Is there a phonological reason for this change?

I know there are names where, when clipped, there is /r/ in coda position. For example:

  • Derek > Der
  • Sarah > Sar
  • Harold > Har

So in non-rhotic varieties, these forms become Del, Sal/Sally, Harry/Hal/Hap to avoid the coda-position /r/. So is the change from /r/ in the cases of Robert and Richard, where /r/ is in a syllable onset, the subject of some phonological change or something different (e.g. Etymology).

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    I've never seen or heard those rhotic-final clipped versions of the three names——what variety of English has those? I speak a non-rhotic English and I'm unaware of the abbreviations 'Del' for Derek and 'Hap' for Harold, do you know where these are found? Apr 28, 2013 at 12:44
  • @GastonÜmlaut I was confused at first too, I think the OP was meaning to show that these forms are unacceptable and uses this to posit some kind of phonological rule as to how nicknames are formed.
    – acattle
    Apr 28, 2013 at 12:53
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    @GastonÜmlaut off the top of my head, there's a Hap in Death of a Salesman, which is short for Harold (I know those characters spoke a rhotic variety, but Hap could have been taken from a non-rhotic variety originally) and there's a Del, short for Derek, in the old British sitcom Only Fools and Horses. But these are generally just names and conventions I'm familiar with. Apr 28, 2013 at 13:51
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    Del for Derek, Tel for Terry, Hal for Harry are all familiar to me. Alternatively there's Dez for Derek, Baz for Barry and Gaz for Gary.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 29, 2013 at 17:27
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    This pattern is found in some dialects of New York and Philadelphia, and is the subject of investigation by Benua (1995) Identity Effects in Morphological Truncation, with pointed commentary by Hale, Kissock & Reiss (roa.rutgers.edu/files/202-0697/roa-202-hale-2.pdf).
    – user6726
    Jul 11, 2015 at 20:05

3 Answers 3


It actually has nothing to do with a phonological rule, per se. You've pick out that these two names have onset /r/s, but what about "William" ("Bill")?

These examples appear to be vestiges of a long-dead middle-ages trend of rhyming nick names (1, 2, 3. Please forgive the non-academic sources). As such, the reasons for these names are more cultural than phonological.

You may also find this EL&U question and this webpage interesting.

  • Those sources are very helpful, thanks. You're right about Bill, but the two options I gave were just the ones I could think of off the top of my head. Apr 28, 2013 at 13:54

I doubt the explanations given elsewhere in this thread very much. It doesn't help that they are non-academic and free of references. I have always interpreted names like "Bill" and "Dick" to be caused by child phonology. It's hardly a coincidence that both the change from "William" to "Bill" and "Richard" to "Dick" can be formulated in phonological terms. They've changed from disyllabic to monosyllabic forms, and their continuants have become stops, yet retain both the voice and place features of the original form. Those are all highly familiar features of child phonology.

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    I'd be interested to see any sources you may have on child phonology. Even if rhyming nick names were the origin of these types of names, child phonology might explain why these forms were chosen over other potential forms.
    – acattle
    Apr 29, 2013 at 16:04
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    There's also Peg(gy) for Meg (Margaret), Polly for Molly (Mary), Ned for Ed(ward), Nan(cy) for Ann, Nell for Ellen. There seems to be a preference for a stop where there is an initial liquid, and n- for an initial vowel.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 29, 2013 at 17:30
  • This seems really plausible, children learning to speak do tend to mangle the sounds in just that way. Jul 14, 2015 at 21:31

As far as Nell and Ned (and Nan) go, I've always been told that it's metathesis - from 'mine Ellen' and 'mine Edward' - but I'm not sure that this is right, given how often it seems to work the other way (a napron becoming an apron, for example).

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