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When I was younger, I think I always heard the "u" in "menstruation" as a distinct syllable with long "u". But these days the "u" is pronounced with very little stress (like a schwa) or omitted entirely, like "menstration".

When I first started hearing this, I think it was mainly from people with a southern accent, which I think frequently drops or reduces unstressed syllables. But I noticed this a few days ago when a radio host was interviewing a medical professional, they both hardly pronounced the "u". And today I heard an interview with author Judy Blume on Fresh Air; host Terry Gross said "menstruation", the author said "menstration".

Is this an actual trend taking place, or has it always been that way and I just didn't notice it? Maybe the topic wasn't discussed as much on radio and TV, so I didn't hear the word too often. (It frequently gets mentioned lately in the context of book banning in schools, because books referring to menstruation are among the books being objected to -- Blume's Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret is among them.)

I can understand why this happens: pronouncing two vowels in a row is difficult for the mouth. And I checked some online dictionaries, they list both pronunciations. What seems to have changed over time is the preference for the pronunciation with the elided "u".

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4 Answers 4

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I found an example that dates back to 1948 and some evidence that the pronunciation is decades old.

Both pronunciations appear to be dictionary-standard today. The Oxford English Dictionary records two variations for menstruation in the US: /ˌmɛnstrəˈweɪʃən/ and /ˌmɛnˈstreɪʃən/. Merriam-Webster also records two pronunciations: men(t)-strü-ˈwā-shən and men-ˈstrā-shən. Both document a variation with a /ə/ and a /w/ as well as a variation with only an /eɪ/ sound. So there is a substantial tendency for some American speakers to treat the [u] as a silent letter.

Is this recent? It's hard to say. The OED second edition (1989) lists only one standard pronunciation for the word: (ˌmɛnstruːˈeɪʃən), but that's likely due to changes in how the OED recorded pronunciations by region. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1980, p. 712, via Internet Archive) does list both pronunciations, suggesting what sounds new to you is decades old, but not suggesting when the pronunciation first became popular.

Misspelling can be a curious clue to how words are pronounced, and alphabet's ngram is suggestive of earlier usage. To go into the weeds a little, the database Readex: America's Historical Newspapers gives about 125 results for "menstration," about half of which are valid. (The other half are usually mis-scans of "demonstration.") I'll include a couple of examples:

Advertisement, Augusta Chronicle, 5 August 1882, p. 4:

enter image description here

Evans, W. A. "How to Keep Well," Patriot, 24 March 1914, p. 6: enter image description here

Note that "menstruation" had tens of thousands of results, so the occasional misspelling only shows the possibility that others could have heard and misspelled the word that way.

Finally, I tried looking for older film or TV clips about menstruation. Here is what I found with the pronunciation recorded. For convenience, I will label /ˌmɛnstrəˈweɪʃən/ as "audible [u]" and "/ˌmɛnˈstreɪʃən/" as "silent [u]":

1940s - "Most asked Questions about Periods in the 1940's," YouTube: audible [u] at about 0:39

1946 - "The Story of Menstruation," YouTube: silent [u] at about 0:59

1958 - "Mom Discusses Menstruation with Daughter," YouTube: audible [u] at about 0:36

1974 - "Linda's Film on Menstruation," YouTube: audible [u] at about 5:40

It may be that the silent [u] pronunciation has become more common, but it has existed at least since the 1940s, and maybe before.

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    Unfortunately, the spellings without u are less than decisive here, since they could so easily just be typos, accidentally leaving out the u. Indeed, the second example you show actually has a not-dissimilar typo in the very next line (them ost instead of the most). Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 1:24
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    You write “Misspelling can be a curious slue [sic] to how words are pronounced”, which nicely illustrates its own caveat — prevalence of a particular misspelling is certainly meaningful, but any individual one can just be a slip of the pen or fingers, and it takes a large overview to tell the difference. (Unless the “slue” was deliberate, in which case I ’m not at all clear what pronunciation of curious clue you’re suggesting.)
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 8:28
  • Philosophically, how do you differentiate between a "silent [u]" and a "silent [x]"? :)
    – pipe
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 9:11
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    Yeah, to be clear, I don't think the misspellings are better than suggestive, highlighting a possibility that the misspelling is due to pronunciation. See also mischievious. The recording is the more solid evidence. Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 11:49
  • Re misspellings: one would expect a certain probability distribution of misspellings, related to their cause. If the cause is random mistyping, that'd produce a uniform distribution of misspellinds, ie examples with other letters missing should also appear, with similar frequency.
    – Pablo H
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 15:39
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I wouldn't say it's "fading away". It's not a coherent phenomenon, you know, like the hiss of a steam engine. It's a particular pronunciation of a consonant cluster in one set of words by one speaker, which has no linear effect on the next pronunciation of the word by some other speaker, possibly in a different context. So there just isn't anything that can "fade away".

