MLP: Dissimilate this, folks

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How frustrating English can be! Before we leave Feb. (abbreviated lest you arrive at the point too quickly, Dear Reader), answer this one honestly: Can you pronounce it? You probably can, but do you actually say Feb-roo-ary, or more likely Feb-you-ary?

Perhaps it’s Feb-err-ary, Feb-wary, or if you lean British, Feb-rerry? Let’s just stick with Feb.

March can’t come soon enough. No, your Mrs. Language Person doesn’t dream of spring; she simply can’t bear to hear frigid Feb. butchered or blundered once more!

Those labored lingual endeavors to pronounce both “r”s in February illustrate what linguists (Oh those precious defenders! Poor, lonely word-wardens!) call dissimilation — when similar sounds in the same word become less similar by proximity. Put simply, the second “r” leads the unwary to mispronounce the first.

February isn’t the only two-r tongue-twister. Dissimilation knows no hierarchy (high-arky … shudder), nor lofty prerogative (per-rogative). It’s pre. PREE. How often your MLP’s ears have struggled in vain to hear asterisk (aster-ick), candidate (can-idate), and reservoir (re-suh-voir).

Dissimilation isn’t always about skipping sounds; sometimes the poor dears are added where they don’t belong. Gentlemen may remember the once-popular cummerbunds (cumb-ber-bund), and while MLP is no fan of sherbet, it’s much preferable to “sher-bert.”

Then there’s the mother of all dissimilation — Worcestershire sauce. Readers, for this MLP forgives all. Will someone please explain why our English cousins tell us this is wooster-sh’r, or worse, wooster? This form of dissimilation — the loss of entire syllables — is called haplology (or as silly linguists joke, haplogy).

Where did all those lovely letters go? Flattened, they were, by that running sequence of similar sounds, reduced to a single, pitiable occurrence.

Not all haplology is incorrect; in English, for example, we often drop a syllable when creating an adverb. Gentle becomes gently, and able, ably.

Just so we know the difference, please. Increasingly your MLP sees the inexcusable “probly” and “prolly” masquerading as words, instead of probably. That makes it all the harder to recall its meaning — how probable something may be.

Such as the likelihood of further confusion by mentioning assimilation — when a sound becomes like its neighbor. We say hymn (him), but hymnal (oh, yes, there is an “n” there). How often does one speed through “winner” when we mean “win-ter.”

Which brings this full circle. Is it March yet?


Mrs. Language Person and Sholeh Patrick are columnists for the Hagadone News Network who know just enough about linguistics to be dangerous, and not enough to be truly expert. Corrections and commiserations welcome at

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