Words are mutable things, subject to constant tugs and tweaks in the everyday trade of conversation. Some drift far enough to become visibly different when written down. There are patterns to these drifts, for example aphaeresis, whereby a word loses its initial sound or sounds (’twas, ’cause, knock, ticket). Sounds are also lost from the ends of words by a process called apocope /ə’pɒkəpɪ/ – literally ‘cutting off’, from the Greek apokopē.
Apocope stands out when we see writing from older stages of the language, when it was more heavily inflected. Middle English singen led to modern sing, while Old English ridan gave us ride. The verb help was helpan in Old English and helpen in Middle English, and though its related past participle holpen survives in some US dialects, the word has otherwise definitively lost that final sound.
Silent letters at the end of a word are another indication that apocope has taken place: the ‘b’ in lamb and dumb, and the ‘n’ in damn, hymn and autumn, are all silent in Modern English but serve to remind us they were not always so ghostly.
Apocope is a term in diachronic (or historical) linguistics, as in the examples above. But it also applies on a shorter timescale to changes that are a sort of elision. Thus cinematograph gives us cinema; moving picture, movie; popular, pop; traditional, trad; veteran and veterinary surgeon, vet; microphone, mike; detoxification, detox; disrespect, dis or diss, and so on. School and college subjects are also shortened this way: math(s), psych, chem.
It happens to the most familiar phrases. Saying cup of tea in informal company, we tend to forgo precise pronunciation of the middle word, sounding /əv/ simply as /ə/ to produce something more like ‘cup o’ tea’. Commonly spelt cuppa tea, this abbreviates further to cuppa. The loss of the /v/ sound is apocope. And receives similar treatment: the casual delivery of demotic speech means we are sometimes prone to omit the /d/ sound, so eventually it can disappear altogether from certain set phrases such as rock ’n’ roll and fish ’n’ chips.
While this process is underway, the resulting forms may remain somewhat colloquial, as with cred for credibility (as in street cred), fab for fabulous, and the recently discussed amaze for amazing. Through the slow rub of use in speech or the more immediate incentive of economy, the final sounds of many words were clipped without fuss or eroded gradually over time.Email this Post