I learned a new word today – apocope [əˈpɒkəpiː], which is the loss of phonemes from the ends of words, particularly unstressed vowels.

It comes from the Greek word ἀποκόπτω (apokoptein), which means ‘cutting off’ and comes from ἀπό (apo-), ‘away’ and κόπτω (koptein), ‘to cut’.

Apocope is a mechanism which erodes some inflections and other word endings, and creates new ones, when words that were once separate become bound together. It also refers to the process of abbreviating words by dropping their endings.

Here are some examples:
pānis (Latin for bread) > pan(em) (Vulgar Latin)> pan (Spanish), pane (Italian), pain (French), paõ (Portuguese)
– advertisement > advert > ad
– photographh > photo
– credibility > cred
– barbecue > barbie
– fanatic > fan

The term for phonemes being dropped from the beginning of a word is apheresis (/əˈfɛrɨsɪs/), Here are some examples:

– esquire > squire
– knife (/ˈknaɪf/) > /ˈnaɪf/ – the k was pronounced in Middle English
– telephone > phone
– ysbwriel > sbwriel (Welsh for rubbish, litter)
– ysgrifennu > sgrifennu (Welsh for to write), which has become sgwennu in some dialects of Welsh.

When a word loses internal phonemes, the process is known as syncope (/ˈsɪŋkəpiː/). Examples include:

– forecastle > fo’c’s’le
– never > n’er (poetic)
– over > o’er (poetic)

Source: Wikipedia, World Wide Words and About.com

12 thoughts on “Apocope

  1. The concept of apocope is quite central to northern Scandinavian dialects. If you listen to northern Swedish, Norwegian or Finland Swedish, they do it all the time, omitting final vowels or suffixes.

  2. Wouldn’t “knife” be an example of apheresis instead of syncope? That /k/ looks initial, not internal, to me…

  3. I’ve heard the word “apheresis” before, but in a completely different context– it’s the term for the process used to donate platelets!

    Confusingly, the same process is also called “pheresis”. Confusion… or… apheresis?

  4. Here in Italy elementary students are especially taught not to confuse elision with apocope.

    The rule recites that in the first case writing an apostrophe is always mandatory (*una azione -> un’azione); in the latter the contrary is valid (quale è -> qual è, not *qual’è), even though there are some exceptions (un poco -> un po’, neither *un po nor * un pò).

    Apocope and elision are quite similar, but apocoped words exist per se and can be uttered in their truncated form per se. Elided ones are only shortened with regard to the initial sound of the word which follows.

  5. It occurs to me that there’s lots of apocope in longstanding fanzine slang, not surprising in an environment where communication had to be typed out on manual typewriters:

    fan magazine > fanmag (predates “fanzine” but lost out to it)
    fan(zine) editor > faned
    issue > ish
    publish > pub (which then is conjugated, as in “Have you pubbed your ish lately?”)
    correction fluid > corflu
    serious and constructive > sercon

  6. I imagine you know this already and were just simplifying, but just in case: “Koptein” and “apokoptein” are indeed infinitive forms in classical Greek, but the Greek words you gave us, κόπτω and ἀποκόπτω, are actually the first-person singular forms, “I cut” and “I cut away”, transliterated “kopto” and “apokopto”. In Greek the infinitive forms are κόπτειν and ἀποκόπτειν.

    That’s not an error in the Greek dictionary. In English when we’re talking generally about a verb we often refer to the infinitive, “to cut” and “to cut away”. But when discussing heavily inflected languages such as classical Greek, for some reason it’s more usual to use the first-person singular as the “main” form; so when you look up those verbs in a Greek dictionary you’ll find κόπτω and ἀποκόπτω as the main entries.

  7. Hello, Simon. It comes from the Greek word ἀποκόπτω (apokoptein), which means ‘cutting off’ and comes from ἀπό (apo-), ‘away’ and κόπτω (koptein), ‘to cut’. Actually, it means, TO berat off (from a place, milit.), to smite the breast, to mourn for, and the noun, a cutting or knocking off, or cancellation of debts (Scott & Liddell). I hate to be picky, but the problem with saying– cutting off — is that this is a pres. part., and when a ver form ends in — ein, that is always an INFINITIVE. This is all the more vital, as there are so many voices (active, MIDDLE, passive) , moods (indicative, subjunctive, OPTATIVE) and tenses in Greek verbs as to boggle the mind, let alone participles. Plus, you have to be very careful of meanings, as what the verb actually means in ancient Greek is rarely what its component parts mean, in this case, the adv. apo and the verb, koptein, to cut). What the components give us is the LITERAL meaning (so to speak) of the verb, which is great for communicating to us moderns what the ROOTS are, and which you intend to show. That of course almost defeats the point of what I am saying here, except in so far as sometimes the classical meaning of the verb IS the same as the ROOT meaning, which confuses the issue even more…. or at least ME! ha ha!

    PS the previous commentator, Bob, is correct when he states tha Greek verbs are almost always derivef from the first person singular pres., because that is the stem (or almost), but this is not ALWAYS the case. Again, caution rules.

    Anyway, I hope I have not muddied the waters even more.

    PS do you know WHY some ancient Greek writers used apocope?

    It was because of metre…. Homer used it a lot, in order to get words to scan correctly in hexameter verse, in which the last syllable of the last word in the line sometimes caused the line to run into 6 double beats = 12, as required + 1 extra syllable…. a bummer. So he simply chopped off the end of the last word. Very convenient and practical too.

    Well, so much for my speechifying

    Thanks for this, Simon!

    Richard Vallance
    Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae

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