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A question from my student:

I'm rather confused how many syllables in the words with suffix -ian? Some words like 'e-lec-tri-cian, mu-si-cian, A-sian' have only one syllable while ' veg-e-tar-i-an, co-me-di-an, his-to-ri-an' have two. Is there any rule for this or just memorize them?

In her examples, the first set is stressed on the second-to-last syllable, the second set on the third-to-last. But how can we know the difference?

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  • Perhaps they need to look the words up in dictionaries. One pattern I can observe (while reading this question) is that the last syllable seems to always be either /shən/ or /zhən/ in your first group. Feb 12, 2014 at 16:22

2 Answers 2

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I would say a good rule of thumb is to look at the base form of the word.

If the base form of the word ends in a "y," then a noun form ending in "-ian" will generally be pronounced as two syllables. Intuitively, these words have a hard time losing that "ee" sound. For example:

  • comedy => comedian
  • custody => custodian
  • history => historian
  • library => librarian
  • ovary => ovarian

If the base form of the word ends in a "c" or "g" (velar stops), then that originally hard "k" or "g" sound becomes "sh" or "j" respectively in front of the front vowel "i" of "-ian" and is pronounced as a single syllable (a form of elision). A similar transformation can happen for words that already end in "s" or "sh" sounds. For example:

  • clinic => clinician
  • cosmetic => cosmetician
  • magic => magician
  • theology => theologian
  • Venice => Venetian

If the base form ends in most other consonants or vowels other than "y", then the "-ian" ending cannot be elided with the final consonant/vowel into a single syllable, and thus is pronounced as two syllables. In the case of final vowels, an infix "-n-" is generally used to separate the final vowel from the "-ian" ending. For example:

  • guard => guardian
  • pluto => plutonian

Finally, examples like "Asian" are in fact a slightly different construct, wherein the suffix "-n" is used to make an adjective. Words that would be confusing in this regard because they end in "-ian" include:

  • Asia => Asian [one-syllable "-ian"]
  • mammal => mammalian [two-syllable "-ian"] (here the root is really the Latin "mammalia" which is the term used for the Class of mammals)
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    good answer but theology -> theologian goes in the first set as it ends in y Feb 13, 2014 at 1:04
  • I should have elaborated. "Theology" represents an exception to the "-y" rule of thumb, but belongs in this second group of examples because the "-ian" suffix is pronounced as one syllable.
    – semperos
    Feb 13, 2014 at 2:26
  • that is incorrect, theologian is pronounced with with two syllables. Feb 13, 2014 at 16:26
  • That is not correct. Theologian is pronounced /θiəˈloʊdʒən/, syllables broken down to the-o-lo-gian. As a native speaker I can confirm this, and you can refer to the Wiktionary entry for theologian as confirmation.
    – semperos
    Feb 13, 2014 at 16:37
  • as a fellow native speaker, i have to disagree with both you and your wiki Feb 13, 2014 at 18:12
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A rather reliable rule of thumb is as follows, although there are always exceptions.

The letters -(i)an in these endings are pronounced as -/ən/, so as one syllable:

-sian
-cian
-tian
-gian

So it depends on the letter that comes before -ian. Other -ian endings are pronounced as -/ɪən/ (two syllables) or -/jən/: the difference between these two pronunciations is often hard to hear.

Another way to put it is as follows. If the sound of the preceding consonant changes because of the -i-, that means -ian should be pronounced in a way where you can't hear -i- as a separate sound. So if -s- is pronounced as /ʒ/ rather than /s/ or /z/, -sian is pronounced as -/ʒən/. The same applies if -c- is pronounced as /ʃ/ rather than /s/ (→ -/ʃən/), or if -t- is pronounced as /ʃ/ rather than /t/ (→ -/ʃən/). This does not apply to -g-, though.

The same rule usually applies to -ion, -ial, -ious, and similar suffixes with -i-[vowel]-, mutatis mutandis.


Legend for the International Phonetic Alphabet:

  • ʃ = sh as in English sheep
  • ʒ = j as in French jeu, and -si- as in English Asian
  • ə = a as in English an, and e as in the (the sound is called schwa)
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    So the difference is really between words where the elision of –i- is optional (like historian) and those where it’s required (like magician). The learner would need to focus on how the final consonant in the base changes – being unsure about this means he or she will likely fall back on the reading pronounciation (–ian as two syllables). Thanks!
    – neubau
    Feb 16, 2014 at 12:46

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