Sound change and alternation

In phonology, epenthesis (/əˈpɛnθəsɪs/; Ancient Greek: ἐπένθεσις) means the addition of one or more sounds to a word, especially to the interior of a word. The word epenthesis comes from epi (on) + en (in) + thesis (putting). Epenthesis may be divided into two types: excrescence, for the addition of a consonant, and anaptyxis (/ˌænæpˈtɪksɨs/, also svarabhakti) for the addition of a vowel.


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 may only be a feature 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.

  • drawingdrawring

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). 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.

  • somethingsomepthing
  • *a-mrotosambrotos

Breaking consonant clusters

A vowel may be placed between consonants to separate them.

  • HamtramckHamtramick

Other contexts

While epenthesis most often occurs intervocalically or interconsonantally, it can also occur between a vowel and a consonant, or at the ends of words. For example, the Japanese prefix ma- (真〜(ま〜)?, pure …, complete …) transforms regularly to ma'- (真っ〜(まっ〜)?, (gemination of following consonant)) when followed by a consonant, as in masshiro (真っ白(まっしろ)?, pure white). The English suffix -t, often found in the from -st, as in among (from among + -st), is an example of terminal excrescence.

Epenthesis of a consonant, or excrescence

As a historical sound change

  • Latin tremulare > French trembler ("to tremble")
  • Old English thunor > English thunder
  • French messager, passager > English messenger, passenger
  • (Reconstructed) Proto-Germanic *sēaną > Old English sāwan, Old Saxon sāian ("to sow")
  • (Reconstructed) Proto-Greek *amrotos > Ancient Greek ambrotos ("immortal"; cf. ambrosia)
  • Latin homine(m) > homne > homre > Spanish hombre ("man")

As a 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, such as il a ('he has') > a-t-il ('has he?'). Here there is no epenthesis from a historical perspective, since the a-t is derived from Latin habet (he has), and the t is therefore the original third person verb inflection. However it is correct to call this epenthesis when viewed synchronically, since the modern basic form of the verb is a, and 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. In Old English, this was ane in all positions, so a diachronic analysis would see the original n disappearing except where 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, while the comparative form of the adjective zoet ("sweet") is zoeter, the comparative of zuur ("sour") is zuurder and not *zurer as would be expected. Similarly, the agent noun of verkopen ("to sell") is verkoper ("salesperson"), but the agent noun of uitvoeren ("to perform") is uitvoerder ("performer").

As a poetic device

  • Latin reliquias > poetic relliquias

The three short syllables in reliquias 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, this 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 informal speech

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

  • English "hamster" /ˈhæmstər/ often pronounced with an added "p" sound, GA: [ˈhæˑmpstɚ] or RP: [ˈhæmpstə]
  • English "warmth" /ˈwɔrmθ/ often pronounced with an added "p" sound, GA: [ˈwɔɹmpθ] or RP: [ˈwɔːmpθ]
  • English "fence" /ˈfɛns/ often pronounced [ˈfɛnts]

In Japanese

A limited number of words in Japanese use epenthetic consonants to separate vowels. An example of this is the word harusame (春雨(はるさめ)?, spring rain), which is 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; note that this is a synchronic analysis (using current forms to analyze an irregularity). As for a diachronic (historical) analysis, since epenthetic consonants are not used regularly in modern Japanese, it is possible that this epenthetic /s/ is a holdover from Old Japanese. It is also possible that OJ /ame2/ was once pronounced */same2/, and the /s/ is not epenthetic but simply retained archaic pronunciation. Another example is kosame (小雨(こさめ)?, "light rain").

A complex example of epenthesis is massao (真っ青(まっさお)?, deep blue, ghastly pale), from ma- (〜(ま〜)?, pure, complete) + ao ((あお)?, blue). This exhibits epenthesis on both morphemes: ma- (真〜(ま〜)?)ma'- (真っ〜(まっ〜)?, (gemination of following consonant)) is common (occurring before a consonant), while ao (青(あお)?)sao (青(さお)?) occurs only in this example; it can be analyzed as maaomasao (intervocalic) → massao.

The transform /a//wa/ (an epenthetic /w/) occurs in two contexts. In standard Japanese, this occurs regularly in the stem of verbs ending in -u (〜う?), which in the negative form transform to -wa (〜わ?), rather than the regular -a (〜あ?) of other verbs. In some dialects, there are occasional other examples, the most significant of which is baai (場合(ばあい)?, "situation") (ba (場(ば)?, "place") + ai (合い(あい)?, "meet")); in some dialects it is pronounced bawai (ばわい?). The spelling of kawaii (可愛い(かわいい)?, "cute") as 可愛い suggests ka + ai + i with epenthesis, but this is simply ateji spelling: the current form is from older kawayui (かわゆい?), and does not decompose into simpler morphemes.

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

Epenthesis of a vowel, or anaptyxis

Epenthesis of a vowel, or anaptyxis (ἀνάπτυξις, "growth" in Greek), is also known by the Sanskrit term svarabhakti. 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.

As a historical sound change

At the end of a word

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

Another possibility is when a sound change deletes vowels at the end of a word, a very common sound change. This 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; e.g. 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, e.g. MONSTRU > /monstr/ > /monstrə/ (French montre "watch" (clock)).

In the middle of a word

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

Other examples exist in Modern Persian, where former word-initial consonant clusters (which were still extant in Middle Persian) are regularly broken up: Middle Persian brādar > Modern Persian barādar "brother" (a is pronounced [æ]), Middle Persian stūn > Early New Persian sutūn > Modern Persian (Iran) sotūn "column"; modern borrowings are also affected.

At the beginning of a 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.

