Wednesday 6 March 2013


The news we heard two or three weeks ago about the human remains identified as those of Richard III meant that several newscasters and commentators made use of the word skeletal. