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Trisyllabic laxing

Historic vowel shift
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Trisyllabic laxing, or trisyllabic shortening, is any of three processes in English in which tense vowels (long vowels or diphthongs) become lax (short monophthongs) if they are followed by two or more syllables, at least the first of which is unstressed:

  1. The earliest occurrence of trisyllabic laxing occurred in late Old English and caused stressed long vowels to become shortened before clusters of two consonants when two or more syllables followed.
  2. Later in Middle English, the process was expanded to all vowels when two or more syllables followed.
  3. The Middle English sound change remained in the language and is still a mostly-productive process in Modern English, detailed in Chomsky and Halle's The Sound Pattern of English.

The Middle English sound change occurred before the Great Vowel Shift and other changes to the nature of vowels. As a result of the changes, the pairs of vowels related by trisyllabic laxing often bear little resemblance to one another in Modern English; however, originally they always bore a consistent relationship. For example, tense /aʊ/ was [uː], and lax /ʌ/ was [u] at the time of trisyllabic laxing.

In some cases, trisyllabic laxing appears to take place when it should not have done so: for example, in "south" /ˈsθ/ vs. "southern" /ˈsʌðərn/. In such cases, the apparent anomaly is caused by later sound changes: "southern" (formerly southerne) was pronounced /suːðernə/ when trisyllabic laxing applied.

The pattern of laxing occurs in basic monosyllabic vocabulary, which presumably helps keep it active across generations. For example, the /iː/ /ɛ/ shift occurs in the past-tense forms of basic verbs such as feel, keep, kneel, mean, sleep, sweep, weep and – without a suffix -t – in feed, read, lead. Other shifts occur in hide hid, bite bit, lose lost, shoot shot, go gone, etc.

In the modern English language, there are systematic exceptions to the process, such as in words ending in -ness: "mindfulness, loneliness". There are also occasional, non-systematic exceptions such as "obese, obesity" (/ˈbsɪti/, not */ˈbɛsɪti/), although in this case the former was back-formed from the latter in the 19th century.

Tense
vowel
Lax
vowel
Change in
Middle English
ExampleIPA
ɛeː e
ɛː e
serene, serenity;

impede, impediment

/sᵻˈrn, sᵻˈrɛnᵻti/;

/ɪmˈpd, ɪmˈpɛdᵻmənt/

æaː aprofane, profanity;

grateful, gratitude

/proʊˈfn, proʊˈfænᵻti/

/ˈɡrtfəl, ˈɡrætᵻtjuːd/

ɪiː idivine, divinity;

derive, derivative

/dᵻˈvn, dᵻˈvɪnᵻti/;

/dᵻˈrv, dᵻˈrɪvətᵻv/

ʌuː uprofound, profundity;

pronounce, pronunciation;

/proʊˈfnd, proʊˈfʌndᵻti/;

/proʊˈnns, proʊˌnʌnsiˈeɪʃən/

ɒoː o(No longer part of the active vowel system of English)
ɒɔː oprovoke, provocative;

sole, solitude

/proʊˈvk, proʊˈvɒk.ə.tɪv/;

/ˈsl, ˈsɒlᵻtjuːd/

Disyllabic laxing

Several now-defunct Middle English phonological processes have created an irregular system of disyllabic laxing; unlike trisyllabic laxing which was one phonological change, apparent disyllabic laxing in Modern English is caused by many different sound changes:

athlete athletic /ˈæθlt, æθˈlɛtɪk/
pale pallid /ˈpl, ˈpælɪd/
divide division /dɪˈvd, dɪˈvɪʒən/
out utter t, ˈʌtər/
fool folly /ˈfl, ˈfɒli/
depose deposit /dᵻˈpz, dᵻˈpɒzɪt/

Many cases of disyllabic laxing are due, as in southern and shadow above, due to Middle English having had more unstressed /ə/ sounds than Modern English: sutherne /suðərnə/, schadowe /ʃadəwə/, /ʃadou̯ə/. Cases in words like athletic are essentially clipped forms of Anglo-Latin pronunciations of words which would naturally exhibit trisyllabic laxing: athleticus /æθˈlɛtɪkəs/. Cases such as please, pleasant and dine, dinner come from how French words were adapted into Middle English: a stressed French vowel was borrowed into English as an equivalent long vowel. However, if the stressed English vowel was originally an unstressed vowel in French, the vowel was not lengthened; an example of this which did not create an alteration is OF pitee /piˈte/ Middle English pite /ˈpiteː/; Old French plais- /plɛz-/ (stem of plaire) Middle English plesen /ˈplɛːzən/, plaisant plesaunt /ˈplɛzau̯nt/, /ˈplɛzənt/.

Some Latinate words, such as Saturn, have short vowels where from syllable structure one would expect a long vowel. Other cases differentiate British and American English, with more frequent disyllabic laxing in American English – compare RP and GA pronunciations of era, patent, primer (book), progress (noun) and lever, though there are exceptions such as leisure, yogurt, produce (noun), Tethys and zebra that have a short vowel in RP. On the other hand, American English is less likely to have trisyllabic laxing, for example in words such as privacy, dynasty, patronize and vitamin. Much of this irregularity is due to morphological leveling.

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Trisyllabic laxing, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (view authors).


Date of last edit: 2021-01-29T12:59:04.000Z