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Why are the verb form (/rɪtɑːd/, ri-tard) and the offensive noun form (/ˈriːtɑːd/, ree-tard) of the word retard pronounced differently?

While I have heard both variants in use as part of the pronunciation of the word, retardation, ODO as well as Webster only offer /riːtɑːdeɪʃ(ə)n/ (ree-tardation) as an option. Has the word always been pronounced like this or has the increased popularity of the "offensive retard" had an effect on it?

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+1 - Now that I think about it...I'm curious too. – T.E.D. Jan 23 '13 at 16:04
They're not pronounced differently where I come from. retard, n. Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈriːtɑːd/ retardation, n. Brit. riːtɑːˈdeɪʃn/ – spiceyokooko Jan 23 '13 at 16:14
Ah yes. Here we go again. “Indent” vs. “indent”, “Defect” vs. “defect”, “Record” vs. “record”. We need a dedicated tag or something. – RegDwigнt Jan 23 '13 at 16:40
@spiceyokooko The pronunciations I've included are supposedly British. – coleopterist Jan 24 '13 at 16:23
@coleopterist Advance and retard of engine timing? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignition_timing – spiceyokooko Jan 24 '13 at 16:43
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Because two-syllable nouns tend to acquire first-syllable accents in English, while two-syllable verbs acquire second-syllable accents.


  • present/present
  • desert/desert
  • conflict/conflict
  • record/record.

See this Wikipedia page about the phenomenon, which includes a list of over 100 words which do this. I remember noticing some words for which this shift seems to be currently in progress, and retard seems to be one of them.

Since the first syllable of the verb is unstressed, the vowel tends to get reduced, and thus changes from /iː/ to /ɪ/ (although some people—me, for one—pronounce the verb with an unreduced vowel). But this vowel change is a secondary consequence of the stress.

Why does this stress shift happen? Once there were enough words that behaved like this, it became a feature of English, which caused more words to undergo this stress shift. I have no idea how it started in the first place, though.

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You should really make it clear that you are referring to the American English pronunciation here. British English pronunciation is different. – spiceyokooko Jan 23 '13 at 16:28
@spiceyokooko: Your pronunciation may be different, but the OP checked the pronunciation in the ODO (Oxford Dictionaries Online), and it is also in the Cambridge dictionary, so it is presumably more common than your pronunciation in British English. (And the OP's pronunciation as written is definitely not American ... it's missing r's.) – Peter Shor Jan 23 '13 at 16:30
For what it's worth, the 1892 Webster International Dictionary has a reduced vowel in retard (the verb), but a long e in retardation. The noun retard is not in this dictionary. – Peter Shor Jan 23 '13 at 16:46
Peter thank you for your comments. Whilst I've always pronounced retard in retard and retardation the same way it does occur that the OP is referring to the derogatory term retard, rather than the advance and retard of an engines timing. In the US I beleive there is a distinct difference in pronunciation between the two words. I would however, pronounce it the same way. – spiceyokooko Jan 23 '13 at 17:46

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