Why is “nation” pronounced differently than “national”?

One of the guiding principles of our English orthography system is that spelling remain consistent while pronunciations may shift across word families. So, when my friend, Q., asked, as we walked across the bridge formerly known as the Tappan Zee, “Why are “nation” and “national” pronounced differently?”, I knew that our spelling system is optimized for meaning not pronunciation. So, even when we have a question to explore in Structured Word Inquiry related to pronunciation (Question 4), it is always recommended to start any inquiry by discussing the meaning. (Question 1)

  1. What is the meaning?

“Nation” generally means a people within a border that are connected by a government while <national> refers to the status of belonging to a particular nation.

2. What are the etymological and morphological relatives?

After consulting Etymology Online and discovering that the historical root of <nation> and <national> is the Latin natal or nasci with the sense of “born.” “Nation” has the etymological sense of “that which has been born” or “breed” The notion of a “common ancestry” has been overtaken by the idea of <nation> as people being born within organized political boundaries. <National> emerged in the 17th century. (Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto)

Some morphological relatives (words that share a base and meaning) are nation, nationality, native, natural, naturalize and naturalization. All share the bound base <nate> and have a sense of “born.” If interested, a search can be made for other words in the <nate> family by using Word Searcher or Etymology Online. A word can be included if it shares the same base and meaning. Only words where students understand the meaning should be included.

3. What is the structure?

A lexical analytic word sum for <nation> and <national>:

nation -> nate/ + ion

national -> nate/ + ion+ al

A synthetic word sum for <nation> and <national>:

nate/ + ion -> nation

nate/+ ion + al -> national

The / after <nate> refers to the replacement of the <e> because of the vowel suffix.

Another way to look at structure is to create a lexical matrix which analyzes words into morphemes (bases, affixes (prefixes, suffixes). Here is a <nate> matrix from the RealSpelling Toolkit: (This is a very complete matrix. Remember, a matrix does not need to represent all possible words. For classroom use, I would only include words on a matrix that the students or I had volunteered during the class discussion, making certain that the meaning is understood.)

Now, for the fourth question:

4. How do the graphemes map to the phonemes?

In English, a phoneme (the smallest unit of sound that distinguishes one word from another) is represented by a grapheme (a written letter or letter string).


<n.a.t. + ion>

/ˈn..ʃ + ən /



<n.a.t. + ion + al>

/ˈn.æ.ʃ + ən + əl/

Now, the graphemes are represented by angle brackets <> while the phonemes are represented by the International Phonetic Alphabet within the slashes //.

We notice that the only pronunciation difference between “nation” and “national” is the initial vowel sound. In <nation> the // phoneme is represented by the grapheme <a> and in <national>, the /æ/ phoneme (short a) is represented by the grapheme <a>. We could represent this fact to children as follows (although this is not a complete list of the phonemes represented by <a>:

We know that the spelling will remain consistent throughout a word family and we see that consistency in the spelling of “nation” and “national.” This emphasizes the concept that the primary job of spelling is to represent meaning not pronunciation. We can see and hear that while the spelling remains consistent between these two words, the vowel pronunciation shifts from long to short. Why? I am not really sure but perhaps it was for ease of pronunciation as it seems more of a tongue twister to say <national> with a short sound than a long sound.

It is also noted that both words retain the primary stress on the first syllable. It is interesting to know that nouns, verbs and adjectives generally have the stress on the first syllable while verbs have the primary stress on the second syllable. (Vowels are usually reduced and represented by the schwa sound in unstressed syllables.)

See (or hear) for yourself with some words in the <nate> family:

So, at this point in the inquiry, I am not absolutely sure why <nation> and <national> are pronounced differently but I have made a reasonable hypothesis (ease of vocalization) and that will stand as I await further information.

What do you think? Do you have another hypothesis about why <nation> and <national> are pronounced differently? Thank you so much to Q. for this interesting question. I can’t wait to go for another bridge walk and talk about words!


As a writer and reading specialist, I wake up every day hoping to find the right words to create books, celebrate readers, and thank all the writers that inspire me every day.

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