Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Who Put the Inch in Peninsula?

Posted by Neal on November 10, 2008

Which one doesn't belong?

Which one doesn't belong?

One of my readers asked me about the pronunciation of peninsula, wondering if “peninchula” (or “penintula”) was a proper pronunciation. I looked it up in our Random House unabridged dictionary, and found two pronunciations listed, each with the S pronounced [s]. (Two pronunciations? Yes, I’ll come back to that.) So the simple answer is: This pronunciation is not accepted as standard, at least not yet. Corroborating the fact that the “peninchula” pronunciation hasn’t made it into our dictionary are the comments I found via a search for “peninchula”. For example:

  • What the heck is a “peninchula”??? (link)
  • I wish the narrator would stop saying “peninchula” instead of “peninsula.” (link)
  • Can America follow a man who says, peninchula? (link)

But of course, I couldn’t just leave the issue there. I wanted to know why there would be a “peninchula” pronunciation to begin with. I have a phonetically based origin and a morphologically based one. No matter which one is true (if either), I’m sure many of the people who say peninchula do it just because it’s the way they heard others saying it.

Here’s the phonetically based explanation. First of all, notice that peninsula has an [n] immediately followed by [s]. The [n] is a nasal consonant made with the tongue tip touching the alveolar ridge. The [s] is a non-nasal consonant made with the tongue tip almost, but not quite, touching the alveolar ridge. To transition from [n] to the [s], two things must occur simultaneously. One is that the nasal passage must be blocked off to end the [n]. The other is that the tongue tip must lower enough for air to escape over the top of it for the [s]. If the nasal passage is blocked off before this happens, what you’re going to end up with is a non-nasal alveolar stop [t] in the brief interval before once your tongue lowers and you make the [s]. This is how you get the “penintsula” pronunciation (as well as prints for prince and antser for answer).

But penintsula is not peninchula. To rest of the story has to do with the second pronunciation listed in my dictionary. It has a [y] glide between the [s] and the following vowel: “peninsyula”. This [sy] combination is well known to evolve into a [ʃ] sound (for example, in social). While making the [s], the part of the tongue behind the tip starts rising up to the palate in preparation for the [y], and the [s] ends up as its palatal analog [ʃ]. This pronunciation might be written as “peninshula”. At this point, we have the same situation as with the [n] followed by [s]. Unless the blocking of the nasal passage and the lowering of the tongue tip occur simultaneously, you’re going to end up with a [t] in between the [n] and the [ʃ], and as you may recall, [t]+[ʃ] = [tʃ] (sometimes written as [č]). And there it is: “peninchula”.

However, this analysis does not explain why there aren’t speakers out there pronouncing insulate as “inchulate”, consume as “conchume”, or insurance as “inchurance”. That’s why I’m now more inclined to go with a morphological analysis, like the ones proposed for nucular and defibulator. Just as nuclear gets reshaped to end with what looks like a suffix in words like molecular and particular; and defibrillate gets reshaped to end with the pseudo-suffix of words like tabulate, discombobulate, and perambulate; peninsula gets reshaped to end with the perceived -tula suffix of words like spatula or tarantula. In fact, if you follow the link after the “What the heck is a peninchula?” comment above, you’ll find my favorite etymology for the word in one of the responses: Penis+Tarantula=Penintula.

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5 Responses to “Who Put the Inch in Peninsula?”

  1. viola said

    *smirk*

  2. michael said

    one of my high school english teachers might have said this. but i always heard it as ‘peninshula’. i may never know if she actually said pɛnɪnʃələ or if i heard the tʃ and interpreted it as an excrescent ‘t’ and “discarded” it.

  3. [...] pronunciation witcha for wit’ your, and didja for did ya. (And the “ch” sound in spatula and tarantula.) This hypothesis would also predict that /tr/ and /dr/ affrication occurs only with speakers who [...]

  4. Kathryn said

    Huh. I almost pronounce “insurance” with an affricate. It’s definitely the “sh” sound (my phone can’t do IPA) for me, at least. The other two sound totally wrong, but “insurance” almost has that “t” in it.

    • Neal said

      I’m not surprised by insurance, because the /sjU/ string in it becomes [SU] for the same reason as it does in assure. When you put an [n] before the [S], you’re almost guaranteed to get a [t] between them unless you always pronounce [nS] very carefully. To get from [n] to [S], two things have to happen: Your nasal passage has to be blocked by raising your soft palate, and your tongue has to get out of position for [n] and into position for [S]. If you close off your nasal passage before your tongue has shifted position, you’ll end up saying [t]. (On the other hand, if you move your tongue before you shut off your nasal passage, you’ll get a palatal nasal sound before the [S], and most English speakers will hear that palatal nasal as just [n].)

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