Trisyllabic laxing

Middle English Modern English Old English

Trisyllabic laxing, or trisyllabic shortening, is any of three processes in English in which tense vowels (long vowels or diphthongs) become lax (short monophthongs) if they are followed by two or more syllables, at least the first of which is unstressed:

  1. The earliest occurrence of trisyllabic laxing occurred in late Old English and caused stressed long vowels to become shortened before clusters of two consonants when two or more syllables followed.
  2. Later in Middle English, the process was expanded to all vowels when two or more syllables followed.
  3. The Middle English sound change remained in the language and is still a mostly-productive process in Modern English, detailed in Chomsky and Halle's The Sound Pattern of English.

The Middle English sound change occurred before the Great Vowel Shift and other changes to the nature of vowels. As a result of the changes, the pairs of vowels related by trisyllabic laxing often bear little resemblance to one another in Modern English; however, originally they always bore a consistent relationship. For example, tense /aʊ/ was [uː], and lax /ʌ/ was [u] at the time of trisyllabic laxing.

In some cases, trisyllabic laxing appears to take place when it should not have done so: for example, in "south" /ˈsθ/ vs. "southern" /ˈsʌðərn/. In such cases, the apparent anomaly is caused by later sound changes: "southern" (formerly southerne) was pronounced /suːðernə/ when trisyllabic laxing applied.

The pattern of laxing occurs in basic monosyllabic vocabulary, which presumably helps keep it active across generations. For example, the /iː//ɛ/ shift occurs in the past-tense forms of basic verbs such as feel, keep, kneel, mean, sleep, sweep, weep and – without a suffix -t – in feed, read, lead. Other shifts occur in hidehid, bitebit, loselost, shootshot, gogone, etc.

In the modern English language, there are systematic exceptions to the process, such as in words ending in -ness: "mindfulness, loneliness". There are also occasional, non-systematic exceptions such as "obese, obesity" (/ˈbsɪti/, not */ˈbɛsɪti/), although in this case the former was back-formed from the latter in the 19th century.

Change in
Middle English
Example IPA
ɛ eː → e
ɛː → e
serene, serenity;

impede, impediment

/sᵻˈrn, sᵻˈrɛnᵻti/;

/ɪmˈpd, ɪmˈpɛdᵻmənt/

æ aː → a profane, profanity;

grateful, gratitude

/proʊˈfn, proʊˈfænᵻti/

/ˈɡrtfəl, ˈɡrætᵻtjuːd/

ɪ iː → i divine, divinity;

derive, derivative

/dᵻˈvn, dᵻˈvɪnᵻti/;

/dᵻˈrv, dᵻˈrɪvətᵻv/

ʌ uː → u profound, profundity;

pronounce, pronunciation;

/proʊˈfnd, proʊˈfʌndᵻti/;

/proʊˈnns, proʊˌnʌnsiˈeɪʃən/

ɒ oː → o (No longer part of the active vowel system of English)[1]
ɒ ɔː → o provoke, provocative;

sole, solitude

/proʊˈvk, proʊˈvɒk.ə.tɪv/;

/ˈsl, ˈsɒlᵻtjuːd/

Disyllabic laxing

As noted in the example of 'southern' above, there is in English a less regular phenomenon of disyllabic laxing, much of which dates to the period of Middle English. Examples include:

athleteathletic /ˈæθlt, æθˈlɛtɪk/
palepallid /ˈpl, ˈpælɪd/
dividedivision /dɪˈvd, dɪˈvɪʒən/
oututter t, ˈʌtər/
foolfolly /ˈfl, ˈfɒli/
deposedeposit /dᵻˈpz, dᵻˈpɒzɪt/

Some Latinate words, such as Saturn, have short vowels where from syllable structure one would expect a long vowel. Other cases differentiate British and American English, with more frequent disyllabic laxing in American English – compare RP and GA pronunciations of era, patent, primer (book), progress (noun) and lever, though there are exceptions such as leisure, yogurt, produce (noun), Tethys and zebra that have a short vowel in RP. On the other hand, American English is less likely to have trisyllabic laxing, for example in words such as privacy, dynasty, patronize and vitamin. Much of this irregularity is due to morphological leveling.


  1. ^ April McMahon (2000) Lexical Phonology and the History of English, p. 112