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The pronunciation of words which begins 'con' and 'com'

English Language & Usage Asked on January 3, 2022

I know there is no strict rule on pronunciation of words in English but here my question is about the words which begin with ‘con’ and ‘com’, more than asking general rule.

When I look at the words begin with ‘con’ and ‘com’, I see mostly two patterns : One of them is schwa /ə/ sound and the other one is /o/ or /ɒ/ sound.But the second pronunciation can be pronounced slightly differently depending on dialect.

An example word for the first pronunciation is the word computer whose pronunciation is represented /kəmˈpjuː.tər/ in Cambridge Online Dictionaries.

An example for the second type of pronunciation for "co" could be the word contrast whose pronunciation is represented /ˈkɒn.trɑːst/ in Cambridge Online Dictionaries.

So my question is there any rule/pattern which can help us guess how to pronounce these words correctly?

I am not asking about the words like cool, come or coke. My question is about words like contract, combination, continue, combat.

3 Answers

A useful guide is that /o/ sound tends to occur when the syllable is stressed and the schwa /ə/ sound is usually when the syllable is unstressed.

For example,

cóntrast and contrást

cóntrary and contráry

cómbat and combátant

cómbine harvester and combíne

Answered by Dan on January 3, 2022

According to SPE -- The Sound Pattern of English (which I think is right about this matter), when the primary stress is on the second syllable, a heavy first syllable gets a secondary stress, but a light first syllable remains stressless, except for Latinate prefixes (like "con-"), which remain stressless even though they are heavy.

By "heavy", I mean that a syllable has a tense vowel or ends in a consonant. (The SPE account does not make reference to syllables, but that's what it boils down to.)

So, e.g., "computer" has no stress on the first syllable, even though it's heavy ("com-" ends in a consonant) because "con-" is a Latinate prefix. Compare "pentagonal", with secondary stress on "pen". Or, also, "campaign", with secondary stress on "cam".

In the SPE analysis, whether primary stress will fall on the first syllable of a word, like your example "contrast" (noun), is a separate matter.

Answered by Greg Lee on January 3, 2022

A very reliable rule of thumb for British English and General American is this:

  • If the syllable con is stressed it will take a full strong, vowel, and the first syllable will be: /kɒn/.

  • If the syllable is not stressed we will find a schwa, /ə/, or no vowel at all in the first syllable: either /kn/ or /kən/.

However, we should bear in mind that some regional varieties of English will have a full vowel in the first syllable of many of these words regardless of stress. So in Yorkshire English, for example, many speakers will say /kɒnˈstɪtʃʊənt/.

This morpheme 'con' occurs a lot in English. That last sound in 'con', /n/, is very unstable both because it is an alveolar sound and also because it is nasal. It tends to change according to the following consonant. We find this prefix with different final consonants in words like: collect, commemorate, correlate. These types of word also show the same variation in their first syllables depending on the stress:

  • colleague: /ˈkɒli:g/
  • collection: /ˈlekʃn/
  • compensate: /'kɒmpənseɪt/
  • computer: /km'pju:tə/
  • correlate: /ˈkɒrəleɪt/
  • corroborate: /'rɒbəreɪt/

Both words collection and corroborate could be said with no schwa at all, and just a syllabic consonant - but the transcription for this is tricky in terms of syllabification, so I have taken the easy route and used a schwa. Similarly, computer could equally be said with a schwa instead of a syllabic /m/.

[Transcription note: in line with the Original Poster's question I have used Southern Standard British English transcriptions].

Answered by Araucaria - Not here any more. on January 3, 2022

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