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Syncope (phonology)

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Syncope (phonology)

Sound change and alternation

In phonology, syncope (; Greek: syn- + koptein "to strike, cut off") is the loss of one or more sounds from the interior of a word, especially the loss of an unstressed vowel. It is found both in synchronic analysis of languages and diachronics. Its opposite, whereby sounds are added, is epenthesis. A syncope rule has been identified in Tonkawa, an extinct American Indian language, whereby the second vowel of a word deletes if it is not adjacent to a consonant cluster or final consonant.[1]


  • Synchronic analysis 1
  • In inflections 2
  • As a poetic device 3
  • In informal speech 4
  • Found diachronically as a historical sound change 5
    • Loss of any sound 5.1
    • Loss of an unstressed vowel 5.2
  • See also 6
  • References 7

Synchronic analysis

Synchronic analysis studies linguistic phenomena at one moment, usually the present. In modern languages, syncope occurs in inflection, poetry, and informal speech.

In inflections

In languages such as Irish, the process of inflection can precipitate syncope.

For example :

  • In some verbs
Imir (To play) should become *"imirím" (I play). However the addition of the "-ím" causes syncope and the second to last syllable vowel "i" is lost. So, Imir becomes Imrím.
  • In some nouns
Inis (Island) should become *inise in the genitive case. However, if one looks at road signs one finds not *"Baile na hInise", but "Baile na hInse" (The town of the Island). Once again the loss is of the second syllable "i".

It is interesting that if the present root form in Irish is the result of diachronic syncope then there is a resistance to synchronic syncope for inflection.

As a poetic device

Sounds may be removed from the interior of a word as a rhetorical or poetic device, whether for embellishment or for the sake of the meter.

  • Latin commo[ve]rat > poetic commorat ("he had moved")
  • English hast[e]ning > poetic hast'ning
  • English heav[e]n > poetic heav'n
  • English over > poetic o'er
  • English never > poetic ne'er

In informal speech

Various sorts of colloquial reductions might be called "syncope". It is also called compression.[2]

Forms such as "didn't" that are written with an apostrophe are, however, generally called contractions:

  • English [Au]stra[lia]n > colloquial Strine
  • English did n[o]t > di[d]n't
  • English I [woul]d [ha]ve > I'd've

Found diachronically as a historical sound change

In historical phonetics, the term "syncope" is often but not always limited to the loss of an unstressed vowel:

Loss of any sound

  • Old English hlāfweard > hlāford > Middle English loverd > Modern English lord
  • English Worcester, pronounced
  • English Gloucester, pronounced /ˈɡlɒstər/
  • English Leicester, pronounced /ˈlestər/

Loss of an unstressed vowel

  • Latin cál[i]dum > Italian caldo "hot"
  • Latin óc[u]lum > Italian occhio "eye"
  • Latin trem[u]láre > Italian tremare "to tremble"
  • Proto-Norse arm[a]ʀ > Old Norse armr ”arm”
  • Proto-Norse bók[i]ʀ > Old Norse bǿkr ”books”
  • Proto-Germanic *him[i]nōz > Old Norse himnar ”heavens”

See also


  1. ^  
  2. ^  
  • Crowley, Terry (1997). An Introduction to Historical Linguistics (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.  
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