The real question is how often, and under what circumstances, /stru'we/ in /ˌmɛnstru'weʃṇ/ reduces to a /'strwe/ monosyllable, or all the way to /'stre/ with no labial component at all. Certainly 3-consonant clusters like /str/ tend to be difficult to pronounce with another consonant after them, and it tends to get lost, especially in rapid speech.

I can say, after many decades in which I heard and used the word frequently, that /ˌmɛnstru'weʃṇ/ -- the 4-syllable word -- was the serious way to pronounce it, common when addressing children, concurrent with information or warnings. Whereas the 3-syllable /ˌmɛn'streʃṇ/ is the common, ordinary way to refer to it. Short of a sociolinguistic survey, that's the best I can do.

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    @Lambie I feel like you are unnecessarily antagonizing some people here and I think leaving such things out of your comments or addressing them in a different way would really improve the quality of our discussions on here!
    – Zimano
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 14:14
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    How often do people talk to children about menstruation? I guess you're referring to explaining it to girls going through puberty? The distinction you really seem to be making is using it in a clinical/education context versus more casually.
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 14:42
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    @Lambie "John Lawler is a well-known linguist and professor" (which means he's not a random guy on the Internet; this is what he studies), and yet three minutes earlier, you write "random bunch of guys (the ones here) have all these claims regarding the pronunciation of this word and the frequency with which they use it." Shame on you.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 15:02
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    @Lambie well-known linguists and professors are in no way shape or form "random guys" on ELU.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 15:18
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    @Lambie Well, naturally, no one that has only ever read the word and never heard it pronounced would be very well positioned to leave an answer ... Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 2:37
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As Wiktionary notes, in American English "menstrual" and "menstruation" can be pronounced without the /u/, as /ˈmɛn.stɹəl/ and /ˌmɛnˈstɹeɪʃən/, respectively. I don't know of any evidence that this has changed in frequency over time. Wiktionary notes that this leads to the nonstandard spellings "menstrate" and "menstration," which don't seem to have changed in frequency over time, per Ngram Viewer, but the sample size is too low to draw any definitive conclusions.

English generally dislikes hiatus (adjacent vowel sounds not separated by a consonant) as well as the placement of unreduced vowels in unstressed syllables; these likely account for the deletion of /u/.

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Here is a pronunciation of "menstruation" (US, which preserves stress): Cambridge.

The phonetic transcription, /ˌmen.struˈeɪ.ʃən/, which is LPD's although LPD'/u/ might be defined slightly differently.

Here is Macmillan's pronunciation, which does not respect traditional pronunciation (primary displaced); nevertheless the transcription is the same: /ˌmenstruˈeɪʃ(ə)n/.

The raised schwa means that it is not pronounced usually, and that the /n/ is syllabic. The parentheses in the latter transcription mean the same thing.

If we pay attention to the definition of /u/ found in LPD, things become clearer.

u: English neutralization of u:-ʊ

It is not a long u, as in "music" /'mju:z ik/. this means that the colon is not a mere sign of lengthening: it entails a change of quality.

This is the sound commonly found in "thank you", for example. This neutralization is in fact often enough a blurring of a pure vowel; some sort of schwa is the result. This is not particular to "menstruation", as neither is the change in the syllable carrying primary stress, thus turning words with secondary and primary stress into single stress words where primary stress occurs on the syllable formerly carrying secondary stress.

Examples of stres on the first syllable and of neutralization of u:-ʊ: menstruation

Notwithstanding what the more general situation might be it is possible that what was heard was another pronunciation not to be associated with main stream ; the American pronunciation of menstruation recorded by LPD is in fact /men 'streiʃən/. The u is not pronounced at all. Even if the choice is not representative, it shows that there are wide variations.

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    Since when isn't music /ˈmjuzɪk/ [ˈmjuzək]?
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 15:49
  • @tchrist Right, the vowel is "true" short i. It seems to me that ə as in "stupid" for instance, is not main stream in AmE, although I've heard quite a few times.
    – LPH
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 16:26
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    @LPH: I think tchrist is talking about the yodh: /ˈmjuzɪk/, and not /ˈmuzɪk/. We Americans drop a lot of yodhs, but not the ones after /m/. Both pronunciations of the weak vowel in the second syllable are perfectly acceptable. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 16:59
  • @PeterShor Jod too! I didn't even notice it when making the change.
    – LPH
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 17:11

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