English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I know that English pronunciation is rather arbitrary. There are still some "rules" that even with many exceptions are useful for non-natives like me.

I'm puzzled about the pronunciation of the very common prefix "tri", meaning "three".

"Tri" is often pronounced /traɪ/. For example: triangle, trilateral, tripartite, trioxide, triode, triad, trilobites, triglyceride, triennium, tridimensional, trigeminal, tricycle, tricuspid, triceps, triathlon.

But sometimes "tri" is pronounced /trɪ/. For example: trigamous, triplicate, trio, trinity, trilogy, trillion, trigonometry, triplet, triple, triphthong, triploid, triptych.

Finally, it seems that a few words can be pronounced both ways. For example: trimester, tricolor.

I can find no pattern at all. Is there any "rule"? Or can you help me in any way to guess the right pronunciation of a new word with the prefix "tri"?

share|improve this question
    
Not to mention /tree/ as in 'triage'! – Leon Conrad Feb 13 '14 at 22:17
1  
Triage comes from the French, not from tri+root – Oldcat Feb 14 '14 at 1:18
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Unfortunately not. As your example words show, you can't apply historical criteria (e.g. 'is it a Greek root') or any obvious phonological decision process ('is it stressed,' 'is there a vowel after it').

The only rule I can think of of is: in chemistry, the pronunciation "tri-" = /traɪ/ is fixed.

I can offer an extension of this rule, which I believe always holds:

  • In a word "triXYZ", if XYZ is itself a word in English, then you pronounce "tri" as /traɪ/.

As an AE speaker, I can't think of a counterexample, anyway.

share|improve this answer
1  
Your answer is what I was looking for. It seems that actually there is a useful rule, and with few exceptions if any. Applying this rule I suppose that if you create a neologism adding “tri” to an existing word, you pronounce it /traɪ/. – Albertus Feb 14 '14 at 16:43

As you say, tri is most commonly pronounced as /traɪ/. But there are some situations where you can predict that you have to use /trɪ/ based on the spelling or the phonological structure of the word.

There are some consonant clusters that can't start a syllable in English: before these, you have to use /trɪ/. This explains /ˈtrɪf.θɑŋ/ and /ˈtrɪp.tɪk/.

Even though doubled consonants are not actually pronounced any differently from single consonants in spoken English, they generally indicate that the preceding vowel is short. This explains /trɪl.jən/.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.