Syncope (Pronunciation)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Examples of syncope: the letters in parentheses represent the commonly dropped vowel sounds.

Definition

Syncope is a traditional term in linguistics for a contraction within a word through the loss of a vowel sound or letter, as demonstrated, for example, in the casual pronunciation of cam(e)ra, fam(i)ly, fav(o)ritemem(o)ry, veg(e)table, and butt(o)ning.

Syncope occurs in multisyllabic words: the dropped vowel (which is unstressed) follows a strongly stressed syllable.

The term syncope is sometimes used more broadly to refer to any vowel or consonant sound that's commonly omitted in the pronunciation of a word.

The standard term for this general process is deletion.

Syncope is sometimes indicated in writing by an apostrophe. Deleted sounds are said to be syncopated. Adjective: syncopic.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Etymology
From the Greek, "a cutting off"

Examples and Observations

  • "The term [syncope] is most commonly applied to vowel loss, as in the common British pronunciations of medicine as /'medsin/ and of library as /'laibri/, but is sometimes extended to consonant loss, as in ever > e'er and boatswain > bosun."
    (R.L. Trask, A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology. Routledge, 1996)
  • Stress Conditions
    "What are the stress conditions on syncope? The vowel that exhibits syncope must be stressless. The vowel can be at the beginning of the word. It can also occur in the middle of a word before a string of one or more stressless syllables. Thus, a word like opera almost always becomes opra, a word like general, genral, a word like chocolate, choclate. In longer words, syncope is possible as well, and more options surface. For example, respiratory can surface as respirtory or respritory."
    (Michael Hammond, The Phonology of English: A Prosodic Optimality-Theoretic Approach. Oxford University Press, 1999)
  • Syncope as Deletion of Vowels or Consonants
    - "English spelling can be a pain, but it's also a repository of information about the history of pronunciation. Are we being lazy when we say the name of the third day of the working week? Our ancestors might have thought so. Given that it was once 'Woden's day' (named after the Norse god), the 'd' isn't just for decoration, and was pronounced up until relatively recently. Who now says the 't' in Christmas? It must have been there at one point, as the messiah wasn't actually called Chris. These are examples of syncope."
    (David Shariatmadari, "Eight Pronunciation Errors That Made the English Language What It Is Today." The Guardian [UK], March 11, 2014)
    - "PARLIAMENT is a syncopic word because the I is silent; MA'AM is also a syncopic word because the D disappears. The other words of this nature include:
    AS'N: ASSOCIATION
    BO'S'N: BOATSWAIN
    'COS: BECAUSE
    FO'C'S'LE: FORECASTLE
    SYMBOLOGY: SYMBOLOLOGY
    The act or process of making such a contraction is known as syncopation."
    (O. Abootty, The Funny Side of English. Pustak Mahal, 2004)
  • Syncope in Poetry
    "Syncope . . . is what we call either the omission of a consonant (as in 'ne'er') or the dropping of an unstressed vowel which is flanked by consonants:
    Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey
    (Goldsmith, 'The Deserted Village')
    In this line hastening, normally trisyllabic, is reduced by syncope to a disyllable, and the line is thus kept within its decasyllabic confines.
    "Poetic contractions like these are found most often in English verse composed from the Restoration to the end of the 18th century. In the poetry of this period the contractions are often indicated typographically by apostrophes: e.g., hast'ning."
    (Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, rev. ed. Random House, 1979)

Pronunciation: SIN-kuh-pee

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Nordquist, Richard. "Syncope (Pronunciation)." ThoughtCo, Mar. 24, 2017, thoughtco.com/syncope-pronunciation-1692016. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, March 24). Syncope (Pronunciation). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/syncope-pronunciation-1692016 Nordquist, Richard. "Syncope (Pronunciation)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/syncope-pronunciation-1692016 (accessed January 22, 2018).