As a poetic device

An example in an English song is "The Umbrella Man", where the meter requires that "umbrella" be pronounced with four syllables, um-buh-rel-la, so that "any umbrellas" has the meter ány úmberéllas. The same thing occurs in the song Umbrella.

As a grammatical rule

Epenthesis often breaks up a consonant cluster or vowel sequence that is not permitted by the phonotactics of a language. Sporadic cases can be less obviously motivated, however, such as warsh 'wash' with an extra r in some varieties of American English or Hamtramck being pronounced 'Hamtramick' as if there were an extra i. The Dutch city of Delft is pronounced /DEL-lift/ by its inhabitants. Georgian often breaks up its consonant clusters with schwas.

Regular or semiregular epenthesis commonly occurs in languages that use affixes. For example, a reduced vowel /ɨ/ is inserted before the English plural suffix -/z/ and the past tense suffix -/d/ when the root ends in a similar consonant: glassglasses /ˈɡlæsɨz/ or /ˈɡlɑːsɨz/; batbatted /ˈbætɨd/. This is again a synchronic analysis, as the form with the vowel is the original form and the vowel was later lost in many, but not all cases.

When borrowing 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, though this is not always the cause.

Languages use various vowels for this purpose, though schwa is quite common when it is available. For example,

  • Hebrew uses a single vowel, the schwa (though pronounced /ɛ/ in Israeli Hebrew).
  • Japanese generally uses /u/ except following /t/ and /d/, when it uses [o], and after /h/, when it uses an echo vowel. For example, the English word street becomes ストリート /sutoɾiːto/ in Japanese; the Dutch name Gogh becomes ゴッホ /ɡohho/, and the German name Bach, バッハ /bahha/.
  • Korean uses [ɯ], except when borrowing [ʃ], which takes a following [i] if the consonant is at the end of the word, or /ju/ otherwise.
  • Brazilian Portuguese uses /i/, which in most dialects triggers palatalization of a preceding /t/ or /d/, e.g. "bullying" > [ˈbuʎĩɡi ~ bulẽj]; "nerd" > /nɛʁdʒi/; "stress" > /stɾɛsi/ (which became estresse); "McDonald's" > /makidonaudʒi/ ~ [mɛkˈdonɐwdʒis] with normal vocalization of /l/ to /u/. Most speakers pronounce borrowings with spelling pronunciations, while some others try to approximate the nearest equivalents in Portuguese of the phonemes used in the original language. Compare "anime" /animi/ with animê /anime/.
  • Classical Arabic does not allow clusters at the beginning of a word, and typically uses /i/ to break up such clusters in borrowings, e.g. /siraːtˤ/ "street" < Latin STRĀTA.
  • Persian language does not also allow clusters at the beginning of a word, and typically uses /æ/ to break up such clusters in borrowings, except between /s/ and /t/ wherein /o/ is added, as mentioned above.
  • Spanish does not tolerate clusters at the beginning of a word with an /s/ in them, and is well known for adding e- to such words, e.g. especia < "spice", estándar < "standard", estrés < "stress".

In 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 schwa between the /l/ and /t/ of realtor. 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 [ˈɪŋɡələnd], 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 epenthesis.

  • Certain registers of colloquial Brazilian Portuguese sometimes have [i] between consonant clusters, except those formed with /l/ (atleta), /ɾ/ (prato) or syllable-ending /s/ (produced [ʃ] in a number of dialects, always postalveolar in fluminense and florianopolitano and before voiceless consonants and not in the end of the word in nordestino, rare feature in a few others) (pasta), so that words like tsunami, advogado and abdômen are pronounced /tisunami/, /adivoɡadu/ and [abiˈdomẽj]. 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 or svarabhakti vowels in the groups of plosive + flap + vowel or labiodental fricative + flap + vowel, normally in non-emphatic pronunciation: For instance in pronouncing vinagre instead of the usual [biˈnaɣɾe] we find [biˈnaɣ(ə)ɾe].

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, e.g. maahan, taloon. The second one is [e], connecting stems that have historically been consonant stems to their case endings, e.g. nim+nnimen.

In standard Finnish, consonant clusters may not be broken by epenthetic vowels; foreign words undergo consonant deletion rather than addition of vowels (e.g. ranta ("shore") from Germanic strand). However, modern loans may not end in consonants. Even if the word, such as a personal name, is not loaned, a paragogic vowel is needed to connect a consonantal case ending to the word. The vowel is /i/, e.g. (Inter)netnetti, or in the case of personal name, Bush + -staBushista "about Bush".

Finnish has moraic consonants, of which L, H and N are of interest in this case. In standard Finnish, these are slightly intensified when preceding a consonant in a medial cluster, e.g. -hj-. Some dialects, like Savo and Ostrobothnian, employ epenthesis instead, using the preceding vowel in clusters of type -lC- and -hC-, and in Savo, -nh-. (In Finnish linguistics this phenomenon is often referred to as švaa; the same word can also mean schwa, but it is not a phoneme in Finnish, so usually there is no danger of confusion.) For example, Pohjanmaa "Ostrobothnia" → Pohojammaa, ryhmäryhymä, and Savo vanhavanaha. Ambiguities may result: salmi "strait" vs. salami. (An exception is that in Pohjanmaa, -lj- and -rj- become -li- and -ri-, respectively, e.g. kirjakiria. Also, in a small region in Savo, the vowel /e/ is used in the same role.)[2]

In Sign Language

A type of epenthesis occurring in sign language is known as "movement epenthesis," and occurs most commonly during the boundary between signs as the hands move from the posture required by the first sign to the posture 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


  • Crowley, Terry. (1997) An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press.


External links

  • Definition at BYU
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