AskDefine | Define epenthesis

Dictionary Definition

epenthesis n : the insertion of a vowel or consonant into a word to make its pronunciation easier; "the insertion of a vowel in the plural of the word `bush' is epenthesis" [also: epentheses (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



Mid. 16th cent.: via from ἐπένθεσις < ἐπεντίθημι < ἐπί + ἐντίθημι < ἐν + τίθημι.


  • /ɪˈpɛn.θə.sɪs/, /I"pEn.T@.sIs/


  1. The insertion of a phoneme, letter, or syllable into a word, usually to satisfy the phonological constraints of a language or poetic context.

Derived terms

Related terms


the insertion of a phoneme or letter into a word
  • Croatian: epenteza
  • Dutch: epenthesis
  • French: épenthèse
  • German: Fugenlaut
  • Italian: epentesi
  • Polish: epenteza
  • Portugese: epêntese
  • Russian: эпентеза
  • Spanish: epéntesis
  • Swedish: epentes

External links

Extensive Definition

In phonology, epenthesis (/əˈpɛnθəsɪs/, Ancient Greek ἐπένθεσις - epenthesis, from epi "on" + en "in" + thesis "putting") is the addition of one or more sounds to a word, especially to the interior of a word. Epenthesis may be divided into two types: excrescence (if the sound added is a consonant) and anaptyxis (if the sound added is a vowel).

Epenthesis of a consonant, or excrescence

As a historical sound change

  • Latin tremulare > French trembler ("to tremble")
  • Old English thunor > English thunder
  • Proto-Greek amrotos > Ancient Greek ambrotos ("immortal")

As a synchronic rule

In French, the letter "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.

As a poetic device

  • Latin reliquias > poetic relliquias

In informal speech

  • English "hamster" often pronounced with an added "p" sound as [hæmpstəɹ]
  • English "warmth" often pronounced with an added "p" sound as [wɔɹrmpθ]
  • English "fence" often pronounced [fɛnts]
  • English fam(i)ly> dialectal fambly

In Japanese

A limited number of words in Japanese use epenthetic consonants to separate vowels, example of this is the word harusame (春雨, 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. Since epenthetic consonants are not used regularly in modern Japanese, it is possible that this epenthetic /s/ is a hold over 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, light rain).
Certain word compounds show an epenthetic /w/. One example is the word baai (場合, situation), which is a combination of ba (場, place) and ai (合い, meet): in some dialects it it pronounced bawai.
One hypothesis argues that Japanese /r/ developed "as a default, epenthetic consonant in the intervocalic position".

Epenthesis of a vowel, or anaptyxis

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

As a historical sound change

In the middle of a word

  • braːdar > Persian baraːdar "brother"


  • Latin stupidus > Spanish estúpido

As a poetic device

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

As a grammatical rule

In linguistics, epenthesis generally breaks up a consonant cluster or vowel sequence that is not permitted by the phonotactics of a language.
Regular or semiregular epenthesis commonly occurs in languages which use affixes. For example, a schwa /ə/ (or in RP an /ɪ/) is inserted before the English plural suffix -/z/ and the past tense suffix -/d/ when the root ends in a similar consonant: glass → glasses /glæsəz/ or /glɑːsəz/ or /glɑːsɪz/ and bat → batted /bætəd/ or /bætɪd/.
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 as /ɛ/ in Israeli Hebrew).
  • Japanese generally uses [ɯ] 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 /sɯtoɺito/ in Japanese; the Dutch name Gogh becomes /ɡohho/, and the German name Bach, /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.

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 to be found in the chants of England football fans in which England is usually rendered as [ˈɪŋgəlænd], or the pronunciation of "athlete" as "ath-e-lete", or of "nuclear" as "nucular".
  • Certain registers of colloquial Brazilian Portuguese sometimes have [i] between consonant clusters, except those formed with /l/ (atleta) or /r/ (prato), so that words like psicologia and advogado are pronounced as /pisikoloʒiɐ/ and /adivoɡadu/. Some regional dialects also use [e] for voiced consonant clusters.
  • In Spanish it is usual to find epenthetic or svarabatic vowels in the groups of plosive + trill + vowel or labiodental fricative + trill + vowel, normally in non-emphatic pronunciation: For instance in pronouncing "Vinagre" instead of the usual [biˈnaɣre] we find [biˈnaɣ(ə)re].

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. (There is no schwa in Finnish; the term "schwa" is often confused with the epenthetic vowel.) The second one is [e], connecting stems that have historically been consonant stems to their case endings, e.g. 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. 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)net → netti, or in the case of personal name, Bush + -sta → Bushista "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-. 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, e.g. kirja → kiria. Also, in a small region in Savo, the vowel /e/ is used in the same role.)

Related phenomena

  • Prothesis: the addition of a sound to the start 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.



External links

epenthesis in Breton: Epentezenn
epenthesis in Catalan: Epèntesi
epenthesis in German: Fugenlaut
epenthesis in Spanish: Epéntesis
epenthesis in French: Épenthèse
epenthesis in Italian: Epentesi
epenthesis in Dutch: Epenthesis
epenthesis in Japanese: 音挿入
epenthesis in Norwegian: Svarabhakti
epenthesis in Polish: Epenteza
epenthesis in Portuguese: Epêntese
epenthesis in Russian: Эпентеза
epenthesis in Swedish: Epentes
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