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The pronunciation of the word science seems to vary based on which part of the world you're in. I have heard it pronounced "sai-ens" and "saains" (think "signs").

I have checked the dictionary, but every dictionary is made in a certain country and a really big number of those countries happen to be in the western hemisphere where people use the former. Living in Southeast Asia, I can't help but notice that people here prefer the latter pronunciation.

The question is, how many syllables does the word science have? I am hoping for an answer that clarifies what the pronunciation has been historically and why this difference exists in the first place.

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    For standard speakers of English, there are 2 syllables. For many speaking Southern AmE, there is 1 syllable, because they tend to monphthongize the /ay/ in the first syllable and elide. saying /sans/. – Mitch Sep 3 '14 at 13:59
  • It depends on who you ask. Period. – Robusto Sep 4 '14 at 18:47
  • @Robusto Sorta kinda. One can do better than that, and I have attempted to do so. – tchrist Sep 4 '14 at 18:51
  • @tchrist: Who you ask, when you ask, how they feel like replying. – Robusto Sep 4 '14 at 20:09
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TL;DR: Science has two syllables compared with just one in signs, but phonologic factors like fast-speech rules and characteristics of Southeast Asian languages might make them sound alike you.

When you ask “how many syllables” a word has, especially one like science, you open up an extremely broad question whose complete treatment is probably beyond the scope of the SE format. This, therefore, is merely an abbreviated outline of the topic.


Phonemically, the word science is /ˈsaɪəns/ in English, while the word signs is /ˈsaɪnz/. Because these two phonemic sequences differ slightly, these are not homophones in the minds of native speakers. However, in actual practice the sounds produced can in certain contexts be virtually indistinguishable to certain listeners. This seems to be what is happening to you.

The mapping of abstract phonemes into phonetic realizations — that is, the mapping of something that exists only in one’s mind into physical sounds — and back again can vary dramatically according to many different factors, including local accent characteristics and what kind of speech the words occur in. All of this probably factors into your own apprehension; it may also contribute to the actual sound production as well.

Asking someone to say a word in isolation will always produce results that are quite different from those produced by the same word spoken as part of a larger phrase.

  • Part of this is due to exaggeration of phonetic features that the speaker feels important to make apparent in the careful articulation of an isolated instance of a word.
  • Another part of this is that a word that is part of a larger utterance now has other rules shaping it, including rules of phrasal prosody and phonologic phenomena due to the words around it.

If you ask a native speaker what the two syllables are in science, they will tell you that the first one is [ˈsaɪ] and that the second one is something like [ˈɛns], [ˈɪns], or [ˈʌns].

Notice that something strange has happened to the second syllable: the /ə/ cannot become [ə], because when broken apart and utterly separately, the two syllables each become isolated monosyllables. One-word utterances are always stressed, but [ə] can occur only in unstressed syllables in English, never in stressed ones. You can look at [ʌ] as the stressed version of unstressed [ə].

Those who say that the second syllable is [ˈɛns] would be using the so-called spelling pronunciation for that syllable. The problem is that it isn’t actually ever said that way. It might be reduced to [ɪ] or further to [ɨ], but an unstressed [ɛ] will not survive reduction intact. If there were another word with the e spelled with an a, so *sciance, this word would be pronounced just like science is. That’s why dependent and dependant have the same pronunciation.

On the other hand, if you heard the word in casual speech, particularly in rapid speech, then entirely different phonetic rules apply, and you may well be mismapping the resulting sounds back into logical phonemic sequences in your own head.

Because English is a stress-timed language, it is subject to many smaller rules that may affect your perception of the sounds, especially under fast speech rules, also known as allegro rules in linguistics literature. As Professor Lawler mentions, some of the rules that apply to fast speech in English include assimilation, cluster simplification, unstressed vowel reduction, and indeed outright deletion of unstressed syllables. All these will affect how the word science is pronounced in real speech.

However, there may be another factor at work here that just fast-speech rules alone. You say that you are from Southeast Asia. Per the Wikipedia article on the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, languages from that area are especially notable for their syllabic and tonal characteristics:

Syllable structure: A characteristic of MSEA languages is a particular syllable structure involving monosyllabic morphemes, lexical tone, a fairly large inventory of consonants, including phonemic aspiration, limited clusters at the beginning of a syllable, and plentiful vowel contrasts. Final consonants are typically highly restricted, often limited to glides and nasals or unreleased stops at the same points of articulation, with no clusters and no voice distinction. Languages in the northern part of the area generally have fewer vowel and final contrasts but more initial contrasts. [. . .]

Tone Systems: Phonemic tone is one of the most well-known of southeast Asian language characteristics. The tone systems of Middle Chinese, Proto-Miao–Yao, proto-Tai and early Vietnamese all display a three-way tonal contrast in syllables lacking stop endings. In traditional analyses, syllables ending in stops have been treated as a fourth or "checked tone", because their distribution parallels that of syllables with nasal codas.

These two characteristics interact to alter how native speakers of those languages perceive syllables, which in turn alters how they produce them and how listeners in turn map those sounds back into abstract structures in their own minds. Those differences that occur between science and signs, including what happens to them in fast speech, are phonologic aspects that are particularly relevant to languages in the MSEA area.

