3

The metathetic pronunciation of "comfortable" sound like "comf-ter-ble", which seems superficially incorrect, but in fact, is acceptable in American English (according to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, at least).

How prevalent is it in American English? Is it preferred over non-metathetic pronunciations ("comf-ta-ble", "com-fa-table", "com-fer-ta-ble")? Is it frequently proscribed (for instance, frowned upon in academic contexts)?

Update: The reason I asked this question is because the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary only highlights "comf-ta-ble", which could either mean that is the predominant pronunciation (in both British English and American English), or that is a subjectively recommended by the author himself. Even though I hold John C. Wells highly reliable, I still have some doubt that he might have been subjective and prescriptive. Not to mention an American has implied that the metathetic pronunciation should be more common in American English.

  • 2
    Good question. I know I've heard "comf-ter-ble", though I think I most commonly encounter (and emit) "comf-ta-ble". I don't think I've ever heard the 4 syllable version ("com-fer-ta-ble"). – Dan Bron Dec 13 '16 at 15:39
  • 1
    I say 'comfterble'. Rhymes with gerbil. But I also grew up rhyming egg and plague... which is seemingly unrelated to regional accents. – stevesliva Dec 13 '16 at 15:53
  • 1
    @stevesliva Comfortable and gerbil certainly don’t rhyme in any speaker of any dialect of English I’ve ever heard. In order for them to rhyme, you would have to stress the second syllable of comfortable, leading to a pronunciation like /kəmfˈtɜrbəl/ instead of /ˈkʌmftərbəl/. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 13 '16 at 16:19
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet: Some speakers apparently have a relaxed perception, or definition, of "rhyme" that doesn't require identity all the way back to the stressed syllable. – sumelic Dec 13 '16 at 16:21
  • 3
    Very prevalent. I can't imagine anybody saying anything else except in some bizarro-world where people pronounce 'vegetable' as 'vedge -uh - TAY- bull' – Mitch Dec 13 '16 at 16:40
2

This is just from my experience and intuition, so take it for what it is.

To me, the usual pronunciation of this word definitely has "r": I feel like I normally say /kʌmftərbəl/ (or /kʌmftr̩bl̩/ or /kʌmftɚbl̩/), with elision and metathesis.

The spelling pronunciation /kʌmfərtəbəl/ would also be possible, and I think I might have heard it occasionally.

Neither "comf-ta-ble" nor "com-fa-table" seem to me to correspond to my own pronunciation, and I haven't noticed other people using these pronunciations either. I would be surprised if I did. But apparently, Dan Bron has heard "comftable", so I may be wrong about this.

The reason "comfatable" seems odd to me is that in general, syllable-final "r"s are pronounced in American English. There are regional varieties of American English that drop or may drop syllable-final "r"s, such as certain Southern and New York varieties, so that may cause this pronunciation to show up for some speakers. As curiousdannii pointed out in a comment, it's very natural for /kʌmfətəbəl/ to develop to /kʌmftəbəl/ by schwa elision, so I would expect the second of these two pronunciations to show up in the same places as the first.

Rhotic speakers of English can sometimes drop "r" (or drop r-coloring from vowels) in some words, but usually only when there is another "r" in the word (for example, it may be lost in the first syllable of "berserk" or "surprise"). Since "comfortable" only has the one "r", it seems unlikely to me a priori that a speaker of a fully rhotic accent would drop it. But I have not carried out a survey about this.

There are certainly people who would proscribe pronunciations with elision and metathesis, such as "comfterble" and "envierment", but I don't think they're perceived in general as all that objectionable. I think the people who complain about them would be people who tend to object in general to pronunciations perceived as "sloppy" or "slovenly".

The main "shibboleth" I am aware of with regard to rhotics in American English is actually a case of rhotic dissimilation, the pronunciation of "library" as "libary/liberry". Some people get very worked up about this, or read a huge amount into it about the speaker's intelligence or education.

  • 1
    "comftable" is normal in AusEng, and maybe other non-rhotic accents too. When you don't have an extra consonant skipping the o vowel is less of an issue. – curiousdannii Dec 13 '16 at 15:51
  • 1
    "com-fa-ta-ble" indeed is non-rhotic which is peculiar if it's to be found in AmE; it is, however, listed as a variant among others in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. – Vun-Hugh Vaw Dec 13 '16 at 15:54
  • 1
    @Vun-Hugh: Oh, I see; are all the pronunciations you list from Longman? I suppose they must all exist then; perhaps they're just less common in my region. – sumelic Dec 13 '16 at 15:58
  • 2
    For what it's worth, cutting a syllable from this word gives me no more pause than cutting elementary to "elementry." Actually pronouncing all of it makes you sound like you are trying to enunciate how to spell the word. (AmE) – stevesliva Dec 13 '16 at 16:02
  • 2
    I’ve tried saying comfortable to myself about half a dozen times now, and I think I partly metathesise it. Or rather, I elide the pre-rhotic schwa completely, but the /r/ itself is maintained as a kind of suprasegmental feature that spreads out over the following syllable. So I pronounce it with a retroflex /ʈ/ and sometimes, but not always, a slightly r-coloured schwa in the next syllable; something like [ˈkʰʌɱfʈɚbɫ̩]. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 13 '16 at 16:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.