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As far as I know, in words of the structure CVCC, the vowel is usually short. Examples include milk, front, clamp, wasp, sport, etc.

However, with some CC types, the vowel seems to always be long (kind, mind, old, climb), which surprises me. Why is there such a difference?

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    Whoever close-voted this: what General Reference source will give you even just a simplified version of this extremely complex juggernaut of historical sound change over the past 1000 years? Knowing why child has a short /i/ while children has long /iː/ requires piecing together the effects of sound changes in both Old, Middle, and Modern English, over a period of about 700 years—not to mention knowing that historical sound changes are what you need to be looking at to begin with. That is not General Reference. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 14 '14 at 9:17
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    @JoeBlow Well, it does get tiresome to have people constantly ask why English words written such and such are pronounced this or that way. First, it’s a duplicate question with all the same answer. But more importantly, they’re always thinking about this wrong. The real word is the one spoken. The genuine question is why we write them this way, not why we say them this way. But that too has already been answered. – tchrist Oct 14 '14 at 12:39
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    English spelling does not represent English pronunciation. Pronunciation of English words must be learned separately from their spelling. Sorry. – John Lawler Oct 14 '14 at 15:09
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    (I just realised my first comment at the top has “short /i/” and “long /iː/” switched around. It is of course child that has the long phoneme and children that has the short one.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 14 '14 at 21:14
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    @JohnLawler,@tchrist I know you guys don't like these questions, but I love them and the interesting, subtle facts we can learn from the fabulous answers we get, as Janus's here. Sure, many people don't intuit the primacy of spoken language, but to dismiss these questions because the askers have a misunderstanding is short-sighted. To say that they all have the same answer is empirically false, and, with all due respect, there is a complex relationship between English spelling and pronunciation. Pronouncements implying that they are utterly orthogonal are manifestly wanting. – nohat Oct 15 '14 at 6:34
70

The answer to this question is very complex if all details have to be included; but here is a very simplified version:

 

1. Homorganic lengthening

Some time in the later stages of Old English (so some time around 1000 AD or so), a sound change happened whereby vowels were lengthened if they were immediately followed by a voiced homorganic consonant cluster, i.e., two voiced consonants with the same place of articulation. In other words, before /mb nd ld rd ŋg/.

This means changes like the following (a macron ‘¯’ over a vowel indicates a long vowel):

ċild > ċīld ‘child’
(ġe)cynde > (ġe)cȳnde ‘kind’
climban > clīmban ‘climb’
bringan > brīngan ‘bring’
ald > āld ‘old’
– etc.

In Old English, /i/ and /ī/ had the same vowel quality: it was only the length of the vowel that distinguished them.

 

2. Pre-cluster/polysyllabic shortening

Some time not long after this, a set of intermingling sound changes that had almost the opposite effect occurred: long stressed vowels were shortened if they came before a consonant cluster or a geminate consonant (or sometimes even a single consonant), depending on the number of syllables in the word. This is often called pre-cluster shortening, but it’s not limited only to clusters, so I’m calling it the ‘pre-cluster/polysyllabic shortening’, for lack of a better term. It wasn’t as neat and consistent a sound change as homorganic lengthening, but it happened to many, many words. It happened most regularly if the long vowel came before:

  1. a cluster of two or more consonants if there were two or more syllables left in the word
  2. a cluster of three or more consonants, regardless of how many syllables were left in the word
  3. a geminate consonant, especially if there was only one syllable left in the word

This meant changes like the following, with the relevant type of shortening (1., 2., or 3.) in parentheses for clarity:

ċīldren > ċildren ‘children’ (1.) – or
ċīlderen > ċilderen ‘children’ (2.) (both variants existed)
gōd-spell > god-spell ‘gospel’ (2.) (lit. ‘good spell’, a calque on Greek εὐ-αγγέλιον ‘evangel’)
āldormann > aldormann ‘alderman’ (1.)
blēdde > bledde ‘bled’ (3., from blēdan ‘bleed’, which kept its long vowel)

Note that in all the examples in point 1. on homorganic lengthening above, there is at most one syllable after the vowel that is lengthened, the clusters all consist of only two consonants, and they are not geminate consonants—so none of the above applies.

