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The long and short of language

Humphrey Bogart, in The Big Sleep, as Philip Marlowe, the dogged private eye who snoops into the privacy of suspects. Or should that be 'prye-vacy'? - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on why we shorten some syllables and not others, such as in privacy and private.

It is an interesting fact about the English language that we pronounce the word nature with a long ‘a’ whereas we say natural with a short ‘a’. Similarly, while we say grateful with a long ‘a’, gratitude has a short one.

This same sort of alternation between short and long vowels can be found in many other pairs of words, for example cycle and cyclical, impede and impediment, obscene and obscenity, provoke and provocative, profound and profundity.

Linguists call this particular type of alternation between English long and short vowels ‘trisyllabic shortening’ – alluding to the three (or more) syllables of the longer words in pairs like privateprivacy.

This rule means that word forms which consist of two syllables, and have a long vowel, change the long vowel to the corresponding short vowel when another syllable (or more) is added.

Trisyllabic shortening is one of the many rules of English pronunciation which all native speakers know and follow automatically. (It is not one of those invented rules which used to be taught in schools, like “You must not start a sentence with and or but” – no one ever explained why not.)

Trisyllabic shortening is actually one of the genuine rules of English which we all acquire when we are learning our mother tongue as young children, by observing the language we hear being used all around us and subconsciously analysing how it works.

The trisyllabic shortening rule does have some exceptions – and some of these are predictable. For instance, the rule does not apply if the added extra syllable is –ness: both holy and holiness have a long ‘o’.

And there are also some cases where some English speakers observe the rule and others don’t. For me, private has the long vowel but the corresponding vowel in privacy is short

However, there seems to be a tendency these days for younger people to pronounce privacy with the same long vowel as in private, thus by-passing the shortening rule. My guess is that this may be the result of influence from American English, since most Americans do typically say “prye-vacy”.

It is not easy to be certain about why Americans use this pronunciation of privacy. It is quite possibly one example of the linguistic consequences in the USA of the fact that very large numbers of Americans had ancestors who were immigrants from the European continent. A majority of English people are descended from scores of generations of native English speakers. A majority of Americans are not.

I went to school in Norwich with people who had family names such as Brown, Hornsby, Howes, Radford, Sandford, Taylor and Walker. My Midwestern American wife, on the other hand, had classmates called Avellone, Doversberger, Jablonski, Krumwiede, Ptacek, Smutko and Swogger.

On arrival in the USA as adults, the ancestors of these classmates had to learn English as a foreign language, and they therefore did not always pick up on all the complexities of the linguistic rules which are effortlessly acquired and observed by infant learners of a mother-tongue. And the trisyllabic shortening rule certainly represented a complexity.

Other consequences that this history of foreign-language learning has had for modern American English probably also include the usage of certain verb forms: for most of us on this side of the Atlantic the past-tense of burn, dream, lean, smell and spell are burnt, dreamt, leant, smelt and spelt, while Americans are more likely to use the more regular and therefore more easily learnt (or learned!) forms burned, dreamed, leaned, smelled and spelled.

Another probable example of the influence of earlier adult foreign-language learning on American English is that, while we would tend to say I like swimming, they are probably more likely to say I like to swim – which corresponds to the grammatical structures found in most of the continental European languages, as spoken by the first generations of immigrants called Doversberger and Krumwiede.

The act of impeding somebody is not nearly as drastic as it used to be. Now, impede signifies ‘to obstruct, hinder, stand in the way of’. But the meaning of the original Latin impedire was ‘to put shackles on the feet of somebody’, from the prefix im– and the noun pedem, ‘foot’.