Seven

What is unique about the number 7 among the first ten numbers?

One answer is that it is the only among them to be spoken (in English) with two syllables.

I remember a friend once arguing that this suggests a way English might be improved.

“What if we replaced “seven” with a one syllable word? Faster. Easier. Cooler. Right? If anything it’s weird that’s it’s two syllables. Right?”

Well…maybe not.

Count to ten as quickly as you can, as though you were rapidly counting ten objects.

Now try that again replacing the “seven” with “sen”.

It sounds exactly the same, doesn’t it?

The “veh” sound was gobbled up when the word was said quickly and “seven” just became “sen” anyway.

So, when we need to, we shorten “seven” to “sen” and it is only one syllable.

Now, count to ten saying each number slowly.

This time “seven” does have two syllables but the natural way to pronounce it is with each syllable said relatively fast so the two syllables of “seven” only actually take up the time of the single syllable in, say, the word “five”.

Interesting. It turns out “seven” is quite versatile.

There is something else worth pointing out about the apparent speed of the word “seven”.

Compare “seven” with “sevep”, or “seveb”. Doesn’t the “n” end of “seven” seem to close out the word much more quickly than a “p” or “b” sound?

This is because “n” is a nasal sound, rather than a plosive like “p” or “b”. In general it is just quicker to enunciate and lasts a shorter duration.

In some ways the “n” sound is a bit special. For example, in Japanese, “” (“n”) is unique in being the only such abrupt consonant sound – all others are what we (in English) would consider to end in vowel sounds. e.g. “ma”, “ki”, “to”.

I believe the “n” in “seven” can even make the word run more quickly than a one syllable alternative. Compare “seven” to “seh”. We can count to ten, replacing “seven” with “seh” and see what happens.

There’s an awkward moment between the “seh” and “eight”, isn’t there?

When two vowel sounds are put next to each other (as here with “seh, eight”) there needs to be some way to identify them otherwise they run into each other as one vowel sound (which, here, would be something like “sate”).

One way to identify vowel sounds is for the first to take a pause after it from the speaker. In this case, if counting quickly to ten with “seh” feels slower than with “seven” maybe that’s because it is slower, because of this pause!

Another way to disambiguate sounds is epenthesis (adding extra sounds). In the case of disambiguating vowel sounds we usually add a consonant, which is a special case of epenthesis called excrescence.

To count quickly with “seh” the speaker may find themselves eliminating the pause we talked about and using excrescence. If you try counting to ten quickly with “seh” you may find like I do that a “y” sound actually slips in between the “seh” and “eight” to make them run on more quickly. It comes out like “seh yate”. (Or, actually, more like, “seh yay” because the “t” of eight gets dropped when you say it quickly too.)

What this tells us is that, at best, “seh” has to add a consonant to be identifiable when counted quickly and, at worst, has to introduce a slowing pause. “Seven”, on the other hand, becomes “sen” when counted quickly, which we’ve already seen is nice and efficient because of the quick nasal “n” sound.

“Seven” is good. We’re keeping it!

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