However, there are also quite a few cases where even a two-consonant cluster causes the shortening even if there is only one syllable left in the word; Old English wīs ‘wise’ and thence derived wīsdōm ‘wisdom’ both had a long i, for instance, whereas in Middle English, wīs had a long i, but wisdom has a short i (the unstressed ō is also shortened, but that’s just because it’s unstressed).

And just to make it even less consistent, a long vowel in the first syllable of a trisyllabic word was sometimes shortened even if there was no cluster involved; compare for example south (from Old English sūþ) to southern (from Old English sūþerne).

So after these various shortenings, you had singular ċīld (with long /ī/) and plural ċild(e)ren (with short /i/). Once this state of affairs had been arrived at, it has generally remained remarkably intact in English up until the present day.

 

3. Various later changes

Old English /ā/ was rounded a bit and became /ɔ̄/ quite early on, but short /a/ remained the same. That is why āld gives Modern English old, but we still have the a in alderman.

Much, much later on (between the 15th and 18th centuries), English vowels were all rather cruelly subjected to something that messed everything up quite fantastically: the Great Vowel Shift.

During this period, vowels jumped back and forth a bit and changed their length and quality a good deal. For the particular context relevant to us here, short /i/ stayed more or less the same, whereas long /ī/ was diphthongised into /əɪ/ and later on /aɪ/, the way it is pronounced today.

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    This is almost like the internet - except with really intelligent and informed writing! :) awesome. – Fattie Oct 14 '14 at 10:35
  • +1 very informative and a good read too!. (Did you mean to write short /i/ as opposed to the kit vowel?) – Araucaria Oct 14 '14 at 10:36
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    @Araucaria Yup. The lax kit vowel (probably) only came about as a result of the Great Vowel Shift, so before that, it really was a short /i/ vowel just like in French or Spanish. :-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 14 '14 at 11:13
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Your rule is not correct for i+nd: find, kind, mind, behind. There are other consonant groups where your rule is not correct as in child, mild, wild. When i is followed by r + consonant the pronunciation is neither /i/ nor /ai/ as in bird, mirth.

Complicated explanations about historical sound changes don't help learners much. Good books about present-day pronunciation simply give the letter/letters and indicate what pronunciations are possible. For each pronunciation a lot of material is given. In any case a learner would see that such an over-simplification as given in the original post is not tenable.

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    The ‘rule’ (such as it is) is perfectly correct for /ld/ clusters as well. The vowel in child/mild/wild is the same as in find/kind/mind/behind, but different from that in kindred and children. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 14 '14 at 9:11
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Don’t let the wind wind you up, nor a hinder hinder you. :) – tchrist Oct 15 '14 at 4:44
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    @tchrist Hence why I said “such as it is”. Like so many other ‘rules’ it's not perfect, but it works as a rule of thumb. Wind and wind were of course pronounced the same up until the 1700s when the meteorological phenomenon had its vowel shortened for unknown reasons; and the difference between hinder and hinder is quite regular, though obscured by syllable loss and resyllabification from OE hindrian to ME hinder (the verb). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 15 '14 at 7:41
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    this appears to be a comment, not an answer. – hobbs Oct 16 '14 at 6:02
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Your first sentence is incorrect. Sometimes it is pronounced as a short vowel, and sometimes long.

English has drawn from so many different languages, it is almost astonishing there is consistency at all. You will find that where words have come from the same source, they will often have the same (or similar) rules, but where some come from Latin influences, some from Germanic etc, they may follow very different rules.

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The short version is: just because it is. Even native speakers have to learn the pronunciation of each completely new word separately; and in general English words are likely to have multiple different pronunciations.

My only general advice to you is to consult the pronunciation information in a reliable source like the OED, or find a recording of a native speaker using the word; also for unusual words no-one will be shocked if you use a different pronunciation from the one they use.

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