#7: Doubling My Letters

Letters.  We have talked about them enough.  Now, we are going to talk about – as the titles suggests – more letters.  We cannot have enough of them (I can’t at least).  In English, whilst going off on quite a large tangent whilst revising last year, I stumbled across the rules of where to and where not to double a letter.  They may well help, and they are quite interesting as well, but are for consonantal graphemes instead of vocalic graphemes as vowels oftentimes require greater context than the more step-by-step, intuitive approach to the consonants.

Intonation is the process of adding stress to areas of speech.  This usually tends to be one syllable, in English anyhow, and a good example can be in the following words where I have capitalised the stressed syllable for ease of distinction:

  • convert ;           CONvert [noun],           conVERT [verb].
  • transport;          TRANSport [noun],     transPORT [verb].

Stress, or intonation, is placed on different parts of the word to distinguish lexical class in a similar way to magic ‘e’ creating contrastive words when added to the end, intonation placement is a contrastive feature.  That is to say the meaning of the two variants contrast one another in meaning and do not vary but retain singular meaning – which would be known as complementary.

When inflecting the past tense morpheme of <-ed> or the present tense morpheme <-ing> on to a verb, we sometimes may find it hard to know whether or not to add another letter before the tense suffix or not.  But now I divulge the sacred rules of consonantal pre-tense letter doubling.

1. Monosyllabic Verbs (Stressed or Unstressed)

Seen as only one syllable is present, it is equally as likely for the syllable to have stress, or to not have stress.  We will say that it does.  Each syllable contains an onset and a rhyme, where the onset, rather obviously is the beginning, and the rhyme is the bit afterward – it’s also the bit that rhymes in poetry.  The rhyme is made from the nucleus and the coda, where the nucleus is the centre of the entire syllable (almost like a building block) and is most likely a vocalic sound, and the coda is the final part of the syllable.  If the structure of the syllable is:

ONSET                                                  NUCLEUS                                  CODA


then we can duplicate the final consonant before suffixing the tense ending.  It is pretty obvious, but this rule will not apply if the coda contains two consonants, and likewise, will not work if the nucleus contains two vowels.  However, if it did, then we would end up with much longer words like in German (though not for this reason) and more commonplace triple letters.

2. Polysyllabic Verbs (Penultimate Syllable Stressed)

If the final syllable of the initial verb is stressed, that would mean after the suffix has been inflected that the last-but-one syllable is being stressed (which is what penultimate is; silly me for overexplaining), then we are allowed to geminate the final letter before applying the tense ending. 

Gemination etymologically originates from the constellation of Gemini and means to double or elongate.  In phonetics, a geminated sound is one that is elongated and is represented by the suprasegmental symbol ‘ ː ’.  In this context, we are providing a twin for the monograph which can be seen as one silent and one verbal, or as one singular verbal digraph where I have used the term gemination as it seems fitting here.  This graphic gemination can also be seen as a phonological mechanism for preserving the nucleus in the syllable preceding the verb-tense suffix to retains its perceived ‘shortness’.

3. Polysyllabic Verbs (Penultimate Syllable Unstressed)

If stress or intonation is not going to be placed upon the penultimate syllable by the time the tensing has been inflected, then a gemination of the original syllable-final monograph is not permitted.  It is also worth mentioning at this point that there are two exceptions in British English which are ‘travel’ and ‘cancel’ that tend not to obey these rules and also that <w> and <y> do not follow any form of graphic gemination either.  Why?  We don’t know.  Or at least I don’t.

Here is a summary with the capitalised syllable being the one that is receiving stress/intonation:

  • Monosyllabic Verbs
    • STOP -> STOPPing
    • HIT -> HITTing
  • Penultimate Syllable Stressed
    • beGIN -> beGINNing
    • fulFIL -> fulFILLing
  • Penultimate and Ultimate Syllables Unstressed
    • LIsten -> LIstening
    • HAppen -> HAppening

Hopefully, you all know how to double your letters and are not, after reading this, too stressed.

As if that were not enough to stress you all out, next we will look at some examples of proper consonant digraphs where the letters are not geminated but are different – like we did with vowels.

– DP, Linguistics student

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