There are no stops — no obstruents — at all in either of science or signs. The two syllables of science are a stressed open syllable with a diphthong followed by an unstressed closed syllable with a nasal cluster in the coda. There is therefore no consonant boundary between those two syllables, unless one forces one by thinking of the /aɪ/ diphthong as an /aj/ sequence so that you have a semi-consonantal glide between the stressed a of the first syllable and the unstressed /ə/ of the second.

When spoken in a larger utterance, especially quickly, the phonemically contrastive difference in voicing between unvoiced /s/ and voiced /z/ can be erased due to regressive assimilation.

In other words, the one that is normally voiced at the end of one word may become unvoiced depending on how the word that follows it begins, while the one that is normally unvoiced at the end may become voiced because of the start of the next word in the phrase.

In rapid speech, that unstressed /əns/ syllable can further reduce. You might lose the /n/ component and be left with [ə̃s] or even just [əs]. You will almost certainly seem to lose the [ə]. It may be that you will be left with a syllabic consonant producing [n̩], but it may mean that that segment’s syllabic nucleus just disappeared altogether. Which means you just lost a syllable.

Just as different phonetic rules apply when words are used in carefully enunciated isolation compared to those that apply in fast speech, another set of rules applies to metered, rhymed verse: those of metrical phonology. This can be useful for demonstrating the rime of pairs of words in ways that can counter, or at least reduce, certain local accent rules and other matters of pitch and accentuation, much as song can do.

You can force a two-syllable rhyming interpretation using the following bit of doggerel in trochaic tetrameter:

If you place your trust in science,
Might this be too much reliance
On the written words of giants?

Because it’s trochaic, you have four equal feet each with two syllables: STRONG–weak.

When forced into this meter, all of in science, reliance, and of giants rhyme. Moreover, the meter forces a two-syllable interpretation of science and giants even in accents that would normally use one-syllable versions of those, such as those characteristic of the Deep South of the United States.

  • I kind of agree but I kind of don't. All three are going to be said as two syllables by some speakers. ie some speakers with smoothing and others with a less pronounced triphthong are going to utter something that only has one sonority peak in giant, -liance as well as science. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Sep 3 '14 at 14:07
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    Replacing the giants with signs, you will still have strictly metered verse, but forcibly the pronunciation changes. I agree that if a clear example could be found in existing literature making science rhyme with either a two- or one-syllabic pronunciation, it would serve nicely, but constructing an example yourself (no matter how well-wrought it is), lends this answer no more credibility than a simple "It has two syllables. Because!" – oerkelens Sep 3 '14 at 15:08
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    I'm with tchrist on this one. To rhyme the proposed one-syllable pronunciation of science, you'd have to come up with something like "A round of pints/And a toast to science." Does anyone in the United States or the UK pronounce science that way? – Sven Yargs Sep 3 '14 at 18:25
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    Does trochaic tetrameter have an anceps? If not, I suppose the verse quoted wouldn’t be trochaic tetrameter at all if read by someone from the Deep South. @SvenYargs I doubt pints and science would be exact rhymes to anyone, just like pints and signs (or pines) wouldn’t. But apart from the shorter duration of the vowel and the slight pre-nasal glottal closure in pints, they would rhyme to some speakers. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 3 '14 at 18:34
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    The fact that the question gets asked is proof that in some dialects science and signs do rhyme. If we assume they never do, the question is absurd. If we "don't believe" they do, you could have simply answered Dr Coconut "You must have misheard, I do not believe anyone pronounces science with one syllable". In either case, your poetic escapade is hardly argumentative. It just shows your personal opinion that either the question is absurd, or that Dr Coconut must have misheard, it does not provide an argument to substantiate that opinion. That said, I do like the verse. – oerkelens Sep 4 '14 at 8:02
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Science has 1 strong and 1 weak syllable. They together result in its rhythm. The strong (— ) syllable: long & stressed , Weak (·) syllable: short. E.g. — · Science ( SAI-ens), — · table

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For standard speakers of English (AmE, BrE, AusE), there are 2 syllables

/'say ens/

with an accent on the first syllable which rhymes by itself with the pronoun 'I'.

For some varieties of English, for example Southern AmE, there is 1 syllable

/sans/

because they tend to 'monophthongize' the /ay/ in the first syllable (turn a double vowel or vowel plus glide into just the vowel) and elide /'sa ens/ > /sans/. This will end up rhyming with 'pints' because the latter has the same first diphthong, and the 't' tends to get swallowed up with the other dentals 'n' and 's'.

In Southeast Asian, there's more likely to be a lot of interaction with the local standard language (giving non-English accented English).

In the end, if you want to sound standard American or British, use two syllables.

  • What does “giving non-English accented English” mean? Did you forget an en dash? How should that be understood? And how the heck did you look at the buffer I’d had sitting there saved but not posted for like six hours? – tchrist Sep 4 '14 at 20:51
  • @tchrist By 'non-English accented English' I was feebly trying to be PC. I meant non-native speakers of English, which, as a second language, may still be a viable variety, it's just that in south-east Asia I think there's only Singaporean English with that status) Anyway, I don't know the SEAsian varieties well enough to know if 'everybody' monophthongizes or otherwise says it the same as 'signs'. – Mitch Sep 4 '14 at 20:57
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It has two: sci-ence. Try clapping your hands while pronouncing the word, try multiply times and pick the one that sounds best!

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    I think the point of the question is that some people would clap only once, and that is the way that would sound best to them. – choster Sep 4 '14 at 17:06
  • Yeah, that's true. – Robin van der Noord Sep 4 '14 at 17:08

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