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I'm a bit confused by these words. Since "nonsense" derives from "sense" but the vowel in "sense" is /ɛ/ and it reduces to /ə/ in "nonsense". BUT "nonsensical" derives from "nonsense" and the vowel in it is the same as "sense". Please explain.

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    It doesn't always reduce in nonsense, for example in most of the US, if not all.
    – phoog
    Sep 7, 2020 at 21:36
  • I've added 'British English' tag to your question because most (if not all) Americans don't have a schwa in 'nonsense'.
    – Void
    Sep 8, 2020 at 4:13
  • I think that in AmE, "nonsince" is more common than "nonsunce". Sep 8, 2020 at 4:27

1 Answer 1

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This is because of weird stress patterns of English. The stress patterns of English are very complex.

Sense is a monosyllabic (one-syllable) word and is stressed, so the vowel is pronounced /ɛ/ and does not get reduced to a weak vowel (schwa).

However, when you prepend the prefix non to sense, the primary stress moves from the second syllable of 'nonsense (i.e. 'sense') to the first syllable 'non' because it's a disyllabic noun and disyllabic nouns are almost always stressed on the first syllable. Therefore, the vowel in the second syllable gets reduced to a schwa /ə/ (vowels in unstressed syllables often get reduced to schwa). Therefore, 'nonsense' is pronounced ['nɒnsəns].*

On the other hand, 'nonsensical' is pronounced [nɒn'sɛnsɪkl̩]. The vowel in the second syllable doesn't get reduced to /ə/ because it is stressed now. Like most adjectives that end with -ical, 'nonsensical' is stressed on the antepenult (third-last syllable). Therefore, the vowel in its second syllable doesn't get reduced to /ə/.

(*This case is more complicated but I'm not going to explain it further because it will confuse you.)

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    Good answer. Usually when we add a non- prefix to a monosyllable, though, the stress is on the second syllable. I think the key thing about "nonsense" is that the "non-" is no longer perceived as a prefix. "Nonsense" has become a full word in its own right (and not merely the opposite of "sense") and is never hyphenated. (Still, in AmE, the "e" is sometimes fully pronounced: dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/nonsense ).
    – rjpond
    Sep 7, 2020 at 18:59
  • @rjpond: OR because 'nonsense' is a noun and like most other disyllabic nouns, it's stressed on the first syllable. :) There's more to this than meets the eye.
    – Void
    Sep 7, 2020 at 19:01
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    Is this a BrE thing? All three seem to have the same vowel in AmE.
    – StephenS
    Sep 7, 2020 at 22:10
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    @StephenS Seems to be. We Brits certainly put a schwa in nonsense. Sep 7, 2020 at 23:19

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