Circumstances – Circumstnses

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.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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7 Responses to Circumstances – Circumstnses

  1. boynamedsue says:

    I’ve heard it various times, but I think younger RPers are abandonning it. It might be a word that gained greater currency through translations from French in the 19th century, and so picked up some of the French pronunciation?

    An RP speaker saying “France” with a short “a” may actually have been raised by RP upper-middle class parents in a very non-RP area. It’s rare today, but 40 years ago people with that background used to have “RP+” accents which used eccentric local prons for individual words while retaining RP vowels in general. They were generally the children of doctors, vicars and occasionally engineers or politicians.

  2. garicgymro says:

    Re France: Bear in mind that the pronunciation /frans/ (as opposed to /frɑns/) is associated strongly with the North of England. RP speakers from the north may retain this feature out of solidarity with their northern brethren.

  3. dw says:

    I would regard both TRAP and schwa pronunciations as normal RP, and the broad A as non-RP Southern English, but that could just be my personal bias (I generally have broad-A in BATH words).

    In “circumstantial”, where the vowel has primary stress, I would definitely prefer TRAP.

    In my accent the following doesn’t rhyme:

    In the fell clutch of circumstance

    I have not winced nor cried aloud.

    Under the bludgeonings of chance

    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    (I would have broad A in “chance”).

  4. dw says:

    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.

    I have broad A in “stance” but not in “circumstance”. My sense is that this is a pretty common RP pattern these days. Broad A is generally less common in longer words — consider “ancestor”, “finance”, “ransom”, and “romance”, all with the TRAP vowel.

    [B]ut 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).

    I have broad A in all of those.

  5. Peter S. says:

    Didn’t Gilbert and Sullivan rhyme chances, recognizances, trances, dances, circumstances, and romances in The Mikado? Of course, it’s possible that those words didn’t all rhyme back then, and they just included some of them to be funny.

  6. AndyJ says:

    I’ve always thought the use of the short “a” by just about everyone (who’s not RP) from South East England in this word and in the word “transport” to be a perfect example of why the study of English dialects/accents is so endlessly interesting.
    Then theres the use of the long “a” in ‘plaster’ and ‘master’ in certain areas of Northern England – but that’s another story…