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One of the changes that takes place in the pronunciation of words is the linguistic phenomenon called metathesis:

metathesis: The transposition of sounds or letters in a word, or (occasionally) of whole words or syllables; the result of such a transposition.

The most commonly cited example of metathesis in an English word is the pronunciation of [aks] for [ask]. The Old English verb acsian is usually mentioned to show that [ask] was a later development. In fact, like modern English, Old English had more than one dialect. Two versions of the verb for “to ask”–acsian and ascian–were in use at the same time in different dialects. Northern ascian happened to be the one that prevailed in the dialect we call “modern standard English.”

Numerous English words acquired their present forms by way of metathesis.

We still say three and thrice, but the OE ordinal form thrid morphed into third.

Our word foliage was altered by metathesis from an early form that put the “i” before the “l”: foillage. The word changed back and forth more than once, coming as it did from the Latin word for “leaf,” folium. From the same source, Old French foille, “leaf,” became modern French feuille. The standard pronunciation of foliage is [FOH-lee-ij], although many speakers alter it by dropping one of the syllables, pronouncing it [FOH-lij]. (The word for omitting a syllable is syncope [SIN-cuh-pee].)

Burn is another word in the modern vocabulary that has had a see-saw relationship with metathesis. Old English had the verbs brinnan, “to burn,” baernan, “to expose to the action of heat,” and beornan, “to be on fire.” The verbs eventually merged. The forms brune, brenne, and brent occur in Middle English.

The Wycliffe Bible (1382) has “Fyr brennende all dai.” (Fire burned all day.)– Isa. lxv. 5.   The King James Bible (1611) has “Let not thine anger burne against thy seruant.” (Let not your anger burn against your servant.)– Gen. xliv. 18.  By the 16th century, the prevailing forms were burn and burnt.

Only time will tell if common mispronunciations resulting from metathesis will find their way into standard English.

Here are five words frequently mispronounced by changing the order of their sounds:

asterisk (*): mispronounced as “as-ter-iks”
cavalry (mounted soldiers): mispronounced as “calvary” (site of the crucifixion)
introduce: mispronounced as “in-ter-duce”
relevant: mispronounced as “rev-e-lent”
prescription: mispronounced as “per-scrip-tion”

I’m sure that my readers can think of many more examples of contemporary pronunciation errors that result from metathesis.

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16 thoughts on “Metathesis”

  1. Hey! I love your emails and subscription. They just make the English language-in its correct form-so palatable and accessible. I mean even those who are well read and all will have the luxury of, you know, making it even more correct.
    My doubt was about the verb ‘being disturbed’ and I wanted to know the correct preposition due unto it.

    “I was disturbed ‘from’ watching the video” or “…-of- watching…”


  2. What about “must of” or “should of” rather than “must have” or “should have” done something?

  3. Great post, MM.

    @Peter Buxton: You’re right that is a problem. In fact, it’s one that translates from a speech mistake into a written one quite often, unlike many mispronunciations (e.g, a lot more people mispronounce nuclear than misspell it.) But it is not metathesis. It is use of the wrong word.

    @ Samyak: I would think that “by” is the preposition normally taken by “disturbed”. I was disturbed “of” is terribly bad.

  4. Venqax, the sentence “I was disturbed from watching the video” would apply in this case:
    He was watching the video on TV when someone rang the doorbell.
    Hence, he was disturbed from what he had been doing (intently).

    She was watching the video of CASABLANCA when the police knocked loudly on the door, three times. She had been looking forward to watching Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman again.

  5. I agree that “from” might work. But not “of”. And routinely I would say that “by” is the normal preposition for “disturbed” to take. In the example you give where the meaning is that your video viewing was interrupted, disturbed from makes sense. But if your meaning were that you were disturbed because of the video, then “by” would be better even though from might be commonly used. One likewise might say, “He was disturbed at the situation,” without sounding illiterate, but I think “by” would be preferable in that case. This is observation: It seems that a verb is often described as taking one or two of the handful of “basic” prepositions: of, from, by, at, etc.; and that usually indicates that it does NOT take the others. So it is said that “surprised” takes “at” or “by” and by implication does NOT take “of” or or “from”. There are of course many, many prepositions of various word-numbers that can apply in different contexts, but the basic ones seem to dictate some degree of “categorization”.

  6. Of your examples, only “asteriks” is common, in my experience, but then there are these:
    February – ubiquitously pronounced “feb-you-airy”
    Wednesday – always pronounced “wens-day”

  7. Better: fancy words for different types of typos.

    But typos often get corrected. The worse problem is these speechos. Is there any way to install PronounceCheck on peoples’ mouths? That would be soooo great.

  8. Regarding “I was disturbed,” the above comments address the questioner’s ‘want’ but miss the need.

    When the preposition does not feel right, ask yourself whether you could choose a better verb and whether your sentence structure presents the actors, actions, and objects in a confusing order.

    ‘Disturbed’ could mean either ‘interrupted’ or ‘upset.’ When people answer, “If you mean this… but if you mean that…,” you need either to select a less ambiguous verb or to restructure the sentence so that the verb’s context clarifies its meaning.

    “Disturbed ___ watching the video” may also misidentify the cause of disturbance. Watching would disturb you, for example, if watching a pornographic video violated your conscience and you watched anyway. However, the video or its contents probably caused you to feel disturbed, so you should drop “watching.” This makes filling the blank in “disturbed ___ the video” much easier.

    The passive “I was” set the writer on the wrong path. “I was” describes a static state. The sentence lacks action. It lacks an actor. That leads the writer into making a mess of things when he tries to patch together ideas about his state and the cause of his state. (If he still wants to focus on his state, he can separate his thoughts about his state and the video into separate sentences.)

    Compare the original sentence with
    – A knock on the door disturbed my viewing of the video.
    – Watching the video left me disturbed.
    – The contents of the video disturbed me.
    – I felt guilty after watching the video.
    – I was disturbed. The video reminded me about….

    As you can see, the question hid the need.

  9. Rich Wheeler: You are right, you could choose a different word or word order to convey your meaning without so much blurriness. But that is always the case, isn’t it? If you aren’t sure of the meaning of the word, don’t use it. That’s fine to get by, but it doesn’t answer the question of what does the word mean? Same with grammar. In this case, is the use of “disturbed from” passable English is the question. Yes, you could avoid the question, but it remains.

  10. The Old English verb acsian is usually mentioned to show that [ask] was a later development.

    That one always makes me chuckle. I have often thought that the reason some people say “aks” instead of “ask” is because they are thinking of a different dialect of Old English and the word acsian as its root. Notice the correlation between speakers of “aks” and avid readers of Beowulf. Yeah, I often think that’s what it is.

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