Trisyllabic deletion

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Trisyllabic reduction or deletion is a phenomenon in English, in which a syllable is typically deleted in word of three or more syllables. For example, 'interest' is often pronounced as 'intrest' and 'chocolate' as 'choclate'. This is also known as clipping, ellipsis, or syncope. This occurrence depends of the following conditions:

  • The first syllable has the main stress, followed by two unstressed syllables, i.e., a trisyllabic dactyl (¯ ˘ ˘).
  • The first syllable is usually a closed syllable, i.e., it has a consonant coda, i.e., it ends in a consonant or consonant cluster.
  • The first unstressed syllable is deleted.
  • Both unstressed syllables, and especially the deleted syllable, contain a schwa /ə/.
  • The deleted vowel usually precedes a more sonorant consonant, most often, /l/, /r/, or /n/.
  • This generally occurs in casual, colloquial, or fast speech.

That is:

  • Ś s s → Ś s


Another type of clipping involves bisyllabic or iambic syllable groups; see below. The trisyllabic laxing or shortening phenomemon is distinct from, albeit related to, the phenomenon of trisysllabic reduction that affects vowel length in suffixation in English, e.g., nātion → nătional.


1 Examples of trisyllabic clipping

The following words with the trisyllabic dactyl pattern (¯ ˘ ˘) are often clipped, though this depends on the individual speaker, speech rate, and dialect. A speaker may vary the clipping of some words, depending on speech rate or formality level. Some of these are from Ryu and Hong (2013).[1]


absolute, absolutely
accidentally
actually
aspirin
average
bachelor
Barbara
basically
beverage
broccoli
business
camera
Catholic
chocolate
comfortable
company
conference
corporate
coverage
cultural
dangerous
deliberately
desperate
diamond
diaper
difference
different
discovery
elementary
evening
every
extraordinary
factory
family
favorite
federal
family
finally
general
generally
history
humorous
injury
interest, interesting, interested
interesting
ivory
jewel
jewelry
laboratory
maverick
Margaret
margarine
memory
miniature
miserable
mystery
national
natural
naturally
normally
offering
opposite
opera
organize
paragraph
parakeet
personal
possible
possibly
practically
preference
principal
principle
reasoning
respiratory
reverence
saxophone
separate
separately
sesame
several
slippery
sophomore
suffering
surgery
symphony
temperature
theory
therapy
toward
travelling
usually
vegetable
veteran
veterinarian
virtually
Wednesday


Also, the -ally suffix often undergoes trisyllabic clipping, such that /əli/ → /li/; e.g.:

  • basically, dramatically, historically, economically, interestingly, scientifically, etc.


2 Bisyllabic / iambic clipping

A different type of clipping affects two-syllable sets, often in bisyllabic or trisyllabic words. This also depends on individual speakers, dialects, speech rates, and formality levels. The conditions are as follows:

  • The word has at least two syllables.
  • The first syllable of the pair is unstressed, while the second syllable is stressed, i.e., a bisyllabic word with an iambic pattern (˘ ¯). If the word has three or more syllables, e.g., with unstressed syllables before or after the unstressed+stressed pair, it could be an amphibrach (˘ ¯ ˘).
  • The unstressed syllable with the schwa /ə/ vowel is deleted before the stressed syllable.
  • The deleted vowel usually precedes a more sonorant consonant, most often, /l/, /r/, or /n/.
  • This generally occurs in casual, colloquial, or fast speech.

Some examples include:

balloon
career
correct, correctness, correctly
geography
geometry
gorilla
parade
police
policeman
suppose
tomorrow


3 Historical examples

Trisyllabic clipping has happened historically in English, such that some words were permanently shortened from Old English or Middle English, and it is the shortened words that mainly survive in modern English (or in a few cases, the shortened word survived alongside the original word, but with a different meaning). Here are a few examples (Lahiri & Fikkert, 1999, p. 232).[2]

original Old / Middle English word Modern English
webbestre webster
loppestre lobster
Gloucester Glouster
Leicester Leister
fantesie fancy
curte(i)sie curtsy
martinet martlet
perseli parsley
partener partner
vintener vintner
perchemin parchment


4 See also

  1. Ryu, Na-Young and Sung-Hoon Hong. 2013. Schwa deletion in the conversational speech of English: The role of linguistic factors. Linguistic Research 30(2), 313-333.
  2. Syncope of medial syllable Old and Middle English words. Lahiri, Aditi, & Fikkert, Paula. (1999). Trisyllabic shortening in English: past and present. English Language and Linguistics 3(2), 229-267.