salmi "strait" vs. salami. (An exception is that in Pohjanmaa, -lj- and -rj- become -li- and -ri-, respectively: kirja -> kiria. Also, in a small region in Savo, /e/ is used instead.)[2]

In Lojban

Lojban is a constructed language that seeks logically-oriented grammatical and phonological structures. It uses a number of consonant clusters in its words, and since it is designed to be as universal as possible, it allows a type of anaptyxis called "buffering" to be used if a speaker finds a cluster difficult or impossible to pronounce. A vowel sound that is nonexistent in Lojban is added between two consonants to make the word easier to pronounce. Despite altering the phonetics of a word, the use of buffering is completely ignored by grammar. Also, the vowel sound used must not be confused with any existing Lojban vowel.

An example of buffering in Lojban: if a speaker finds the cluster [ml] in the word mlatu ("cat") (pronounced ['mlatu]) hard or impossible to pronounce, the vowel [?] can be pronounced between the two consonants, resulting in the form [m?'latu]. Nothing changes grammatically, including the spelling and the syllabication of the word.

In sign language

A type of epenthesis in sign language is known as "movement epenthesis" and occurs, most commonly, during the boundary between signs while the hands move from the posture required by the first sign to that required by the next.[3]

Related phenomena

  • Prothesis: the addition of a sound to the beginning of a word
  • Paragoge: the addition of a sound to the end of a word
  • Infixation: the insertion of a morpheme within a word
  • Tmesis: the inclusion of a whole word within another one
  • Metathesis: the reordering of sounds within a word

See also


  1. ^ Labrune 2012, 3.13 /r/, pp. 92-95, citing unpublished "The phonology of Japanese /r/: a panchronic account" by same author, originally from Ph.D. thesis 1993 « Le statut phonologique de /r/ en japonais et en coréen : histoire, typologie, structure interne des segments », université Paris 7, "The phonological status of /r/ in Japanese and in Korean: history, typology, internal structure of segments", Paris 7 University.
  2. ^ Savolainen, Erkki (1998). "Välivokaali". Suomen murteet (in Finnish). Internetix. Retrieved .
  3. ^ Liddell, Scott; Johnson, Robert (2011), "American Sign Language: The Phonological Base", in Valli, Clayton; Lucas, Ceil; Mulrooney, Kristin; et al., Linguistics of American Sign Language (5 ed.), Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, pp. 315-316, ISBN 9781563685071


  • Crowley, Terry. (1997) An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press.
  • Labrune, Laurence (2012). The Phonology of Japanese. The Phonology of the World's Languages. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-954583-4.

External links

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