Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lazy river shortcuts

When I was a kid we played football with a Mississippi-count rule before we could rush the passer. Usually a 5-Mississippi.

You had to count it out loud and if you were caught saying 'Missippi' instead of 'Mississippi' a sack [of the quarterback] wouldn't stand. Offense could call a do-over.

But while we didn't allow haplology we did allow syncope.

How could we tell?

Haplology is the loss of a repeated (or similar) syllable: sphygmomanometer → sphygmonometer. It can be hard to tell which syllable is lost because of the similarity. In sphygmomanometer the first of the two similar syllables appears to be dropped because the resulting pronunciation preserves the [mə] of [momə]. But that could also be a result of vowel neutralization in an unstressed syllable adjacent the primary stress.

Haplology in /mɪsɪsɪpi/ is loss of one [sɪ]: /mɪsɪsɪpi/ → [mɪsɪpi]

Syncope is the loss of a medial (usually) vowel (usually). Some common examples: territory /tɛ.ɹɪ.tɔ.ɹɪ/ → [tɛɹɪtɹɪ]; frightening /fraɪ.tɛ.nɪŋ/ → [fɹəɪt.niŋ].

Syncope in /mɪsɪsɪpi/ is loss of one [ɪ] (we'll say the unstressed one): /ˌmɪ.sɪˈsɪ.pi/ → [mɪssɪpi]

Syncope retains both [s] segments tho they are now adjacent. That's a geminate -- transcribed either [ss] or [sː].

Both haplology and syncope shorten the word by one syllable. And in Mississippi we can't be absolutely sure which syllable it is. It's most likely the unstressed. But it seems that on my playground more important than the surface syllabification was the length of the middle consonant [s]. As long as the [s] was geminate (either [ss] or [sː] in transcription) it sounded like a four-syllable word and nobody complained.

Haplology -- minus [sɪ]: mɪsɪpi *[mɪsɪpi]
Syncope -- minus [ɪ]: mɪsɪsɪpi √[mɪssɪpi]

The difference in the consonant would sound something like the different [s] sounds in the following:

The sippy cup
This sippy cup

Now this was just a rule during the game. Afterwards we were haplologizing to Missippi with wild abandon.

The markedness of repetition helps to explain why the rhythmic spelling of Mississippi was sometimes 'shortened' to a longer form.

from 'em eye ess-ess eye ess-ess eye pee-pee eye'
to 'em eye double-ess eye double-ess eye double-pee eye'

The repetition in 2σ ess-ess and pee-pee was more work to say than 3σ double-ess and double-pee. Altho double-pee often became something like dulpee. That's more like syncope than haplology.

Or maybe it was just a sense of Spanish etiquette that kept me from saying eses and pipi.


  1. I had to read the 2nd paragraph three times before realizing that the 'sack' you were referring to wasn't made of burlap!

  2. Very cool. Perhaps we can get you to do a post on epenthesis as well -- ?

  3. lynneguist: Ha - it does sound like a strange idiom doesn't it? I bracketed in a little more information to aid in clarity.

    wordzguy: The next time an issue of epenthesis in everyday use comes up I'll write it down on my hand or wrist. (That's where my notes always go.)


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