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The verb pronounce has the letter o in its second syllable, but in the noun pronunciation, that same letter disappears from the corresponding position.

Why is that?

  • 11
    Because writing represents speech, not the other way around. The real word is /prənənsi'yeʃən/, and the various vowels are artifacts of how it used to be pronounced in other languages. It is the spoken language that is real; written English is simply a bad attempt to represent Middle English that we're stuck with because it has too much installed base. Kind of like Windows, only 500 years old. Moral: DON'T expect the spelling of an English word to have any systematic relation to its pronunciation. – John Lawler Dec 26 '14 at 17:02
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    I don't have an answer to this, but it is hilarious that we mispronounce pronounciation. – DanielSank Dec 26 '14 at 22:06
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    And mispell misspelling. – Brian Hitchcock Dec 27 '14 at 0:47
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    @JohnLawler Hmm, but your ignoring a well-known relationship between two vowels in English. Your transcription's not quite there, imo. I think you need this: /prənʌnsi'eɪʃn/ – Araucaria Dec 27 '14 at 3:33
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    Actually, it went away during the Great O Famine of 1642. – Hot Licks Dec 28 '14 at 15:34
30

The direct answer to your immediate question is because it never had one — and so of course it couldn’t possibly lose something it never had.

The problem is that you’ve asked a bit of a backwards question; the frontwards question is:

Why did pronunciation, annunciation, enunciation, renunciation all change their vowel for the verbs pronounce, announce, enounce, renounce?

The answer lies in how we acquired them from Old French, where the verbs already had Latin’s u changed to o and which we later diphthonged, but where the differently stressed nouns did not.

More recent exports — well, or envoys — from Rome that didn’t pass through France suffered no such frobnication; just ask your nearest papal nuncio.

Here are the OED’s etymology entries for these:

pronounce

ME. pronunce, pronounce, a. OFr. pronuncier (1277 in Godef. Compl.), for earlier purnuncier (mod.Fr. prononcer) :– late L. prōnunciāre for orig. prōnuntiāre to proclaim, announce, rehearse, narrate, pronounce, f. prō, PRO1 + nunti-āre to announce: cf. ANNOUNCE, ENOUNCE.

announce

a. OFr. anonce-r, earlier anoncier, anuncier :– L. adnuntiā-re, f. ad to + nuntiāre to bear a message, f. nunti-us bringing news. See AN- pref. 6.

enounce

ad. Fr. énoncer, ad. L. ēnuntiā-re (see ENUNCIATE), after the analogy of ANNOUNCE.

renounce

ad. Fr. renoncer (OFr. also renuncer) :– L. renuntiāre (-ciāre) to announce, proclaim, also to disclaim, protest against, f. re- re- + nuntiāre to make known, report: cf. ANNOUNCE, DENOUNCE, etc.

nuncio

a. earlier Ital. nuncio, nuntio (now nunzio), = Sp. and Pg. nuncio :– L. nuncius, nuntius messenger.

Understand that this is the same thing that happened to Latin uncia meaning one-twelfth part of something, which coming to us by way of Old French eventually gave us an ounce, twelve of which make a troy pound.

However, the more direct borrowing from the Latin uncia into Old English itself was ynch, a different vowel that ultimately became inch, twelve of which make a foot.

There is also the ounce that means lynx, but that word traces a slightly different route between Latin and English, having confused the leading l- for an article and therefore losing it, much as a napron became an apron over a confusion about articles, just as occurred with an orange which originally had a leading n- in the noun.

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    But if you've checked in the OED, then you'll know that this word has been spelled with an 'O' at many times during its history -please see other answers here. – Araucaria Dec 29 '14 at 10:53
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The answer to this question is that the 'O' got squashed out of the root by "rhythmic clipping".

First of all, one might think that there has never been an 'O' in the word pronunciation. In fact, the truth is rather different! Before the advent of dictionaries and word-processing spell-checkers, this word was often spelled with an 'O' in the second syllable. In fact the Oxford English Dictionary (not the Oxford Dictionary Online), gives five historical alternative spellings for pronunciation with an 'O' in the second syllable. One of these, it says, is still current, though not considered "standard". Here they are. The digits before the word indicate the centuries that spelling was used in. The third one in is meant to be current (1500s to the present day), though nonstandard:

  • 15 pronouncyacyon, 15–16 pronounciacion, 15– pronounciation (now nonstandard), 16 prononciation, 16 pronountiation.

The rest of this answer is dedicated to why the letter 'O' is missing from this word in the modern spelling.

Let's consider the word pronounce. When we say this word, it is with an /aʊ/ sound in the stressed syllable. One of the typical spellings for this sound in the orthography is the sequence 'OU'. We can see this spelling-sound correspondence in the following words:

  • abound
  • profound
  • found
  • south

This vowel, /aʊ/, is often called the MOUTH vowel by phoneticians and phonologists. This vowel has a special relationship with the STRUT vowel, /ʌ/. The STRUT vowel is the vowel found in the words up, flood, and buck. This vowel is often found in words with the same root as words with the MOUTH vowel. Here are some examples:

  • abundance
  • profundity
  • refund
  • southern

Sometimes this change of vowel in the base is reflected in the spelling. This usually means that the STRUT vowel is represented by the letter "U". This is the case with the example words abundance, profundity, refund above. Because of the vagaries of English spelling, it isn't represented in the word Southern.

We might think that this is some random relationship. However, the vowel /aʊ/ is a diphthong. This means that it belongs to a family of vowels which may be characterised as being "long".

