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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) the insertion of a sound into a word, often to ease its pronunciation or as an automatic consequence of its phonological context

The reason some people say “ath–uh–lete” or “ham–p–ster” instead of athlete and hamster is the same reason why English football fans cheer on “Eng–guh–land”: a phonological process called epenthesis.

Derived via Latin from a Greek root literally meaning to put or place inside, epenthesis is the insertion of a sound (or, in different linguistic contexts, a letter or entire syllable) into an existing word. In linguistic contexts, there are several different kinds of epenthesis depending on the type of sound that is added to a word, and where in the word it happens to fall. So when a consonant is added (as in “ham–p–ster”), the process is called excrescence. When it’s a vowel (as in “ath–uh–lete”), it’s anaptyxis. When the sound is added to the beginning of a word, it’s called prothesis. And when it’s added to the end, it’s called paragoge. Epenthesis is ultimately better thought of as an umbrella term, covering all manner of insertions and additions like these.

Epenthesis can be a historical process, which happened in the past and permanently altered how we spell or pronounce a word today, or else a contemporary one, found and recorded in the language today. And while some of these insertions do indeed prove permanent (speakers of Old English added a D into their word thunor to give us thunder, for instance), others, like “ath–uh–lete” or “ham–p–ster”, are just a natural consequence of fast-flowing speech, and the language is now so firmly standardized, relative to Old and Middle English, that these epenthetic deviations are unlikely to lead to any permanent change.

Unfortunately, precisely because we now have a much more standardized language than we did several centuries ago, in contemporary English epenthetic pronunciations are often looked down and sneered at as hapless, uncareful mispronunciations. You shouldn’t say “ath–uh–lete”. “Ham–p–ster” is wrong. You should enunciate correctly, you’ll be told, and ensure you say hamster and athlete instead. But Rule No. 1 of language is that there is no right and wrong. There is a standard, and there are forms and phenomena that are non-standard, and differ from the widely accepted or circulated form—but that does not make them wrong, nor worthy of disdain.

This is especially true of epenthetic forms like these, which are less errors than they are the automatic and unthinking result of the phonological contexts created by our words themselves. That is to say, pronounce the word hamster slowly, and you should feel your lips close to make its “m” sound, and then your mouth open and the sides of your tongue rise to make the following “s” sound. As you do so, however, there’ll be a natural release of air pressure behind your closed lips—precisely the same burst of air we use to make a plosive “p” sound. So the reason some people say “ham–p–ster” is not because they are not good speakers or are not trying hard enough, but because all the physical elements we need to make a “p” sound are there in hamster already. As a result, a P just so happens to rear its head whether we notice it or not.

Yes, true, you can police your speech more carefully and pronounce hamster in such a way that you ensure no “p” sound is made at all. But in ordinary, relaxed, everyday speech, we’re unlikely to be all that bothered about precise enunciation like this, and so we end up saying “ham–p–ster.” It’s not wrong or lazy to do so, it’s just natural. And in fact, were this Old English, perhaps this epenthetic P would become a permanent fixture, like the D in thunder, and eventually no one would object to it at all.

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