Forgive the trivial nature of today’s post, but I’m curious about a minute detail of British pronunciation. That would be the word ‘circumstance.’ To clarify, when I say ‘British pronunciation’ here, I’m referring to the word’s pronunciation in British RP and related accents (I realized how reductionist that is).
The first pronunciation of ‘circumstance,’ listed in a number of dictionaries (Collins, for example), feature the schwa: [ˈsɜːkəmstəns]. For the non-IPA-literate, this means that the word is almost pronounced as ‘circumstns,’ with not much of a defined vowel in ‘-stance.’
However, another pronunciation seems more common. That would be ‘circumstance’ with the ‘short-a’ sound in ‘man.’ (Prime ministers John Major and David Cameron have both said it this way in interviews.) As you might surmise, this is similar to the American pronunciation of the word, minus the /r/ in ‘cir-.’ It can sound a bit strange at first hearing, as you might expect that the last syllable in ‘circumstance’ would rhyme with British RP ‘dance,’ and be pronounced with the ‘broad a’ (that is, the ‘ah’ sound in ‘father’).
Indeed, the ‘broad a’ type of ‘circumstance’ is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, which has [ˈsɜːkəmstɑːns] as one of three British variants (I’ve listed the other two above). And yet I’ve never heard this ‘circumstance,’ which leads me to suspect it’s somewhat less common.
Why so many pronunciations of one word? Since the last syllable is the issue here, let’s look at it in isolation. Skirting questions of etymology for a moment, the word ‘stance’ seems to share the same pattern of pronunciation variability as ‘circumstance:’ according to the OED, it is pronounced with either a short-a or a broad-a in British English.
But all other monosyllabic ‘-ance’ words are much more consistently pronounced with a ‘broad a,’ at least according to the OED: lance, prance, chance, dance, France*, and glance are all pronounced with the ‘ah’ in ‘father’ (by those who have the complete TRAP-BATH split). What makes ‘stance’ unique?
And indeed, why is ‘circumstance’ such an odd duck? Off the top of my head, this is one of the only words I can think of that has three distinct pronunciations within British RP and related accents. Why?
*I may be wrong, but I seem to recall hearing at least one RP speaker say ‘France’ with a short-a. Although place names always strike me as being a bit variable.