The artist formerly known as prints

purple_rainA headline on the BBC website this week exploits the similarity of the two words patients and patience:patientsFor many speakers these words are not merely similar but identical, thanks to the insertion (‘epenthesis’ is the fancy word) of a t between the sounds n and s in words like patience.

This is quite a natural thing. Going from n to s requires the speech organs to do three independent things simultaneously: switch from nasal to oral airflow, turn off vocal cord vibration, and release the contact between the tongue and the roof of the mouth. If the third of these things happens a bit late, the result is a brief t.

We recently had a higher-profile opportunity to hear this with the death of the superstar Prince. Here’s one BBC newsreader, Clive Myrie, saying Prince with no added t:

And here’s another BBC newsreader, Rebecca Jones, adding t so that the name sounds the same as prints:

I think I myself quite often do t-epenthesis to some degree, but for some speakers it’s categorical, so their words never contain n followed directly by s. This means that the contrast between various pairs of words is lost. Aside from prince-prints, common ones are mince-mints, sense-cents, dense-dents, tense-tents and chance-chants.

A larger group of pairs have the unstressed endings -ence/-ance and -ents/-ants, all of which are pronounced with the weak colourless vowel ə (or no vowel at all). So we have patience-patients, adolescence-adolescents, attendance-attendants, and a few dozen others.

Context will usually make the meaning clear, especially as there’s generally a grammatical difference. But the next time someone asks if you’d like some mɪnts, you might want to check whether they mean mints or mince.

3 replies
  1. Akito
    Akito says:

    The /t/ insertion happens to /n/ + /ʃ / too, as in /ˌkɑntʃiˈɛntʃəs/ for conscientious. Webster’s Third New International seems to prefer /nts/ and /ntʃ/ over /ns/ and /nʃ/ in most cases. Almost 50 years ago, I asked a native speaker (I’m not) about the /ts/ in patients and patience. The answer was one was longer than the other, but I’ve forgotten which was which.

    Is there a parallel involving /n(d)z/ or /n(d)ʒ/? Tens and tends?

    Another /t/ ambivalence I keep noticing is the /l(t)s/ sequence, as in Waltzing Matilda. Many English speakers seem to have trouble with /ts/. Fifty years ago, as a foreign exchange student, I was taking German in an American high school. Most if not all my classmates were saying /ˈsaɪtʊŋ/ for Zeitung (not to speak of their /ˈlɒŋ/ for lang).

    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      If I’d had more time I would have added a ‘Further notes’ section. More generally, epenthetic plosives often appear between sonorant consonants and fricatives. It doesn’t seem equally likely with all combinations, and an intervening morpheme boundary seems to inhibit it; but we can get mintce, mention, compfort, gangkster, frendzy, eltse, faltse, etc.

      Regarding length, perhaps a t in patients clips the preceding syllable a little more than the version without t, but I’m not sure.

      You could look at this blog post by John Wells.

      English speakers have no problem with ts in eg it’s, outside, pizza, but it doesn’t occur at the start of an English word. This is why most English speakers simply omit the t of tsunami. Most English dictionaries don’t tell you this, but we show it in CUBE.

      Your classmates were probably saying lɑŋ, with their merged LOT-PALM vowel. Americans tend to use this in ‘foreign’ words, like Vietnam and Datsun.

      • Akito
        Akito says:

        Thank you. Yes, it was a cot/caught-merged area (Pacific Northwest), but their /ɑ/ tended to be slightly rounded (and more back) before /ŋ/ (and sometimes before /l/, as in involve).

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