Amphitheater -> Ampitheater

Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Mon Jul 12 14:31:45 UTC 1999


Over my entire life I've noticed that people pronounce "amphitheater" this way.

The rule is simple; it's "progressive assimilation" - which means that an
"earlier" sound influences a "later" one.

In this case, /m/ is an bilabial nasal stop. /f/, if it were to occur, is a
labiodental oral fricative (i.e., continuant). In short, three features
"mismatch" in two sounds which come very close together. Your phonetic
apparatus gets to work and says "Hey" I can't go from bilabial to
labiodental, nasal to oral, and stop to fricative so damn quick. How about
letting me keep the stop and bilabial part (and I'll give you the oral)."
The phonemic apparatus says, "I guess I'll still understand. Deal." The
phonetic apparatus gets back to work and takes /f/ and applies "stop" (in
place of "fricative") and "bilabial" (instead of "labiodental"). Voila! a

Of course, we seldom notice assimilation when it happens in our own speech
(particularly with "ordinary words), but when it happens in items which
have a "prescriptive" or learned historical ring (especially among groups
like "younger speakers"), we often latch on to it as part of our pervasive
language-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket ideology.

dInIs (whose assimilationist positions are severly restricted to linguistics)

PS: I complained to the Michigan State Theatre Department that they spelled
their department name "theatre." They told me (coldly) that that was the
"correct" spelling for "serious" drama. I asked them if they changed the
name when they did comedies. They hung up.

PPS: Please don't write in and tell me that nasals aren't stops. I classify
"stops" as a feature based on closure of the oral passageway (as do most
these days).

>We have a local venue called the "Molson Amphitheater." (It's actually
>spelled "Amphitheatre," but I'll ignore that Britishism for the purposes
>of this post.) It plays host to many concerts, so the word
>"amphitheater" is heard quite often on the radio and in conversations.
>Over the past few years, I've noticed that many people, particularly
>young people, pronounce this word as "ampitheater." That is, they ignore
>the first "h" so the initial syllable is pronounced as "amp" instead of
>"amf." Is this a widespread trend and is there any general linguistic
>rule that covers such a shift?
>Word Spy:

Dennis R. Preston
Professor of Linguistics
Department of Linguistics and Languages
Michigan State University
East Lansing MI 48824-1027 USA
preston at
Office: (517)353-0740
Fax: (517)432-2736

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