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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