The Grammarphobia Blog

Syllables gone missing

Q: I just heard a BBC interviewer pronounce “medicine” as MED-sin. I’m pretty sure that Doc Martin attended MED-i-cal school, so why do the British drop the vowel “i” when speaking of pharmaceuticals?

A: The pronunciation of “medicine” as MED-sin is standard in British speech. It’s part of a larger phenomenon that we wrote about in 2012, the tendency of British speakers to drop syllables in certain words.

What’s dropped is a weak or unstressed next-to-last syllable in a word of three syllables or more. So in standard British English, “medicine” is pronounced as MED-sin, “necessary” as NESS-a-sree, “territory” as TARE-eh-tree, and so on.

The dropped syllable or vowel sound is either unstressed (like the first “i” in “medicine”) or has only a weak, secondary stress (like the “a” in “necessary”).

This syllable dropping apparently began in 18th- and 19th-century British speech, and today these pronunciations are standard in Britain. You can hear this by listening to the pronunciations of “medicine,” “secretary,” “oratory,” and “cemetery” in the online Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (click the red icon for British, blue for American).

We know roughly when such syllable-dropping began because, as we wrote in our book Origins of the Specious, lexicographers of the time commented on it.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that dictionaries—like those by William Kenrick (1773), Thomas Sheridan (1780), and John Walker (1791)—began marking secondary stresses within words, and providing pronunciations for each syllable.

Sheridan in particular made a point of this, lamenting what he saw as a general “negligence” with regard to the pronunciation of weakly stressed syllables.

“This fault is so general,” Sheridan wrote, “that I would recommend it to all who are affected by it, to pronounce the unaccented syllables more fully than is necessary, till they are cured of it.” (A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, 1780.)

Despite such advice, syllable dropping continued, and these abbreviated pronunciations became more widely accepted throughout the 1800s. By 1917, the British phonetician Daniel Jones had recognized some of these pronunciations as standard.

In An English Pronouncing Dictionary, Jones omitted the next-to-last syllable in some words (“medicine,” “secretary,” “cemetery”) while marking it as optional in others (“military,” “necessary,” “oratory”). As the century progressed, later and much-revised editions of Jones’s dictionary omitted more of those syllables.

As Jones originally wrote, his aim was to describe what was heard in the great English boarding schools, the accent he called “PSP” (for “Public School Pronunciation”). In the third edition of his dictionary (1926), he revived the older, 19th-century term “Received Pronunciation” and abbreviated it to “RP” (here “received” meant “socially accepted”).

Americans, meanwhile, continued to pronounce those syllables.

In The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1993), Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write that while British speech lost the subordinate stress in words ending in “-ary,” “-ery,” and “-ory,” this stress “is regularly retained in American English.”

As examples of American pronunciation, the authors cite “mónastèry, sécretàry, térritòry, and the like,” using an acute accent (´) for the primary stress and a grave accent (`) for the secondary stress.

Similarly, The Handbook of English Pronunciation (2015), edited by Marnie Reed and John M. Levis, says that in words “such as secretary, military, preparatory, or mandatory,” the next-to-last vowel sound “is usually deleted or reduced in Britain but preserved in North America.”

The book adds that North American speech also retains unstressed vowels in the word “medicine,” in the names of berries (“blackberry,” “raspberry,” “strawberry,” etc.), in place names like “Birmingham” and “Manchester,” and in names beginning with “Saint.”

However, not every unstressed next-to-last syllable is dropped in standard British pronunciation. The one in “medicine” is dropped, but the British TV character Doc Martin would pronounce the syllable in “medical,” as you point out.

And the word “library” can go either way. As Pyles and Algeo write, “library” is “sometimes reduced” to two syllables in British speech (LYE-bree), though in “other such words” the secondary stress can be heard. Why is this?

In The Handbook of English Pronunciation, Reed and Levis write that some variations in speech are simply “idiosyncratic.” They discuss “secretary,” “medicine,” “raspberry,” and the others in a section on “words whose pronunciation varies in phonologically irregular ways.”

However you view it—“idiosyncratic” or “phonologically irregular”—this syllable-dropping trend is not irreversible. As Pyles and Algeo note, “Some well-educated younger-generation British speakers have it [the secondary stress] in sécretàry and extraórdinàry.”

There’s some evidence for this. A 1998 survey of British speakers found that those under 26 showed “a sudden surge in preference for a strong vowel” in the “-ary” ending of “necessary,” “ordinary,” and “February.” (“British English Pronunciation Preferences: A Changing Scene,” by J. C. Wells, published in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association, June 1999.)

So has American pronunciation influenced younger British speakers? Not likely, in the opinion of Pyles and Algeo: “A restoration of the secondary stress in British English, at least in some words, is more likely due to spelling consciousness than to any transatlantic influence.”

And Wells seems to agree: “English spelling being what it is,” he writes, “one constant pressure on pronunciation is the influence of the orthography. A pronunciation that is perceived as not corresponding to the spelling is liable to be replaced by one that does.”

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