‘Bicycle’ to ‘bike’, and the limits of regular sound change.

The development of bike [bajk] out of  bicycle [‘bajsɪkl] has occasioned some etymological speculation in print and online.  The two principal proposals seem to be (a) that bicycle was reduced from a trisyllable to a monosyllable through cumulative loss of its medial syllable [sɪ] and of final syllabic [l], thus bicycle > bicycle  > bic [bajk] (here); and (b) that bicycle was pruned to bicycle , the result being [bajk] rather than [bajs] because the phoneme underlying [s] was a velar /k/ (Hausman 1976).  This last, generatively-inspired proposal is not hugely plausible. If the underlying phoneme was /k/, why was the velar brought to phonetic light after pruning, when the etymological connections of –cycle were least apparent ? why does /k/ never surface in cycle and its derivatives ?

Here is  a third account, which I believe makes better historical sense. It agrees with the first as regards pruning  of final syllabic [l], but differs from it in supposing syncope of the second, unstressed vowel [ɪ], rather than loss of the entire second syllable [sɪ] in bicycle. The two changes, l-pruning and ɪ-syncope,  applying in whatever temporal order, resulted in [bajsk], with [k] resyllabified as part of the monosyllable’s coda. The modern form bike in turn results from the simplification to [jk] of the  cluster [jsk], unattested in word-final position, bringing it in line with like, hike, pike, Mike etc.

There are interesting lessons in this. When polysyllabic words see a marked and sudden increase in their frequency, as for instance following fast societal acceptance of a technological innovation, as here, or for whatever other reason, there will be pressure on them to  become shortened. Shortened forms can take hold very fast. Thus in French, the five-syllable masculine noun coronavirus [kɔʁɔnaviʁus], in use at very low frequencies since c. 1965, suddenly underwent a sharp frequency increase at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in December 2019; I first heard it shortened to trisyllabic [kɔʁɔna] on March 15, 2020 (the new trisyllable was itself subjected to competition from disyllabic [kɔvid] shortly afterwards, in April or May, 2020, and at the time of writing, [kɔvid]  appears to have gained the upper hand). Meanwhile in the UK, a parallel reduction of coronavirus to disyllabic rona appears to have been underway, as shown by this  journal article dated July 28, 2020.

The main tools language has at its disposal to shorten words are pruning and unstressed vowel syncope. One works from a word’s edge—or both edges, as in rona—, the other from the inside. Both affect words that are too long for their frequency,  without any stateable phonological conditioning.  Syncope will result in unattested or unacceptable consonant clusters, and prunings may affect syllabification, in ways that require repairs in order for the shortened word to fit the language’s canon and phonotactics. Strings will be resyllabified, clusters simplified. As the clusters will be rare or unattested, they will tend to simplify in unique ways. Although they cannot be regarded as ‘regular’, these are common historical changes affecting the sound of words.

  • Hausmann, R. B. (1976). An Etymological Brainteaser: The Shortening of Bicycle to Bike. American Speech, 51(3/4), 272. doi:10.2307/454976 
Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "‘Bicycle’ to ‘bike’, and the limits of regular sound change.," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 19/06/2020, https://stan.hypotheses.org/940.