Linguistics Consonant Epenthesis
Rebecca Morley
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0158


Use of the term epenthesis implies an input-output mapping relationship in which the output contains more segmental material than the input. Other terms that are often used synonymously with epenthesis include “insertion,” “intrusion,” and “linking,” although the latter two may also be used to refer only to certain specific kinds of epenthesis. Epenthesis may occur in a variety of environments: intervocalically, interconsonantally, word or syllable initially, and word or syllable finally. The term epenthesis may also be used to refer to the addition of segmental material to satisfy a morphological template, or minimal word length requirement. Theoretically, epenthesis may occur as the result of a phonological, morphological, or phonetic rule. Within generative theory, epenthesis is “triggered” or “conditioned” by the presence of specific environments. Such environments may consist of sequences that are disallowed or dispreferred within the language (*XY), and that are prevented from surfacing by the operation of epenthesis (/XY/ surfaces as [XBY]). Agreement does not always hold regarding whether a given set of surface forms results from a process of epenthesis or from a process of deletion in complementary environments (/XBZ/ surfaces as [XZ]). Competing claims also are made about whether the set of universally possible epenthetic segments is restricted in any way; whether those restrictions might derive from historical, perceptual, articulatory, or grammatical forces; and which segments comprise the (potentially) restricted set.

Theoretical Overview

To describe epenthesis within a given language, it is necessary to adopt a particular theoretical framework; most fundamentally: is epenthesis taken to be a rewrite rule, as exemplified in Chomsky and Halle 1968, or the result of the interaction of a set of ranked constraints, as proposed in Prince and Smolensky 2004? In the notation of a rule-based system: 0 → B /X__Y, where 0 represents the absence of segmental material, and B is the epenthetic segment. Within this framework epenthesis can occur in any environment and involve any segment. Furthermore, a rule of epenthesis may be ordered with respect to other rules in any sequence whatsoever. This means that epenthesized segments may actually fail to surface—if a later rule deletes that segment. The pattern may also be rendered opaque if the original triggering environment is altered by the action of subsequent rules (counter-bleeding); or if the relevant environment surfaces only later, failing to trigger epenthesis (counter-feeding). However, in a theoretical framework lacking derivations, such as optimality theory, it is possible to refer only to surface-true epenthesis. In what follows only apparent cases of surface-true epenthesis will be discussed; this is partially for practical reasons—the burden of proof is higher for cases of “covert” epenthesis—and partially because optimality theory provides a more restrictive prediction about the contexts in which epenthesis can occur, and which segments can epenthesize. Specifically, optimality theory requires that epenthesis occur only if it would result in a surface form that is better than the input. In the terms of the theory, this output would be structurally “less marked” or “more harmonic”: a property that is determined by the language-specific ranking of a set of universal constraints. The epenthesized segment itself is also predictable by the same mechanism.

  • Chomsky, Noam, and Morris Halle. 1968. The sound pattern of English. New York: Harper & Row.

    E-mail Citation »

    A groundbreaking work in phonological theory, focusing specifically on English, but elaborating a framework of serially ordered rules applying to underlying forms and operating on a set of universally available articulation-based sub-segmental features.

  • Prince, Alan, and Paul Smolensky. 2004. Optimality theory: Constraint interaction in generative grammar. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470759400E-mail Citation »

    The original and foundational work on optimality theory. A full development of the theory of markedness sketched out in Chomsky and Halle 1968. Available as a manuscript since 1993; published in book form in 2004.

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