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It appears that the word "bifurcate" has a single spelling, but two possible pronunciations.

As a verb, according to both Wiktionary and dictionary.com, the pronunciation of the verb is:

/ˈbaɪfɚkeɪt/

Wiktionary additionally lists the following pronunciation for the adjective:

/baɪˈfɝkət/

And dictionary.com says:

/... adj. also ˈbaɪ fər kɪt, baɪˈfɜr-/

Forvo.com has the adjective sounding the same as the verb.

What is the proper pronunciation of "bifurcate" as an adjective? Is it always different as Wiktionary indicates? Can it be sometimes different (I think that's what dictionary.com is saying)? Is it usually the same (as Forvo might be suggesting)?

  • But bifurcate is a verb. It would have to be bifurcated, wouldn't it? – WS2 Feb 24 '15 at 16:20
  • OED gives the schwa form /baɪˈfɜːkət/ for the adjectival usage, but I imagine most people would use bifurcated anyway, so the issue wouldn't arise. And I'm sure plenty of people who do use the adjectival form would just pronounce it the same as the verb anyway. – FumbleFingers Feb 24 '15 at 16:21
  • Surely 'bifurcate' as an adjective follows an established pattern - e.g. 'cruciate' as in 'cruciate ligament'. – David Garner Feb 24 '15 at 16:23
  • English is not a defined language. Dictionaries can and do differ on things like pronunciation, and what you are seeing reflects this. There is no way to say that one dictionary is right and the others wrong. – DJClayworth Feb 24 '15 at 16:41
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    @WS2 and Fumble: Bifurcate does not mean quite the same as bifurcated. A bifurcate tree is a tree whose trunk naturally consists of two main stems; a bifurcated tree (if that were a thing) would be a tree whose stem had been cut or split up into two stems. Personally, I would pronounce the adjective differently from the verb, with a schwa in the final syllable. I waver between stressing the first or the second syllable, though. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 24 '15 at 16:43
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It seems to be a common thing in English to pronounce adjectives and even nouns ending in ate with a schwa, in contrast to verbs ending with the same letters:

I think most people would pronounce intricate, accurate and prelate with a schwa, but not indicate or relate.

Bifurcate simply follows the same pattern, getting pronounced as a verb or as an adjective depending on usage.

A similar things happens with predicate, which also has the same distinction in pronunciation according to MerriamWebster.

(I just realized there are counterexamples, like irate... but no pattern is 100% foolproof.)

  • Well, the pattern holds if you restrict it to unstressed vowels! :) – herisson Feb 24 '15 at 17:35
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Nouns and adjectives in English have more of a tendency than verbs to shift stress to the left and to lose stress on non-primary stressed syllables on the right. It's basically irregular where it has happened and consequently no rule is going to work for all examples. 1com2bine (farm implement) vs com1bine, 1record vs re1cord (hyphenation is after "c" for the noun but before it for the verb), 1delegate vs 1dele2gate, and so on.

  • For speakers who say /ˈbaɪfɚkeɪt/ (verb) and /baɪˈfɝkət/ (adjective), the stress is actually further to the left in the verb than in the adjective. – herisson Apr 19 '18 at 15:00
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M-W Unabridged renders the adjective form of bifurcate as rhyming with "my fur kit."

It lists the pronunciation of the verb form as an acceptable secondary pronunciation for the adjective form, so apparently the adjective form isn't always pronounced differently.

I would suspect, however, that the sorts of people would use the adjective form of bifurcate (such as a bifurcate tongue -- as opposed to a bifurcated tongue, a truly bizarre body modification that some people undergo) would rhyme it with "my fur kit."

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    Good example of an actually occurring ‘minimal pair’ between bifurcate and bifurcated with a proper, perceivable difference! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 24 '15 at 18:00
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The existence of a distinction for some speakers between a verb pronounced /ˈbaɪfɚkeɪt/ (with primary stress on the first syllable) and an adjective pronounced /baɪˈfɝkət/ (with primary stress on the second syllable) appears to exist because for over two centuries, there have been two patterns for stressing polysyllabic words ending in -ate, and one of these patterns ended up becoming more common for verbs than for other parts of speech.

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for contemplate summarizes the situation as follows:

In a few rare cases (Shakespeare, Hudibras) stressed ˈcontemplate in 16–17th cent.; also by Kenrick 1773, Webster 1828, among writers on pronunciation. Byron, Shelley, and Tennyson have both modes, but the orthoepists generally have conˈtemplate down to third quarter of 19th cent.; since that time ˈcontemplate has more and more prevailed, and conˈtemplate begins to have a flavour of age. This is the common tendency with all verbs in -ate. Of these, the antepenult stress is historical in all words in which the penult represents a short Latin syllable, as acˈcelerate, ˈanimate, ˈfascinate, ˈmachinate, ˈmilitate, or one prosodically short or long, as in ˈcelebrate, ˈconsecrate, ˈemigrate; regularly also when the penult has a vowel long in Latin, as ˈalienate, ˈaspirate, conˈcatenate, ˈdenudate, eˈlaborate, ˈindurate, ˈpersonate, ˈruinate (Latin aliēno, aspīro, etc.). But where the penult has two or three consonants giving positional length, the stress has historically been on the penult, and its shift to the antepenult is recent or still in progress, as in acervate, adumbrate, alternate, compensate, concentrate, condensate, confiscate, conquassate, constellate, demonstrate, decussate, desiccate, enervate, exacerbate, exculpate, illustrate, inculcate, objurgate, etc., all familiar with penult stress to middle-aged men. The influence of the noun of action in -ation is a factor in the change; thus the analogy of ˌconseˈcration, ˈconsecrate, etc., suggests ˌdemonˈstration, ˈdemonstrate. But there being no remonstration in use, reˈmonstrate, supported by reˈmonstrance, keeps the earlier stress.

So it used to be possible to pronounce not only polysyllabic adjectives ending in -ate, but also polysyllabic verbs ending in -ate with stress on the penult syllable, if the penult syllable was "closed" by a coda consonant in Latin.

However, stressing heavy penult syllables in polysyllabic -ate words became less common over the years, especially for verbs. I would guess that antepenult stress in words with heavy penult syllables has come to be more strongly established in verbs because, as others have pointed out, in verbs the ending -ate is pronounced with an unreduced vowel /eɪ/, which can be interpreted as a type of stress (according to some theories of stress), and English speakers have a tendency to prefer to stress alternating rather than adjacent syllables.

Consummate

Another similar example that I know of is the verb consummate vs. the adjective consummate; the OED entry for the verb says

N.E.D. (1893) records also the pronunciation (kǫ̆nsɒ·meit) /kənˈsʌmeɪt/, with stress on the penultimate syllable. This pronunciation is listed in dictionaries until the late 19th cent.; sporadic evidence of the shift of stress from the penultimate to the antepenultimate (i.e. the first) syllable is found from the late 18th cent. onwards, but dictionaries and especially usage guides were slow to recognize it. From the 20th cent. onwards dictionaries record only first-syllable stress.

[...] In the adjective consummate adj., both penultimate and antepenultimate stress are still found. N.E.D. (1893) recorded both stress positions in the adjective, noting that penultimate stress was ‘still usual’ at the time, but antepenultimate stress was also frequent.

Bifurcate

As a matter of fact, some sources indicate that it is possible to stress the second syllable of bifurcate even as a verb: Merriam-Webster says "verb bi·fur·cate \ ˈbī-(ˌ)fər-ˌkāt , bī-ˈfər- \" and the American Heritage Dictionary says " (bī´fər-kāt´, bī-fûr´-)".

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