It always bugged me that I do not know how to differentiate "spatial" from "special". I would just say "space" to be clear when "spatial" is the grammatically correct choice. Are the standard pronunciations different? If not, is there a way to indicate that I am saying either of the two?

5 Answers 5


The long 'a' in 'spatial' is a diphthong made by combining a short 'e', like the start of 'elephant', and a long 'e', like the start of 'eel'. Like other diphthongs, these two sounds should meld together quickly and smoothly so that they appear as a single sound.

The short 'e' in 'special', is not a diphthong and sounds like the short 'e' at the beginning of 'elephant'.

You could make a further distinction between the two words by pronouncing the 't' in 'spatial' as an 's' sound, producing 'SPAY-seal'. It will be understood by most people and make you sound like Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the Enterprise (Star Trek television show.)

  • Huh, does he really pronounce -tial as seal? Doesn't that sound weird? Mar 18, 2011 at 17:40
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    @oosterwal: Interesting... would that be a British lower-class thing? I doubt it, as his accent doesn't sound lower class in other respects. The OED gives only the regular pronunciation as expected. I'll pay attention to his accent the next time I see the USS Enterprise fly by. Mar 18, 2011 at 21:08
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    @Cerberus: I didn't mean to imply lower or higher class, just a different subgroup within the larger population. If I'm not mistaken, Stewart was trained in thespian stage acting and it may be related to that.
    – oosterwal
    Mar 18, 2011 at 21:40
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    There are a lot of words that are pronounced /sj/ or /s/ in RP that are pronounced /ʃ/ in General American. These include tissue, nursery. Patrick Stewart is just pronouncing these the way most U.K. speakers would. Spatial is not one of these words, and I would be surprised if Stewart pronounces anything but /ʃ/. Jun 16, 2011 at 19:50
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    I don't think I've ever heard anyone pronounce nursery with a /ʃ/ sound. Jun 16, 2011 at 22:09

In all North American English that I'm aware of, "special" [/ˈspɛʃəl/] or [spesh-uhl] has an "eh" sound like "speck", and "spatial" [/ˈspeɪʃəl/] has a long "a" sound, so it rhymes with facial, glacial, etc..

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    Same in British English
    – mmmmmm
    Mar 18, 2011 at 17:09
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    Strictly speaking /eɪ/ is a diphthong rather than a long vowel. But yes.
    – user1579
    Mar 18, 2011 at 17:12
  • Generally true, but not in the South and maybe elsewhere. "Hell" and "hail" also sound the same here, for instance, both with something like a /ɛeɪ/ triphthong if I'm hearing correctly. However, your pronunciation is well understood here, even by those who don't use it themselves. Mar 19, 2011 at 5:37

The reason why spatial is pronounced the way it is (/ˈspeɪʃəl/), like space (/ˈspeɪs/), is probably that both come from the same root.

In Medieval manuscripts (here I go again), c and t were often indistinguishable, i.e. visually identical; moreover, at some point they often came to be used interchangeably even where the letters were in fact distinguishable (though not universally so). That is probably why we use illogical c and t in some words; that is, the variation is surprising when you consider their etymology and inconsistent with similar words. Space and spatial (Latin spatium and spatialis), vicious and vitiate (Latin vitiosus and vitiare), independence and independent (Latin independentia and independent-), interstice and interstitial (Latin interstitium and interstitialis), etc.

Note that these changes probably occurred in the Latin and French words before English borrowed them. The fact that we have both t and c forms is probably partly due to the fact that we borrowed French words in several stages, between which changes from t to c and back may have occurred in French.

In the Renaissance, scholars realized that all the c's in such words had actually been t's as the Romans spelled them, and they mostly succeeded in bringing Latin spelling back in line with Roman practice. But they mostly failed in reversing pronunciation. The old international overlap of c and t is probably the cause of our modern pronunciation of -ti- as -ci- in words of Latin and French origin: we pronounce nation as [nay-shuhn] (as though it were nacion, common Medieval spelling), instead of [nay-ti-uhn], which it should be if we pronounced the t in a regular way.

Most modern European languages pronounce this -ti- in an unusual manner for similar reasons, based on Medieval Latin/French -ci-.

In Dutch actie, -tie- is pronounced [see] or [si]; actief has [tee] or [ti]; natie has [ts]; and nationaal can be either [ch] as in English "rich" or (usually) [sh] as in "posh".

German usually has [ts] (though it is usually spelled -zi- in German), which is how -ci- would normally be pronounced in German.

French nation etc. usually has something like [sy] (though spelled -ci- and -c- in many words).

Spanish usually spells c (as in nación) and pronounces it like normal -ci- (voiceless dental fricative in Castilian; something closer to [s] in most other dialects).

Italian spelling is usually highly phonetic, which is why they spell nazionale and pronounce it as ordinary z, something close to [ts] or [dz].

  • 1
    You can see the same effect in Elizabethan music. "Nation" always appears split into three syllables, "na-ti-on", and I was taught to sing it with a /ts/ sound.
    – user1579
    Mar 18, 2011 at 18:43
  • @Rhodri: Oh really! I didn't know they pronounced it that way, and even in three syllables. It may be the oddest pair of letters in all of Europen history... Mar 18, 2011 at 18:46
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    I was quite taken aback when I heard about United Nazis on the news in Holland until I realised it was the United Nations they were talking about...
    – mplungjan
    Mar 19, 2011 at 7:06
  • @mplungjan: Haha yes! As a child, I remember I wrote Nazis with -ties because I thought it was the same word as naties. Mar 19, 2011 at 12:35
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    Oh, and that would be Nazi's in Dutch, with apostrophe. Mar 19, 2011 at 16:52

Spatial - Spay-tial

Special - Spe-tial


If you say "special" like "spshl" it'll sound a bit odd, but still be fairly close. The "e" is pronounced as a "schwa", the default noun someone without a tongue would make. Spatial has to be clearly enunciated, and the "a" would be elongated.

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