There seems to be a systematic relationship between many long vowels in English and other specific short vowels. If you speak English, these qualities will seem to be logical. In fact, they aren't. In terms of the actual sound there is almost no phonetic relationship between the long vowels and their short vowel counterparts. For example, the vowels in the words weight and bad are not very similar. We represent these sounds by the symbols: /eɪ/ and /æ/ respectively. However, these vowels have a very close relationship in the language. For example, the following words have the /eɪ/ vowel:

  • grateful
  • sane
  • inflame

The following words, on the other hand, even though they have the same root, usually have the vowel /æ/:

  • gratitude
  • insanity
  • inflamatory

This change from long to short vowels usually happens when there are extra syllables added to the base or root of the word. The more syllables there are in a word the more short vowels and the less long vowels we are likely to see. [This is a result of rhythmic clipping. This is when the vowels in the base of a word get shorter when extra syllables are added.] The following long and short vowels have this same relationship:

  • eɪ / æ
  • i: / e
  • aɪ / ɪ
  • əʊ / ɒ
  • aʊ / ʌ

These relationships can be seen in the pairs of words respectively:

  • chaste / chastity
  • penal / penitentiary
  • wise / wisdom
  • joke / jocular
  • south / southern

Note that the spelling of words may reflect common ways of enunciating them, for example:

  • pronounce / pronunciation

In this example, as described above, we see alternation between /aʊ/ and /ʌ/. This is reflected in the corresponding spellings of "ou" and "u" respectively. However, it should still be noted, that this is because the spelling must reflect some type of pronunciation in the original instance. It is still the case that there are also alternative pronunciations. Very importantly, pronunciation may be pronounced /prənʌnsieɪʃn/ or /prənaʊnsieɪʃn/. Both ways of saying the word are perfectly fine, but the spelling reflects the first, not the second.

This is not the case for all alternations. For example we cannot say:

  • wzdəm [wise dom]

for:

  • wɪzdəm [wiz dom]

The sorter /ɪ/ vowel must be used in the longer word.

The Original Poster's question

The 'O' in pronounce disappears in the word pronunciation because it reflects a common change in the pronunciation of the English word, when we add more syllables to the base. Usually, in this case, the STRUT vowel replaces the MOUTH vowel for many speakers. However, this does not mean that the pronunciation of the second vowel in the word will change for all speakers. The retention of the full /aʊ/ vowel is also quite frequent in standard English.

The reason that this happens is that certain long and short vowels have a special phonological relationship in English. The vowels /aʊ/ and /ʌ/, MOUTH and STRUT are two such vowels and their spelling is often reflected in English orthography by the letters ou or u. However, sometimes many speakers still use the MOUTH vowel for words with a u spelling. This is perfectly fine!

For the record, English spelling is not systematic or well organised.

Hope this is helpful!

References: "pronunciation, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 28 December 2014.

  • 1
    +1. This is extremely well written and quite interesting. I hope you are a teacher of some kind. – DanielSank Dec 27 '14 at 3:32
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    The relationship between these vowels is that, before the Great Vowel Shift, the MOUTH vowel was a long STRUT vowel, the WEIGHT vowel was a long BAD vowel, and so forth. And in the Great Vowel Shift, the long vowels were changed dramatically (and the short ones slightly), so that they are now phonetically quite distant from the corresponding short ones. – Peter Shor Dec 27 '14 at 4:33
  • @PeterShor and the STRUT vowel also changed. In fact, STRUT was originally pronounced with a BOOK vowel, whose long counterpart would be MOON, the old pronunciation of MOUTH (Old English mūþ). – MickG Dec 27 '14 at 16:44
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    +1, this is a very good answer. However, I don't like that you wrote with no further comment “Very importantly, pronunciation may be pronounced /prənʌnsieɪʃn/ or /prənaʊnsieɪʃn/. Both ways of saying the word are perfectly fine, but the spelling reflects the first, not the second.” I get that we don’t want to make people feel bad about their idiolects, but there are a significant amount of people who would consider /prənaʊnsieɪʃn/ a solecism, and I think it's good for people who are learning how to pronounce English to be aware of this. – sumelic Jul 13 '15 at 0:09
  • @sumelic Yes, I'm kindof in two minds about that. I think if I was writing on ELL, I'd definitely make a point out of that. Here on EL&U I'm not so sure. I was at an English phonetics conference last year and there were several prestigious phoneticians speaking. At least two speakers said /prənaʊnsieɪʃn/ during their talks ( accidentally, I'm sure). At my school I hear it all the time from SSBE speaking teachers. It's rampant! At the time my reaction was to chortle gleefully at the speakers - but having reflected on it, that was rather unfair ... – Araucaria Jul 13 '15 at 15:14
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While this probably doesn't add significant new content to the answers already provided, it seems useful to reproduce here the comments from Merriam-Webster on this issue:

Both the noun and verb come ultimately from the Latin verb pronuntiare. But when the Latin verb was taken into Anglo-French and later entered Middle English, that second vowel was sometimes rendered as -u- and sometimes rendered as -ou-. This meant that, from about the 1500s onward, we have evidence of both pronounciation and pronunciation in the written record. Eventually the noun standardized to pronunciation, but because of influence from pronounce, we do occasionally see pronounciation in print, and we also have evidence of a corresponding pronunciation for pronounciation (\pruh-nown-see-AY-shun). The spelling pronounciation and the pronunciation that goes with that spelling are not considered a part of standard English. Using them could result in criticism or questioning.

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Comes from the latin word "nuntiare" what translates to announce

protected by tchrist Feb 15 '15 at 17:47

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