Tuesday, April 7th, 2020...10:39 pm

Missed and Mist: Linguistic Assimilation and Inflectional Endings

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Cara Schwartz

Mist. Source: “Water Mist Png” at https://pngio.com/images/png-a905698.html

An argument came up this past weekend when my husband asked me if I “missed the plants” over our holidays. Confused, I kept thinking, “of course I couldn’t mist my plants, we weren’t home.” I asked him to repeat himself, and after hearing the same question about mist, a ten-minute conversation followed on the correct pronunciation of missed. Was it supposed to sound the same as mist? Why would they sound the same when missed clearly ends with an <ed>, not a <t>?

The fact that homophones exist in the English language is no surprise. Some words sound alike; no big deal. However, the linguistic process of assimilation that may cause these similarities, seen with my missed/mist fiasco, may be news for some people. According to Liu, assimilation occurs when “the articulation of a sound is influenced by sounds before and/or after it” (Liu, English A.16). In other words, a sound is affected by the other sounds that surround it. Therefore, in missed the voiced dental stop /d/ shifts to the voiceless dental stop /t/ because of the sound that precedes it, the voiceless alveolar fricative /s/. While initially confusing, the element of voicing causes the change between missed and mist, resulting in both being pronounced /mɪst/. Since /s/ is voiceless, the following voiced /d/ assimilates into /t/, its voiceless counterpart.

This form of assimilation affects other words ending in <ed> as well. For example, dipped and laughed, though both ending in <ed>, are pronounced as /t/. Similar to missed, the -ed suffix follows a voiceless consonant, /p/ in dipped and /f/ in laughed. As a result, dipped is pronounced /dɪpt/ and laughed is pronounced /læft/. The -ed suffix shifts to /t/ when it follows a voiceless consonant.

If the ­-ed suffix always sounds like /t/, what is the point of the -ed ­suffix? First, when <ed> follows a voiced consonant, it remains /d/ as it too is a voiced consonant. Blabbed and paved demonstrate this. Since /b/ and /v/ are two voiced consonants, the ending remains /d/, with blabbed pronounced as /blæbd/ and paved as /pevd/. Therefore, the ­-ed­ suffix is pronounced /d/ when preceded by a voiced consonant and pronounced /t/ when preceded by a voiceless consonant.

Second, the -ed suffix was previously pronounced as a separate syllable in missed. Since Middle English was a period without standardization, written English reflected the way words were pronounced and varied by dialect (Liu, English C.3). Thus the spelling in written English varied greatly during this time but represented how words were said, making every written letter a guide to its intended pronunciation. In particular, the Oxford English Dictionary includes written evidence of multiple spellings of missed from a1225 to 1889: “mysset,” “myssest,” “mist,” “miss’d” and “missed” (OED s.v. miss, v.1). This variety can be explained by dialectical differences and the lack of standardization of the time. Nonetheless, the pronunciation of the second syllable in missed is apparent, seen especially in <mysset> and <missed>.

Third, the ­­-ed suffix was originally an inflectional ending in Old English. According to Liu, the dental suffix /d/ or /t/ was used to form the past tense for weak verbs, whereas in strong verbs, the root of the vowel changed by ablaut (English D.15). Since missed is the past tense of miss, the addition of the dental suffix categorizes it as a weak verb. In contrast, the past tense of draw is drew, a strong verb. Indicating a weak verb, the ­-ed suffix is a surviving inflectional ending from Old English.

The examples from Middle English demonstrate that missed was pronounced as two syllables. Why is missed pronounced today with only one syllable? The loss of inflections has occurred throughout the history of English, with “spelling pattern[s] indicat[ing] that vowels in unstressed syllables (and all inflectional suffixes were unstressed) were being reduced to /ə/… and then disappeared altogether” (Liu, English C.47). Since the -ed suffix is an inflectional ending, it would be affected as an unstressed syllable following a root with a stressed syllable. Despite this, the dental suffix for the past tense of verbs has survived, only the /ə/ has disappeared. As a result, the /d/ or /t/ sounds have attached themselves to the last consonant of the root of the word (Liu, “Re: Outline”). Originally its own syllable, the dental suffix has been reduced, attaching to the root of the word, seen in the 1889 written evidence of “miss’d” (OED s.v. miss, v.1). Through this example, missed’s current pronunciation as one syllable and not two is indicated.

Of course, there are exceptions where verbs maintain the full pronunciation of ­the -ed­ ­suffix. In particular, the dental suffix is articulated as a separate syllable “in verbs where the root itself ends with /d/ or /t/” (Liu, “Re: Post”). For example, in created and folded the vowel between the two dental suffixes remains to distinguish between the present and past tense since consonant length is not phonemic. People cannot hold the /t/ or /d/ sound as the differentiating factor between present and past tense, thus the /ə/ is articulated between the two dental stops, acting as a separate syllable. As a result, the –ed suffix maintains its original pronunciation as a separate syllable when the root of the verb ends with a dental suffix.

Ultimately, missed and mist sound the same due to assimilation affecting the ­-ed suffix and the change to inflectional endings throughout the history of the English language. As language changes and dialects vary, standardization does not capture these changes. We are left with a Modern English spoken language that is not accurately represented in its written language. Therefore, Middle English demonstrates some logic with its absence of standardization as their orthography better reflects how things were pronounced. Also, my husband and I can both rest easy, even though he said missed when I heard mist, we now know we were both right.

Works Cited

Liu, Yin. English in Time. University of Saskatchewan, 2019.

—. “Re: ENG 290 Blog Post Outline.” Received by Cara Schwartz, 7 Mar. 2020.

—. “Re: ENG 290 Blog Post.” Received by Cara Schwartz, 1 Apr. 2020.

[OED.] Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2020. www.oed.com. Accessed 10 Mar. 2020.

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