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I'm doing a small research on English phonics rules and I'm trying to clarify the influence of inflections in word forms.

It's best to explain my problem with some examples.

The letter 'a' in the word "face" is pronounced as /eɪ/ (/feɪs/) as it's in an open stressed syllable. What's important in this example is that the silent 'e' at the end of the word "opens" the syllable.

Let's take the plural form of the same word: "faces." The pronunciation of the letter 'a' is the same: /eɪ/. However, looking at the IPA (/ feɪsˑɪz/), we see that the 'e' is not silent any more, moreover, it belongs to another syllable. So, technically, the letter 'a' is not in an open syllable anymore and should be pronounced as the /æ/ sound.

Let's make the past simple tense form of the same word: "faced." The pronunciation of the letter 'a' is the same: /feɪst/. However, this syllable does not look like an open one, since the silent 'e' is not word-final anymore.

I think I understand what happens with the phonics rule here, but I'm struggling with finding reasonable and linguistically correct explanation.

So, my assumptions are:

  1. Inflections don't influence the pronunciation of sounds in the roots of words, despite the possible changes of the syllable type.
  2. The letter 'e' keeps its "syllable-opening" function even if it's not silent and word-final in the word forms.

Unfortunately, I can't find reliable sources to support or contradict my assumptions.

Any help will be much appreciated!

  • I like your analysis. Let's go with that. – Yosef Baskin May 17 '17 at 15:53
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    No. 1) The monosyllables face and faced are closed by the consonant /s/ and the cluster /st/, respectively. The orthographic 'silent e' doesn't "open" the syllable, it merely marks the preceding vowel as 'long' (that is, /eɪ/ rather than /æ/). 2) Adding the inflection -s to face does "open" the first syllable by 'stealing' the closing consonant /s/ from the previous syllable as its own onset, thus: /feɪ·sɪz/. – StoneyB May 17 '17 at 16:13
  • There are several faulty assumptions here. The first is that letters are pronounced in any particular way according to what kind of syllable they’re in. Letters aren’t pronounced at all—they’re just written approximations of phonemes in the language. /a/ and /eɪ/ are different phonemes, and the fact that both often happen to be represented by ⟨a⟩ is irrelevant. As @Stoney says, all the words you’re talking about here except faces has only closed syllables. Compare bass (guitar) /beɪs/ and (sea) bass /bas/. Those two are even written the same—and they’re also both closed syllables. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 17 '17 at 16:42
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The concept of "open syllable" that is relevant to pronouncing "a" as /eɪ/ is not the same as the concept of "open syllable" that is related to IPA transcriptions. You're mixing up two distinct types of analysis.

The basic idea of an "open" syllable is a syllable that ends in a vowel. Since syllabification rules for modern English pronunciation are somewhat controversial, it can sometimes be difficult to tell if a syllable is "open" in modern English pronunciation. However, as StoneyB and Janus Bahs Jacquet say in the comments, this is not the case with the words face and faced. These are unambiguously closed syllables in modern English.

But the thing that's relevant for the pronuciation of a written single vowel letter as "long" (e.g. "a" as /eɪ/) is actually whether it was in an open syllable in older forms of English (roughly speaking).

For example, we can explain the pronunciation of the word "name" something like this:

  • in Middle English, the final e was pronounced (as a schwa sound), not silent
  • this means it was two syllables: na-me
  • This means the first syllable, "na", was "open" (it ended in a vowel, not a consonant)
  • So the vowel in the first syllable was lengthened
  • "a" that was lengthened in Middle English corresponds to modern English /eɪ/

This explanation is more or less true for the word "name". Some other words are spelled with silent "e" for non-historical reasons, just to mark the length of the vowel. (For example, the word wife, which was a closed syllable in Old English: wīf.) But you can pretend that they are explained the same way if you just want a rule to use to help get the modern English pronunciation.

As I said, it's important to keep in mind that syllables that were "open" in Middle English (or that we can pretend were open in Middle English) are not the same as syllables that are open in Modern English! There were a number of sound changes that occured between these, like the loss of word-final schwa sounds and the simplification of double consonant sounds. So for the purposes of determining if a letter "a" represents the "long a" sound /eɪ/ or the "short a" sound /æ/, it doesn't work to look the syllable structure in modern English. You have to see if the syllable is, not phonologically open, but what we could call "orthographically open".

To determine if the "a" in "faces" and "faced" is in an "orthographically open" syllable, you can't use IPA transcriptions. Instead, use the rule that a single consonant letter representing a single consonant sound (so, excluding tt and x, for example) should be grouped with the written syllable to its right.

Divide up the words like this: fa-ces, fa-ced. The written syllable "fa" ends in a vowel, so it is "orthographically open" and the "a" is expected to be long. The same rule applies to words like baker, navel, taken. Unsurprisingly, there are exceptions even when you apply the rule like this: e.g. gavel, water, father, panic. The rule assigning "long" pronunciations to vowel letters in orthographically open syllables is just one part of the complicated English spelling system.

As you've said, it is not regular for the inflectional suffixes -(e)s, -ed to change the length of a vowel in an English word, so that is another rule you could use. (For -(e)s, there are a few exceptions like do-does, say-says, staff-staves.) Actually, in many cases this rule gives the same result as the previous rule, because of the system of doubling consonant letters after vowel letters representing "short" stressed vowels in inflected forms. (E.g. the word knit has a "short i" in an "orthographically closed" syllable, and in the inflected forms the "short i" remains in an "orthographically closed" syllable due to the double-consonant rule: knit-ted, knit-ting.)

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