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"Man" and "men" are different in pronunciation:
man [mæn]
men [men]

As are some other word pairs:
handyman [ˈhændimæn]
handymen [ˈhændimen]
bogeyman [ˈbəʊɡimæn]
bogeymen [ˈbəʊɡimen]
superman [ˈsuːpəmæn]
supermen [ˈsuːpəmen]
a more complete list:
adman, anchorman, apeman, bagman, batman, bogeyman, cameraman, caveman, chessman, conman, everyman, freedman, frontman, gasman, jazzman, handyman, he-man, hitman, iceman, lawman, legman, linkman, mailman, merman, middleman, motorman, newsman, newspaperman, oilman, packman, ragman, repairman, sandman, schoolman, snowman, spaceman, strawman, strongman, stuntman, superman, swagman, taxman, weatherman, wingman, wireman, yardman

But there are also a lot of other word pairs that are not different in pronunciation, for example:
salesman [ˈseɪlzmən]
salesmen [ˈseɪlzmən]
chairman [ˈtʃeəmən]
chairmen [ˈtʃeəmən]
spokesman [ˈspəʊksmən]
spokesmen [ˈspəʊksmən]

Why?
Isn't it convenient to use different pronunciation everywhere?

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  • 22
    I pronounce salesman/salesmen, chairman/chairmen, spokesman/spokesmen differently, especially if I am dictating. Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 10:04
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    Convenient for whom? And what has convenience to do with the unpredictable development of language?
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 21:12
  • 3
    Better still, avoid all of these gendered terms and use inclusive words instead. Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 4:32
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    Isn't the second list, particularly, ignoring accent, context and idiom. Sometimes those terms do sound alike and often, they don't. Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 14:10
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    @GregMartin: People still need to be able to pronounce words that they wouldn't use in their own original speech or writing; to quote others, for instance. If you want to talk about the Arthur Miller play you are going to see, you need to be able to pronounce "salesman". Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 15:21

4 Answers 4

22

Yes. That would be convenient.

But in English, unstressed vowels are often reduced to /ə/. So from a pronunciation point of view it is easier to say /ˈseɪlzmən/.

There are plenty of examples in your first list which could also be pronounced with /ə/, and it would be possible to say /ˈseɪlzmen/ if you wanted to emphasise the plural.

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  • 1) Do you mean it's possible to pronounce "handyman [ˈhændimən]" and "handymen [ˈhændimən]"? 2) Do you mean it's possible to pronounce "salesman [ˈseɪlzmæn]" and "salesmen [ˈseɪlzmen]"? Thanks.
    – Loviii
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 15:13
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    @Loviii I don't think anyone would pronounce "handyman" or "superman" with a schwa. Whether the last syllable is stressed depends on the preceding syllable.
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 15:17
  • Yes, I think that is at least in part because "handy man" is also valid. I'd be happy to hear "gasmən" and "salesmæn"
    – James K
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 17:00
  • @Barmar not all would sound natural with a schwa, but some certainly would (e.g. cameraman, repairman, snowman, stuntman). But I'm not sure it can simply be reduced to stress patterns, and [ˈhændimən] is sometimes heard in some British English (though not my accent)
    – Chris H
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 21:21
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    Standard complaint: all of this is approximation and modeling anyway. Not only does /ə/ not have to be [ə] (it could for example be [ʌ]), but [ə] and [ʌ] don't mean specific exact sound frequency spectra, any more than "green" and "red" mean specific exact light frequency spectra. (@dan04 my speech has this distinction, although I would say it's not particularly strong.) Related cross-site: American English : are [ə] and [ʌ] different phonemes? (schwa vs. chevron) Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 8:24
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The words in your second list are far more common than those in the first. That everyday use is what contributes to the change in pronunciation.

John McWhorter in Words on the Move gives us the explanation behind this phenomenon :

Often if a word is part of the unaccented part of [a] compound, then it starts being pronounced more fuzzily, and drifts ever farther beyond what we would think of as a word in any sense at all.

Take policeman, fireman, clergyman, postman, and gentleman: one does not pronounce the -man part the way one would pronounce man by itself. Rather, you say something like "mun," a sludgy "whatever" kind of pronunciation. That has happened over the years, as the words have undergone what you could call enunciational wear. Originally, the -man in these words was pronounced fully, but now, if someone had no idea how English was written and heard words like policeman and fireman, they might not even associate the little -mun with the word man at all. One way we know that this pronunciation of -man develops gradually over time is that if you start all over again and make up a new word with -man on the end, you will usually pronounce the -man fully. Anchorman and caveman are newish concepts; yes, cavemen themselves date pretty far back, but what taught us that they existed was paleontology, which does not. Therefore those two words are pronounced with "man" rather than "mun."


[pages 188-9]

So that 'sludgy' pronunciation is what you're hearing in words like salesman/salesmen being said the same. From the hearer's perspective, having that distinction is useful. From the speaker's perspective, enunciating that distinction is tedious.

9

Where I'm from, all 3 of your examples are pronounced differently.

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    Do you pronounce "salesman [ˈseɪlzmæn]" and "salesmen [ˈseɪlzmen]"? Thanks.
    – Loviii
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 20:16
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    The difference is subtle for me, but it's definitely there. The singular gets contracted and comes closer to being -mun or -mn rather than "man" with a broad a, but it's definitely not -men with an eh.
    – keshlam
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 22:38
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    @keshlam Agree 100%! The "men" in salesmen is like "mend". "salesman" cannot be pronounced that way; the vowel cannot stray that far from centre. And "salesmen" cannot be shortened to "salesmn" except in very rapid speech. "salesman" gets shortened even in slow speech.
    – Kaz
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 22:42
  • How many colors can you dye a lect?
    – keshlam
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 0:01
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    Where do you come from? Kentucky, US? Brisbane, Australia? Birmingham, UK? Toronto? Yes, it's Indiana I took a peek at your profile. Might be a good idea to actually say so in the "answer".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 12:46
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A key difference between your two lists is their syllable counts.

There are few (if any) words with secondary stress on a syllable adjacent to the primary stress syllable.

Secondary stress can be enough to avoid collapsing a short vowel to a schwa, especially when that's the only point of difference between a related pair of words.

Counting candidates for stress isn't exact, as different dialects and even individuals will treat diphthongs, vowel length, and consonant clustering slightly differently. Dialects also differ in which vowels are candidates for schwa collapse (some have only one, which makes schwa a functional allophone for that vowel).

Another word pair for your second list: woman vs women.

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