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A Unique Case of Vowel Harmony in English (lambaste)

Vowel harmony is a type of assimilatory phonological process involving vowels separated by consonants––i. e., not adjacent to each other––that occurs in some languages. In languages with vowel harmony, there are constraints on which vowels may be found in adjacent or succeeding  syllables. For example, a vowel at the beginning of a word can trigger assimilation in a vowel at the end of a word. The Uralic group (like Finnish and Hungarian) and Turkic (like Turkish and Tatar) are prominent instances of language families with vowel harmony. Thus in Hungarian, város ‘city’ has the dative form városnak, whereas öröm ‘joy’ has örömnek: the dative suffix has two different forms -nak/-nek. The -nak form appears after the root with back vowels (a and o are both back vowels), whereas -nek appears after the root with front vowels (ö and e are front vowels).

English does not have vowel harmony as a regular phenomenon, but a trace of this process may account for the strange case of the common mispronunciation in both British and American English of the verb lambaste as [lambást], which is a compound consisting of the verbs lam and baste, both of which mean ‘to beat soundly, thrash, cudgel’. Since the pronunciation of the second unit baste is invariably [béyst], the pronunciation of the compound ought not to vary from [lambéyst], but does anyway. Only vowel harmony, where the vowel of lam influences that of baste, suggests itself as an explanation for this deviation.


4 Responses to “A Unique Case of Vowel Harmony in English (lambaste)”

  • Michael Lamb says:

    Interesting, but what about misreadings of the forms “lambasting, lambasted”? It’s not that common a word, and is probably quite often acquired from the written form.That would of course make the spelling “lambast” a back-formation, and indeed some dictionaries have it as a separate entry (at least one specialist pronunciation dictionary even giving the alternative pronunciation [læmba:st] for British English). These dictionaries seem to reserve the “baste” pronunciation for “lambaste”. OED also gives the spellings “lambust, lambast” from the 19th century, and is, I suspect commensurately, uncertain about the etymology.

  • Johan Van Herke says:

    I agree with Michael LAMB(-ASTE?: nomen est omen !) : the “lambaste” example is too much of a one-off quirk to allow such sweeping generalization here.

  • George says:

    Why is “lambaste” a unique case here? What about a few other words in English that have some sort of a “vowel harmony”?

    *Parka (all back vowels)

    *Infinite (central vowels)

    *Messy/Dressy (front)

    *Leary/Cheery/Dreary/Theory/Teary/Eerie/etc (front)

    *Collage (back)

    *Colour/Dollar/Scholar/Holler/Droller/etc (back vowels, pronounced with same vowel sounds only in UK English, New York English and Australian)

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