Saturday, January 10, 2009

Epenthetic Segments

Epenthetic segments are common in the languages of the world. They are segments which are inserted in a word or between words to preserve a particular syllable structure or provide ease of articulation. I will provide examples of epenthetic segments from a variety of languages.

The English suffix -ese occurs in words such as Japanese and Vietnamese. However, in certain cases, an epenthetic n is added. This is the case in Javanese and Shanghainese. Why is the nasal inserted? The reason is to preserve a CV syllable structure. The insertion of the nasal preserves a consonant before the suffix. In the case of Congolese, a lateral is inserted before the suffix.

The French sentence Il va venir means He’s going to come. By inverting the subject and the auxiliary verb, it is possible to form the question Is he going to come? But inversion results in a word-final vowel (va) before a word-initial vowel (il). To repair this VV sequence, an epentheic t is inserted. This results in the question Va-t-il venir? The insertion of the dental plosive changes the VV sequence to CV.

In Dutch, diminutives can be formed by adding the suffix -je to nouns. For example, the word huisje means small house. However, in the case of small arm, the word is armpje. This is an epenthetic p. This example of epenthesis is not due to a need to preserve a CV syllable structure. However, the m and the p both share the share place of articulation. They are both bilabials. Also, they are both obstruents. Thus, this epenthetic segment provides ease of articulation.

The Spanish word for school is escuela. In many other languages, this word begins with an s. In German, it is Schule, in Dutch school, in Danish and Norwegian skole, and in Italian scuola. Spanish inserts an e because no Spanish word can begin with a sequence of an s and another consonant. This word-initial insertion of a vowel is often referred to as prothesis.

The French phrase un homme means a man. The indefinite article un, when pronounced in isolation, is a single segment, a nasalized mid front rounded vowel. However, in the phrase un homme the n is pronounced. If it were not, a word-final vowel (un) would be linked to a word-initial vowel (homme). This would result in a VV sequence. To preserve a CV sequence, the nasal in un is thus pronounced.

In most varieties of English spoken in England, syllable-final r is either not pronounced or in those cases in which it is pronounced, is realized as a schwa, a high mid central unrounded, unstressed and reduced vowel. However, in those cases in which the following word begins with a vowel and there is no pause, the r is usually pronounced. If not, a glottal stop replaces it. Examples in which the r is pronounced include This car is new and Where is she?

The French word dix, which means ten, has three different pronunciations. In isolation, it is pronounced dis, and before a word-initial consonant it is di. However, before a word-initial vowel, it is pronounced diz. This is the case with dix enfants which means ten children. The insertion of the voiced dental fricative z helps to preserve a CV sequence.

The French word grand (big, great) is pronounced in isolation with a word-final nasalized vowel. If it is linked to a word with a word-initial vowel, however, the d is pronounced. This is the case in grand homme (great man). However, the d is pronounced as a t. This is not only a syllable-structure process which preserves a CV sequence but also a strengthening process because it inserts a voiceless segment between two voiced segments.

In Dutch, a schwa can be inserted between two heterorganic consonants, two consonants with different places of articulation. This is the case in elf (eleven) and melk (milk). However, Dutch is a language with several consonant clusters. Thus, this cannot be considered a syllable structure process. It is solely for ease of articulation and is optional.

The English words dance and prince consist of an alveolar nasal followed by a word-final alveolar fricative. In certain speakers, a voiceless alveolar plosive is inserted before the word-final fricative. This results in a word-final CCC sequence. This is a common sequence in English and occurs in words such as prints, rents and wants. The nasal and the plosive are both obstruents with the same place of articulation. For those speakers who insert the plosive, this can be considered an example of ease of articulation.

Languages often use epenthetic segments to preserve a particular syllable structure or to provide ease of articulation. The CV structure is so common that many languages insert a segment into a word or between words to preserve it. Epenthetic segments are not only consonants but also vowels.

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