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Now and then, I struggle to say a pair of words such as "park and walk". It may come out as "park and wark" or "pork and walk". It occurs generally when the two words are close together in a sentence.

Is there a name for this behaviour or speech idiosyncrasy or is it unrecognised officially? I know there is rhotacism, which is the recognised mis-pronunciation of the letter, "r".

Is there a name for my "affliction"?

Some other examples:

  • War and car
  • Far and talk
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1 Answer

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The technical term is Dissimilation, usually. There are more technical variants, depending on the details of individual variations and habits. Dissimilation is an opposite of Assimilation; both are Latin words, describing the processes of (respectively) 'becoming less similar' and 'becoming more similar'.

Similar in sound, in this case. Both processes are normal phonological phenomena, due to the realities of pronouncing certain sequences of sounds, and both are often the source of historical changes.

Assimilation is the reason why there's a P in assumption, for instance — the voiceless dental stop /t/ (back in Latin, where it was actually /t/ instead of /ʃ/ like English) assimilates its beginning to the preceding labial nasal /m/, producing an unavoidable voiceless labial stop /p/, whether it's spelled or not.

Dissimilation, on the other hand, changes one or more of several identical sounds that come close together but are separated by other sounds. Phonemes like retroflex /r/ and lateral /l/, which are similar in production, are difficult to pronounce in sequence but easy to alternate between, so they are particularly prone to this in European languages:

  • the pronunciation of colonel dissimilates the first /l/ to an /r/ (but keeps the spelling).
  • marble comes from Latin marmora, where the second /r/ has dissimilated to an /l/ (and the second /m/ has dissimilated to a /b/).
  • The German verb 'to murmur' is murmeln, where the second /r/ has dissimilated to /l/.

Then there are all kinds of productive dissimilations, like

"Factors, schmactors! What's the bottom line?",

or dissimilative reduplications, like pitter-patter, mishmosh, or repple-depple; and even fully-dissimilated (though no longer productive) derivational morphemes, like the adjective-forming suffix in this puzzle.

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