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Silly little syllables keep the lol in haplology

Are we becoming too lazy to pronounce all of the syllables in a word?  

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says speech economy is nothing new.

For example, the shortening of "probably" to "prolly" is old enough and well-established enough that it already appears in the Oxford English Dictionary. 

"We have two shortenings," says Curzan. "First we lost a syllable, going from 'probly,' then there was further simplification of that consonant cluster to 'prolly.'

There's a term for this in linguistics: It's called "haplology."

"Haplology goes back to 1893, when it was coined by linguists," Curzan says. "It's a contraction of a word where you lose a sound or a syllable that is identical or very similar to a sound that comes right afterward.

Look at the word "February." Fewer people today pronounce that first "r," so the month is now called "Febuary."

Another example? "Humbly." It used to be "humblely," but that was too cumbersome to say. So we got rid of a syllable.

Sometimes, though, we add syllables to words. Lots of people say "rigamarole." But there's no "a" in the first part of the word; it's simply "rigmarole."

"It goes back to 1736, and seems to come from the phrase 'ragman's roll,'" Curzan says. "Ragman was a game that involved pulling items out of a roll of writing that was called a ragman, and this eventually came to refer to a list or a catalog.  That became "the whole ragman's roll," and finally, "rigmarole."

Here's a word that gets mispronounced all the time: athlete.

It's not ath-eh-lete, but lots of people add that "eh" in the middle.

"Linguists call this process "epenthesis," and it can involve adding a vowel in between consonants to make it easier to say," Curzan says. 

"A nice historical example here is that "empty" used to be "emti," but when you say that, you often get a "p"right in the middle, so eventually it came to be spelled that way.

And that furry nocturnal critter that your kids promised they'd take care of?

It's a hamster, not a hampster. 

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.