Syncope (phonology)

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For other uses, see Syncope.
Sound change and alternation

In phonology, syncope (/ˈsɪŋkəp/; 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[edit]

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

In inflections[edit]

In languages such as Irish, the process of inflection can cause 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 is the loss is of the second "i".

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

As a poetic device[edit]

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[edit]

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
  • English go[i]n[g] [t]o > colloquial gonna

Found diachronically as a historical sound change[edit]

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

Loss of any sound[edit]

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

Loss of an unstressed vowel[edit]

  • 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[edit]


  1. ^ Hayes, Bruce (2009). Introductory Phonology. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 255. 
  2. ^ Wells, John C. (2000). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (2nd ed.). Longman. pp. 165–6. ISBN 0-582-36467-1. 
  • Crowley, Terry (1997). An Introduction to Historical Linguistics (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-558378-7.