In searching for the reason for the message -> messenger shift, I came across the theory of the 'parasitic n.' Essentially, the idea is that during the post-Norman Conquests period in England, borrowed words from French containing nasalized vowels preceding a 'g' would be misheard by English speakers as containing velar or alveolar nasals, and as such were written or repeated containing an erroneous n.

Are there other instances of such 'parasitic phonemes' in the history of English?

  • 1
    Mind linking to this theory? I'd love to read more.
    – user11550
    May 22, 2014 at 2:52
  • 1
    Well, there's the staple instrusive R: dialectblog.com/2011/09/10/intrusive-r
    – Wlerin
    May 22, 2014 at 2:59
  • @Mahnax I'll look for it. I wasn't able to find a developed article or anything, but rather, explanations on forums. It was the closest I could find to an answer, and it wasn't put in the proper terms as I used above (hence "theory" and my use of apostrophes :p)
    – Andy
    May 22, 2014 at 2:59
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    Another is the parasitic and excrescent t, which appears on the ends of such words as interest, whilst, amongst, against, midst, amidst, betwixt, behest, and ancient.
    – Anonym
    May 22, 2014 at 3:00
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    dialectically: sherbert, warsh, gararge. The last (a pronunciation from the U.S. Midland) baffles me. May 22, 2014 at 11:26

3 Answers 3


epenthesis, or more specifically, excrescence

In phonology, epenthesis (/əˈpɛnθəsɪs/; Ancient Greek: ἐπένθεσις) means the addition of one or more sounds to a word, especially to the interior of a word. … excrescence, for the addition of a consonant, …

On grammar.about.com:

"The history of English provides examples [of epenthesis] like the development of aemtig into empty, with epenthetic p, and of þunor into thunder, with epenthetic d. Non-standard pronunciations include 'athalete' for athlete and 'fillum' for film,' with epenthetic vowels."
(R.L. Trask, A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology. Routledge, 1996)

Universität Duisburg-Essen:

Consonant epenthesis (…) arises in order to provide a more consonantal syllable coda. There are some words in English originally which ended in an alveolar nasal or an /s/ and which developed an epenthetic stop after the final segment. The result is that the syllable rhyme of such words shows a steady decrease in sonority from the nucleus to the right edge.
vowel – nasal: sound (< son)
fricative – stop: against (< againes)

It's helpful also to read on the related idea of Sandhi (Sanskrit: संधि saṃdhí 1 "joining") for the morphology.

  • I've read about Sandhi before, it came up as part of a paper I wrote on speech synthesis. I only read about tone Sandhi, though; I didn't know it applied elsewhere. Thanks!
    – Andy
    May 22, 2014 at 14:20
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    @Andy Tone sandhi is an extended use of the word, taken from the broader, more generic context (for example, the fact that non-rhotic dialects of English pronounce a final /r/ if the next word begins with a vowel is a type of sandhi). May 22, 2014 at 14:55
  • Sandhi is one of the fundamentals taught in the early stages of study of Sanskrit grammar (as well as many languages derived from Sanskrit, such as Hindi.)
    – Kris
    May 23, 2014 at 7:51

Passage > Passenger

I believe this may constitute another instance of the "parasitic 'n' phoneme."


'nightingale' is supposed to have a parasitic n added ca. 13th century, which fits your theory, except that it seems to be from an older English word, not a French import. any ideas?

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