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What would the Earl of Samwich say?

Apr 26, 2015

Take two slices of bread, put something tasty on them, slap the slices together, and you've got a sandwich, right?

Well, you may call it a "sanwich" or "samwich," and you're certainly not alone.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan recently heard someone making fun of a person for saying "samwich," and thought that wasn't very kind.

"What we have happening here is the simplification of a consonant cluster. If you think about the word 'sandwich,' you've got n-d-w in the middle of the word – and that's not the easiest of consonant clusters to deal with. For many speakers, what happens is that we will delete the 'd,' so then you've got 'sanwich.'

I want to think about the pronunciation of 'w' and the pronunciation of 'n' because it helps explain why some of us say 'sanwich,'" Curzan says. 

"If you say the sound 'w,' you'll notice that your lips come together. It's what linguists would call a bilabial sound – a two-lip sound," she explains.

"Now let's make an 'n' and you'll notice that your tongue is on the alveolar ridge, the ridge behind your top teeth. You can sort of move from the alveolar ridge to a bilabial sound easily enough, but if you make an 'm' you'll notice that it's also bilabial – your lips come together," Curzan says.

"So what happens with 'samwich' is that the 'n' becomes more like the 'w' and becomes an 'm,' so you've got two, two-lip bilabial sounds together."

Curzan says you can see the same thing happen if you say the phrase "in between."

"If you say it carefully, you'll get an 'n.' But if you say it quickly, many of us will get an 'm' – 'im between' – because that 'b' is a bilabial sound, so the 'n' becomes an 'm.'

That's not the only etymological fact Curzan has up her sleeve: "You can see something similar happening in later Latin, when we borrow the Latin words, then we see it in English," she says.

"The Latin prefix 'in,' meaning not, shows up as 'in' in most words, like 'incoherent,' 'infallible,' and 'intemperate,' but sometimes it shows up as an 'im,' as in 'impossible' or 'immobile.' And it becomes an 'm' before a bilabial sound, before 'p' or 'b' or 'm.'"

The fun facts continue. 

"With that 'in' prefix, the 'n' becomes an 'l' if it comes before an 'l,' which is why we get 'illegible' or 'illegitimate,' and it becomes an 'r' before an 'r,' so we get 'irregular,' not 'inregular.'