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For the word "history", every dictionary that I have consulted gives the pronunciation as /ˈhɪs tə ri/. However, my personal pronunciation of the word has always been /ˈhɪs tər i/, and for me this goes for every word which contains a similar sequence of /ə/ followed by /r/. For example, for me, "accelerate" is pronounced /ækˈsɛl ərˌeɪt/, not /ækˈsɛl əˌreɪt/, the latter nevertheless being prescribed as correct by most dictionaries. Likewise, I pronounce "memorize" as /ˈmɛm ərˌaɪz/, not /ˈmɛm əˌraɪz/.

At first, I thought this might just be a quirk of my dialect. But for other words, it seems my way of pronouncing this phonic sequence is preferred by most dictionaries. For example, for the word "general", the pronunciation is invariably given as /ˈdʒɛn ər əl/, as opposed to /ˈdʒɛn ə rəl/.

It gets even more confusing with pairs of words like "terrorist" and "terrorize." The former pronunciation is given by most dictonaries as /ˈtɛr ər ɪst/, while the latter is given as /ˈtɛr əˌraɪz/. Why does the /r/ belong to the end of the penultimate syllable in "terrorist", but to the beginning of the ultimate syllable in "terrorize"?

Is there some underlying rule here that I'm not grasping?

  • I think you're reading too much into the dictionaries' given pronunciations. I, for instance, pronounce "history" so that it rhymes with "story", /ˈhis tôr ē/, which is different from all the alternatives you presented. I also pronounce "terrorist" as /ˈtɛr ôr ist/. Ultimately, these are all fairly subtle differences. I see no reason to attribute them to anything other than regional and personal variation. – PellMel Apr 28 '16 at 14:42
  • Cambridge does divide the word as /ˈhɪs.tᵊr.i/. And MW does divide the trisyllabic pronunciation of general before the r. – sumelic Apr 28 '16 at 15:09
  • What dictionaries are you looking at? Merriam-Webster has /ˈtɛr ər ɪst/ and /ˈtɛr ər'aɪz/. American Heritage dictionary has /ˈtɛr ə rɪst/ and /ˈtɛr ə'raɪz/. Oxford Dictionary Online doesn't have syllable breaks between unaccented syllables, which means you can't tell how they break terrorist. Which leaves Cambridge Dictionaries Online as the one dictionary out of the four I checked that has the pronunciations you say "most" dictionaries have. – Peter Shor Apr 28 '16 at 15:16
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    @PellMel: My (two-syllable) history certainly doesn't rhyme with story. But it doesn't normally even have a schwa, so I agree your general point that OP is making too much of pronunciations as given in dictionaries. For words like this there's a lot of scope for "regional and personal variation". – FumbleFingers Apr 28 '16 at 15:33
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I believe the rule these dictionaries are following is to put the /r/ with the /ə/ if the next syllable is completely unstressed. At least, this accounts for all of your examples.

I don't know whether this rule is justified by any linguistic studies. (It doesn't hold for me. I pronounce marine and serene as /mə'rin/ and /sər'in/, so they don't even quite rhyme.)

  • For me, I think apart from the initial consonant, marine / serene is another one of those pairings like prints / prince, where although I might like to think I'm saying them differently, if a linguist got down and dirty with an oscilloscope he'd prove conclusively that I'm just imagining things (being influenced by orthography rather than the actual mechanics of articulation). – FumbleFingers Apr 28 '16 at 15:38
  • I don't think this would account for "history." In the morphologically similar words "unity" and "serenity," the "t"s are flapped, which I think only occurs before fully unstressed syllables. – sumelic Apr 28 '16 at 16:00
  • @FumbleFingers: on the other hand, I suspect you pronounce cheetah and cheater the same. For me, the difference between marine and serene is the difference between cheetah and cheater. – Peter Shor Apr 29 '16 at 10:38
  • I'm not quite Jonathon Woss, but you're right to suspect I'm pretty sparing with my r's. Even flaw and floor are normally homophones to me, so the chances of me enunciating an /r/ after a schwa at the end of a word are pretty much zero. I can in principle differentiate flaw/floor with unnatural / exaggerated enunciation of the /w/, but since I'm not-rhotic and can't "roll" my r's, all I could do with cheetah/cheater would be to "extend" the schwa for the latter, and hope my audience knew what that meant! :) – FumbleFingers Apr 29 '16 at 12:59
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You need to distinguish between the phonemic form /hɪs tə ri/ (or perhaps /hɪs to ri/) and the phonetic form [ˈhɪs tər i]. The phonemic form is the basis for stress assignment, and the fact that the medial syllable is phonemically open is one factor that allows it to remain unstressed. Since it remains unstressed phonetically, the [r] is pushed out of the final unstressed syllable, so that the [r] winds up at the end of an unstressed syllable.

For the most familiar dialects of American English, it is easy to tell that phonetically, the [r] is at the end of a syllable rather than at the beginning, since syllable onset r is rounded, but syllable offset r is unrounded.

Personally, I pronounce the [ər] as unrounded unstressed syllabic r.

Your examples accelerate and memorize are quite different, since their last syllables have a secondary stress.

  • I think this explanation would be more likely to be correct if the question was about transcriptions in linguistics papers rather than in general-use dictionaries. Dictionary transcriptions generally indicate stress explicitly, so I somewhat doubt their syllable divisions are meant to represent the abstract syllabic structure before stress assignment. – sumelic Apr 28 '16 at 16:29
  • What an odd thing to say, @sumelic. I'm trying to explain the pronunciation, not what dictionaries say. I take the question to be about pronunciation, not about transcription. – Greg Lee Apr 28 '16 at 17:03
  • Ah, you're right. For some reason I read the question as "why do dictionaries use this transcription" but that's not actually the main point. – sumelic Apr 28 '16 at 17:19

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