epenthesis (word sounds)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Elmer Gantry's pronunciation of athlete as "ath-a-lete" (from Sinclair Lewis's novel Elmer Gantry, 1926) is an example of epenthesis.


In phonology and phonetics, epenthesis is the insertion of an extra sound into a word. Adjective: epenthetic. Verb: epenthesize. Also known as intrusion or anaptyxis.

According to some linguists, "vowel epenthesis is often motivated by the need to make consonant contrasts more distinct" (The Handbook of Speech Perception, 2005).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Greek, "putting in"

Examples and Observations

  • "In certain varieties [of English], a vowel breaks up the cluster (epenthesis): film becomes [filəm] in Ireland, Scotland, and South Africa."
    (Elly van Gelderen, A History of the English Language. John Benjamins, 2006)
  • "The history of English provides examples [of epenthesis] like the development of aemtig into empty, with epenthetic p, and of þunor into thunder, with epenthetic d. Non-standard pronunciations include 'athalete' for athlete and 'fillum' for film,' with epenthetic vowels."
    (R.L. Trask, A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology. Routledge, 1996)
  • Worsh for Wash
    "My brother took hisself a small fall, M'am." Dove pleaded, "Would you allow him to worsh up at yer pump?"

    "Whut he sayin'?" the woman looked to Kitty for help.

    "He wants to know can I wash up in your house."

    "Come in, child," the woman invited Kitty, holding wide the door.
    (Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side, 1956)
  • Fambily for Family
    "She were gentle an' sweet, an' the mos' beautiful creetur in all--in--in the place where we lived. An' her fambily was that proud an' aristocratic thet no one could tech 'em with a ten-foot pole."
    (L. Frank Baum, Aunt Jane's Nieces at Millville, 1908)
  • Athalete for Athlete
    "'That's the thing,' said McCloud plaintively. 'A athalete has to keep up appearances. Sure, people think a athalete makes plenty, and he do on paper. But people never stop to think he's allus gotta keep up a expensive front.'"
    (Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, 1952)
  • Mischeeveous for Mischievous
    "The pronunciation (mis-chē'vē-ɘs) is considered nonstandard and is an example of intrusion, a phonological process that involves the addition or insertion of an extra sound. Mischievous is properly pronounced with three syllables, with the accent on the first syllable. The word is often misspelled with the suffix -ious, which matches the mispronunciation."
    (American Heritage Dictionaries, 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses. Houghton MIfflin Harcourt, 2004)  
  • Vowels and Consonants
    - "Epenthetic sounds are not always vowels. For example, consider the two indefinite articles a and an. We know that a is used before consonant sounds and an is used before vowel sounds . . .. We may view this [n] as an epenthetic sound that breaks up a sequence of two vowels: a apple - an apple."
    (Anita K. Berry, Linguistic Perspectives on Language and Education. Greenwood, 2002)

    - "Some speakers distinguish the following pairs. Others, pronouncing an epenthetic consonant, say them identically: mince - mints; prince - prints; patience - patients; chance - chants; tense - tents; Samson - Sampson; Thomson - Thompson. What do you do? Check with friends. Can you think of any other examples of the same phenomenon?"
    (Beverley Collins and Inger M. Mees, Practical Phonetics and Phonology: A Resource Book for Students. Routledge, 2003)
  • The Effects of Epenthesis on Spelling
    "Epenthesis occurs frequently, both in legal and in lay language. The addition of an i before the t in speciality is an example. The pronunciation of jewelry as 'jewelery' is a result of epenthesis, as is the pronunciation 'contentuous' for contentious. Other examples of epenthesis: the ubiquitous 'relitor' for realtor and that favorite of sports announcers, 'athalete' for athlete.

    "When a word becomes widely used with the added sound, the spelling of the word changes to conform. Over the years we have obtained the words thimble, thunder, and empty by the process of epenthesis. The original Middle English words thimel, tunor, and emty were originally pronounced as spelled. The consonants were added during a period when speech prevailed over writing. The process of epenthesis slowed when writing became the foremost means of communication. Now we are back to emphasis on speaking, via television, radio, and films and our language is reflecting the prevailing influence of the oral media over the written word."
    (Gertrude Block, Legal Writing Advice: Questions and Answers. William S. Hein, 2004)

    Pronunciation: eh-PEN-the-sis