Is there any etymological reason for this? Normally, an o in a stressed syllable followed by /n/ and a vowel would be pronounced /oʊ/. And phoneme is pronounced /ˈfoʊnim/. Why does the pronunciation of phonics change? Are there any other words in which this happens systematically?

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    Because it's "fawn-ics", not "foe-nics". Your basic open/closed syllable rule.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 11:51
  • So we need an analyze the syllables ... phon-ics, closed syllable; pho-neme, open syllable. But why do we rule out pho-nics? blog.allaboutlearningpress.com/open-and-closed-syllables
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 12:08
  • I find that the Collins English Dictionary lists only one pronunciation for British English, but both pronunciations for American English. collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/phonics
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 12:15
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    @HotLicks yes, exactly my question is really why the syllable separation is not pho-nics (and therefore why is it not pronounced /ˈfoʊnɪks/) ? Normally any word like that one with ...vowel + n + vowel... you would split the syllables in ...vowel | n + vowel... ??
    – Damaru
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 15:52
  • @GEdgar Nice to see that /ˈfoʊnɪks/ is accepted in some dictionaries for AmE, however any ideas why it is almost always used the other form? or equivalently, according to the previous comment, why is the vowel separation not pho-nics ?
    – Damaru
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 15:54

1 Answer 1


It's not related to etymology: the short vowel is because of the presence of the suffix -ic, as you say in the comments.

Even when O is in a stressed syllable and followed by a single consonant letter and a vowel letter, it isn't certain that it will be pronounced as /oʊ/ instead of as /ɑ/. Various words have a "short vowel" even when only a single consonant letter follows: e.g. astonish, solid, deposit, and many words where there is more than one syllable after the stressed syllable: economy, monument, solitary, operate, etc.

There are a number of other -ic words that show a short vowel: microscopic, hydrophilic, osmotic, static, monotonic, isotopic. But unfortunately, this pattern is not consistent, so you can't be certain that an unfamiliar -ic word will be pronounced with a short vowel. I asked a question a while back about -ic words with a long vowel (like basic and psychic) and there seem to be at least a hundred of them. A number of -ic words have multiple pronunciations, one with a short vowel and one with a long vowel, as indicated in the Collins American English entry for phonics that GEDgar found.

There are similar patterns associated with other suffixes. For example, verbs ending in -ish and adjectives ending in -id tend to have short vowels in their stressed syllables (it is sometimes noted that -ic, -ish and -id all are spelled with the letter I). In contrast, adjectives ending in -al tend to have long vowels when the second-to-last syllable is stressed (e.g. final, nasal, oval).

  • I know you're never going to change, but I continue to feel that all these fake phonemes are misleading. It simply isn't true that you get a "short" vowel because of -ic, at least if you've defined that to mean /ɑ/. In catalogic you get open /ɔ/ not close /o/. And because there is no minimal pair between /o/ and /oʊ/ in English, /oʊ/ is not an English phoneme so should not be presented as one. Similarly each time something is mentioned that involves any of [ɑ~ɒ~ɔ] it’s going to be wrong for the majority, who are rhotic and thus have no minimal pairs for the triplet.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 21:10
  • @tchrist: Oh, you have /ɔ/ in catalogic? That's interesting, but I'm pretty sure that's because of influence from the vowel in the unsuffixed form catalog (and that in turn might be influenced by the monosyllable log, although I'm not sure about that last part). So it would be another exception, like basic. I don't think the difference between the transcriptions /oʊ/ and /o/ is important: they refer to the same phoneme, and as for confusion, many people are going to be confused by any kind of transcription.
    – herisson
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 21:15
  • Right, like from dogmatic. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 21:18
  • @tchrist: My impression is that the use of /ɔ/ instead of /ɑ/ is regularly conditioned before a /g/ (or /l/) that comes at the end of a word or before another consonant, but not regular when the consonant is followed by a vowel. Monogamy, interrogative, mahogany have /ɑg/ not /ɔg/, right? Another counterexample to my hypothesis is logarithm, which a lot of people seem to pronounce with /ɔg/, but here also I think influence from single-syllable log seems plausible.
    – herisson
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 21:28
  • In general, the distribution of /ɑ/, /ɔ/, /ɒ/ is complicated enough that I don't like to get into it unless the question is specifically about it. I used /ɑ/ and /oʊ/ in my transcriptions here to match the conventions used in the question.
    – herisson
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 21:28

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