Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Haplology: the Syllable Thief

Andrew Gillett just sent “a quick question which has been bugging me and my friends. I recently saw an ad in a magazine for mascara by Chanel. It had the word inimitable written on the ad and my friends and I had absolutely no idea why inimitable is spelt that way and not inimitatable or unimitatable, which seems to me to be more obvious since translate becomes translatable.”

Andrew has stumbled on an example of ‘haplology’, which should be ‘haplogy’ since it refers to the deletion of two adjacent identical or near identical syllables. English doesn’t like inimitatable because of the duplicated TATA in the middle—so it drops one TA. The same thing happens in other verbs, e.g. demonstratable becomes demonstrable though, if one of the syllables is accented (as in translatable), haplology will not apply.

Did you ever hear anyone say probly? This is the result of the same process since the OB and AB are pronounced identically in this word. This word undergoes haplology that is not reflected in its spelling but we find haplology built into the spelling of other words.

Other forms, like inimitable reflect haplogy in their spelling and everyone but Andrew ignores them: emphasis+ize is spelled emphasize and feminine+ize has permanently become feminize, dropping one of the INs.

The British apply haplology to those words with R appearing in two adjacent unaccented syllables: library becomes lib’ry and February becomes Feb’ry. So, haplology is all around us. Why then has haplology itself not undergone haplology? Because one of the LOs is accented.

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