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I was wondering why nation is pronounced nay-shun and national is pronounced nah-shu-nal. My question relates to the difference between pronouncing "Nay" and "Nah". The spelling of "nation" in "national" is the same as "nation", but the "na" parts of the word are pronounced differently. Is there some kind of rule or pattern for this?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

There isn't a pattern or rule; nation/national is unique. Of all -ational words, only national and rational are pronounced with /ˈæʃən/ (rhymes with "ashen"). Ration/rational, however, is usually consistently /'ræʃən/ and /'ræʃənl/ (or /ˈreɪʃən/ and /ˈreɪʃənl/, though sometimes, as Peter Shor points out, /ˈreɪʃən/ is paired with /'ræʃənl/, using the same respective pronunciations as nation/national), even though the two terms are not closely related in meaning. National is therefore an oddball, being pronounced /ˈnæʃənl/ when nation is (as normal -ation words are) pronounced /ˈneɪʃən/.

I don't think anyone knows exactly why national isn't pronounced /ˈneɪʃənl/ like all the other -ational words.

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Great answer. Thank you. – Janek Mar 27 '12 at 17:08
I would disagree with the statement that ration/rational is consistent. I believe I hear both pronunciations of ration quite often (in the U.S. Northeast), but I don't think I've ever heard anybody pronounce rational so it doesn't rhyme with national. – Peter Shor Mar 27 '12 at 17:20
I've never heard /ˈreɪʃən/. I'd just assumed that anyone who would say it would also say /ˈreɪʃənl/. Well, I'll edit. – Daniel Mar 27 '12 at 17:23
How do you pronounce "Newfoundland"? – Blessed Geek Mar 28 '12 at 2:00
Let me take back my comment about hearing /ˈreɪʃən/ in the Northeast. I have certainly heard it in some regions of the USA, but I think it's usually /ˈræʃən/ here. – Peter Shor Mar 29 '12 at 17:10

I would bet against the existence of any productive process in any form of modern English that accounts for the alternation between the vowel in the first syllables of "nation" and "national", though it seems Chomsky & Halle would disagree with me. In any case, I believe this is probably just the result of a process of trisyllabic laxing that occurred in earlier stages of English.

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Note that the alternation is not that the -ational [ˈæʃɨnəl] word is not the base form that the -ation [ˈeɪʃɨn] pronunciation would be conditioned by, but the other way around. So words like "ration", where there's an [æ] in the -ation form, would not be expected to have [ˈeɪʃɨn] pronunciations just because they also happen to have a form with -al. – firespeaker Jan 26 '14 at 20:47

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