The two words nature and natural have the same root, so why are they pronounced differently?

  • These words are from French where the first vowel is pronounced the same in both words. The difference in pronunciation in English /ˈneɪʧə/ and /ˈnæʧrəl/ may have something to do with natural being a two syllable word in English but a three syllable word in French. – KCH Apr 13 '14 at 12:06
  • Before the Great Vowel Shift, the two words had vowels which were pronounced the same, except that one was long and the other short. The Great Vowel Shift changed the pronunciation of all the long vowels. Why was the a in natural short? Probably because it was a three-syllable word in English. Compare nation and national. – Peter Shor Apr 13 '14 at 12:19
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    Here's an account of the vowel laxing which applies in the first syllable of "natural": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trisyllabic_laxing – Greg Lee Dec 31 '15 at 0:32

As Greg Lee and Peter Shor mention in the comments, the "shortness" of the first vowel in natural /ˈnætʃ(ə)rəl/ can be explained by the concept of "trisyllabic laxing": a stressed vowel in the third-to-last syllable of a Latinate word is often given its short pronunciation even if it is only followed by a single consonant. This also affects the pronunciation of the adjectives national (related to the noun nation) and rational (related to the noun ration).

The pronunciation of nature as /ˈneɪtʃə(r)/ with a long vowel is actually irregular; most of the time, vowels in Latinate words are shortened before a "u" in an (orthographically) open syllable, as Peter Shor suggests in another comment (consider tenure, figure, stature, spicule, ferule). I don't know if there are any details about the history of this word that would explain why it does not rhyme with stature or mature.

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Nature has the silent e at the end, and thus the a is pronounced long. (a long pronunciation of a vowel is one that sounds like the name of the vowel, e.g. long a is pronounced ay, long e is pronounced ee, etc.) A few examples of this are cove (o is long), calculate (u and second a are long), and squeeze (the u and the double e are long).
Natural does not have a silent e at the end, and thus, the first a is not pronounced long. Now, however, if one was to add a silent e at the end, the last syllable would be pronounced as one would pronounce "ale", in which the a is pronounced long.

source: my education, http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/word-lists/english-words-end-with-silent-e.html for the example words

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  • 2
    But how about tenure, figure, stature, culture? – Peter Shor Apr 13 '14 at 21:20
  • I don't know about that... hmmm research time – ws04 Apr 13 '14 at 21:43

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