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Today I heard somebody use a form of the verb "suffice" (which means "to be sufficient") pronouncing it like the verb "surface" without an r (and where that "a" makes more of an "i" sound). This person was logically, but incorrectly, adopting the "i" sound from "sufficient" which shares a root and meaning. The consonant sound in that second syllable is also quite different between the two words (having the c more like a z than an sh).

Why is this?

Other similarly puzzling questions:

I suspect Trisyllabic laxing might answer part of the question, but I don't think that explains it all.

  • I don’t understand what exactly you’re trying to say here. You heard someone use “to be sufficient”, but adopting the ‘i’ sound from the word sufficient?! Was one of those two meant to be an actual form of suffice? “To be sufficient” is not a form of the verb suffice. Am I completely misreading you? – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 4 '15 at 18:56
  • Yep. I did not say which verb form was used, and am not sure it matters. Edited for clarity - does that help? – WBT May 4 '15 at 18:57
  • Aaah, now I see. I thought the bit in the parentheses was the form you heard used. So you heard someone say something like, “Suffice it to say that…”, but pronouncing suffice [ˈsʌfɪs], with initial stress and a short vowel in the second syllable? – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 4 '15 at 18:59
  • I think the form was more like "it suffices." This actually makes the trisyllabic laxing less likely to explain the discrepancy, because this form of the verb has three syllables just like "sufficient." – WBT May 4 '15 at 19:01
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    He probably mentally compared it to words like office, edifice, etc. There aren’t that many words that end in -fice, and suffice isn’t that commonly heard spoken, so if you don’t recognise the word when you read it, you might well make an incorrect assumption. (Similarly, I thought for a long time in my teens that encompass was stressed on the last syllable, rather than the penult because I’d only read it, never heard it used in conversation.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 4 '15 at 19:09
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It's not trisyllabic laxing in the strict sense, since the stressed vowel is in the second-to-last syllable rather than the third-to-last in normal pronunciation. However, some researchers seem to consider all laxing processes in English to be related at an underlying level. I've just read a paper, "English Syllable Structure and Vowel Shortening" by Balogné Bérces Katalin, which talks about -ion shortening (seen in words like divide, division); it mentions that this only laxes the vowel i (for example, invade, invasion does not show laxing). This seems to be the relevant process here, although the suffix is not -ion but -ient. In a parallel fashion, the only vowel affected is i; words like quotient and patient have tense vowels. (This is one way this process differs from normal trisyllabic laxing, which applies to all of "a," "e," "i" and "o" as in insane/insanity, serene/serenity, divine/divinity and verbose/verbosity.) I'm still working on processing the paper and understanding the reason why this process applies, but Balogné Bérces connects it to the y-sound in the suffix. This palatal sound is also clearly the cause of the /ʃ/ ("sh") sound in sufficient, compared to the /s/ ("ss") sound in suffice. Neither of them is normally pronounced with /z/, so I'm not sure why it sounds like that to you.

I believe the difference between "office" and "suffice" is because the former is a noun and the latter is a verb; disyllabic nouns in English tend to be stressed on the first syllable, and disyllabic verbs to be stressed on the last.

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It can be assumed that the second 'I' in 'sufficient' chances the sound on the 'C' from how it is pronounced in 'suffice'. It could be the '-ent' as well, but it could make more sense if the source of the change was the second 'I'.

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It's a basic pronunciation rule: V + C + e is what we used to call a long vowel. If it is V + CC the vowel is usually "shorter". This rule for single syllable words carries over to syllabic stressing on the vowels in words with more syllables. This is why "ice" in "office" sounds different from "suffice"-it is a reduced vowel sound. (BTW "suffice" should be pronounced as /sə‘fɑɪs/, not with a /z/; also in "sufficient" the c is a /ʃ/.)

  • How do these rules explain the pronunciation difference between "suffice" and "surface"? – sumelic Feb 17 '16 at 22:04
  • the syllabic stressing. "surface" has the stress on the first syllable, so it is /ˈsɜːrfɪs/, with the stressed syllable taking the full sound and the second is reduced to a "schwa-like" /ɪ/ sound. In "suffice", the stress is on the second syllable, causing the "full" /ɑɪ/ vowel sound. Please See Wiki : "stress and vowel reduction" under the heading "Stress (Linguistics)". – Cascabel Feb 17 '16 at 22:38
  • That makes sense. Maybe you should say that it's lexical stress in your answer, though. It might seem obvious, but I was wondering why you started by talking about the difference between V + C + e and V + CC when the words compared in the original question both have V + C + e. – sumelic Feb 17 '16 at 22:41
  • You are correct: it is also referred to as "Lexical Stress"; however I was trying to put it in terms appropriate to the question: SB who does not understand that idea might have might have problems with only that as the answer. – Cascabel Feb 17 '16 at 22:47

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