An epenthetic sound is one that has no (historical) phonemic basis, and usually no orthographic basis, but is pronounced anyway. Usually it is something we pronounce without meaning to, as a way of easing from one sound to another more fluidly, for instance, saying "for instants." Check your pronunciation; this is certainly how I pronounce it, but the other day I actually say it written that way. The t-insertion is a natural result of trying to go from the voiced alveolar nasal stop /n/ to the voiceless alveolar fricative /s/. The /t/ is somewhere in between -- it retains the stop manner of articulation from the /n/, but acquires the voiceless and oral features of the /s/.
"Pumpkin" is another example of epenthesis. The "p" does not exist historically. Underlying the word is "pumkin," but the "p" jumps in there, just as the t did, keeping the stop articulation of the m and the voiceless, oral qualities of the k. There's something about those (nasal stop)(voiceless non-nasal sound) clusters that's just hard to pronounce. When I see someone write out "for instants," I immediately make a value judgment about the person's intellect, but I don't do the same with "pumpkin" because "pumkin" isn't a word at all. Maybe in a few hundred years "for instance" will have completely transitioned to "for instants."
The epenthetic /p/ in pumpkin also explains the alternative pronunciation "punkin." If the underlying form is "pumkin," the speaker has two options, since the (nasal)(oral) transition is so difficult: one is to insert the epenthetic /p/, the other is to assimilate the nasal consonant to the position of the following stop, hence "punkin," where the n represents a velar nasal. I find it interesting that we have no qualms about pronouncing /n/ as alveolar or velar, yet /m/ we want to pronounce bilabial to the extent that we'll insert epenthetic consonants in "pumpkin" and "hamster."
Jerome Stueart interview (pt. 3)
5 weeks ago