With the Olympics taking place in Rio, we are hearing the words athlete, athletic(s) and to a lesser extent athleticism all around us. This group of words seems to be unusual among those containing the sequence /θl/ in that it is quite common to hear a schwa inserted between the two consonants. The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary includes this pronunciation, but marks it as stigmatized, while the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation and the 3rd edition of the OED online have this as an American pronunciation, without further comment. Strangely, the OED says that the spellings athelete, athaletic, atheletic, and athuletic all occur in regional US English, but gives no example sentences or other sources for this statement. Only the OED seems to have caught up with itself enough to include the variant for pentathlon and pentathlete, but not for heptathlon or heptathlete (decathlon has not been updated since 1933, and decathlete is not given at all – yet).

Other words containing the sequence, such as breathless, Athlone, Kathleen (i.e. whether the stress falls on the first syllable alone, on the second alone, or with secondary stress on the second syllable) do not seem to exhibit this possibility, so I wonder what makes athlete, etc. so special.

It can’t even be that this group of words is treated as if the -thl- was syllable initial, because this un-English initial sequence is often heard from monolingual English speakers when they attempt to pronounce the Welsh syllable llan- in such place names as Llangollen or Llandudno. I’m not aware of having heard a schwa between the two in these names.


  1. Ironic, isn’t it? The word ‘catholic’ often loses the ə in the second syllable.

  2. Your account clearly demonstrates that this ‘intrusive’ schwa in the speech of some people in saying the word ‘athlete’ and its derivatives is not a phonetic phenomenon. The explanation must surely be that the minority who use this pronunciation of such words are at least subconsciously influenced by a misconception as to its spelling. I agree that it’s a strange judgment on the part of the OED American editors not to recognise that at least as Artin did for the great 1961 Third International Webster that it was ‘chiefly substandard’.
    The Ninth New Collegiate Webster from 1983 indicated that opinion on its acceptability was ‘divided’ as they neatly conveyed by the ÷ sign. The responsability for this highly disputable judgment obviously goes back to the OED American advisors Kretzschma and Konopka.

  3. Jack – I’m not sure I can agree with you entirely, because what prompted me to write this post was hearing one of the presenters of the Today programme on Radio 4 using both pronunciations within the space of a few minutes, and I should be very surprised if any of the team were in the least doubt about the spelling of ‘athlete’. I suspect that ‘athlete’ is being treated as if it were like ‘catholic’, as John Maidment has pointed out, the ‘missing’ schwa being the next stage after /əl/ having become a syllabic lateral. ‘Methylated’ /ˈmeθəleɪtɪd/ is another word that comes to mind where the /əl/ can reduce to a syllabic (dark, of course) /l/. I should not be surprised if both these words (catholic, methylated) are pronounced in three ways, like ‘athlete’: with schwa + /l/, syllabic dark /l/ and clear /l/ as syllable initial without a preceding vowel. (EPD, but not ODP or LDP, recognises optional schwa in ‘methylated’). So, ‘athlete’ and its compounds, despite the spelling, simply becomes another member of this small club, albeit travelling in the opposite direction, as it were.

    Perhaps I should have included this extra evidence of mixed usage by one person in the original post.

  4. “‘Methylated’ /ˈmeθəleɪtɪd/ is another word that comes to mind”

    Comes to mind? Graham, what are you on these days?

    With concern, from your friend

  5. Alec – Just the same medication as ever!

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