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3 Reasons for Syllabically Ambiguous Words

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Do you say car-a-mel or car-mel? Is your “fire” closer to fah-yer or fayr? There is a group of words in English that can be pronounced with two different syllable structures, depending on dialect, personal preference, or context of use. While many will insist that one or the other is incontrovertibly correct, there is usually no real basis for pronouncements on the one true syllable structure. Sometimes two things can both be correct. If you need a better authority than me on that, lots of dictionaries accept both pronunciations for all the words discussed below (e.g., Merriam-Webster). What’s more interesting than fighting about who’s right is understanding why these differences arise. There are three processes that result in syllabically ambiguous words.

1. Diphthongs, r’s, and l’s

One or Two Syllables: fire, tire, hour, liar, buyer, flower, drawer, layer, loyal, royal, file

All of these words have one- and two-syllable pronunciations. What do they have in common? They all have a diphthong followed by an r or l.

At least in their one-syllable versions. A diphthong is a glide from one vowel to another that takes place within one syllable. For example, the vowel sound in “hour” glides from “ah” to “oo.” A diphthong is not always represented in the spelling of a word. The vowel sound in “fire” glides from “ah” to “ee.”

The sounds that make up the second part of the diphthongs “oo” and “ee” can also serve as consonants when they start a syllable. “Win” starts in the “oo” position, but there, it is the consonant w. “Yes” starts in the “ee” position, but there, it is a y. (In technical terms, w and y are semivowels whose vowel/consonant status depends on whether they are in the nucleus of the syllable or at the edge of it.)

Sometimes the end of the diphthong becomes w or y, forming a second syllable. Hour becomes ah-wer and fire becomes fa-yer. This process also works in reverse. Sometimes a w or y moves over to join the vowel before it. Flo-wer becomes flour.

This kind of indeterminacy is all over the place. Think about “mower,” “shower,” “oil,” “hair,” “while,” or any other diphthong followed by l or r. Think of a one or two syllable pronunciation for each of them. Even if you think one of them sounds totally weird, you can imagine someone saying it.

2. Syncope

One or Two Syllables: orange, poem, crayon
Two or Three Syllables: caramel, mayonnaise, family, chocolate, camera, different, separate, favorite
Three or Four Syllables: interesting, comfortable
Four or Five Syllables: laboratory

These words all have a syllable which is often left out of the pronunciation. When we cut a sound out of the middle of a word, it’s called syncope (a three syllable word, sin-ko-pee). O-range becomes ornge, car-a-mel becomes car-mel, in-ter-es-ting becomes in-tres-ting. This pruning of syllables doesn’t happen in some random, haphazard fashion. If a vowel gets chucked, it will be before an r or l (those guys again!) or in some cases a nasal (m or n). It will also be from an unstressed syllable. So the American LA-buh-ra-to-ry becomes lab-ra-to-ry, while the British la-BO-ra-to-ry become la-bo-ra-try.

3. Epenthesis

Two or Three Syllables: realtor
Three or Four Syllables: mischievous

When we stick a sound into the middle of word, it’s called epenthesis. A few words gain extra syllables this way. Do you say mis-chi-vous or mis-chee-vee-ous? Real-tor or real-a-tor? Epenthesis usually happens in order to make something easier to pronounce—because some words can be as tricky as a mischievous realtor.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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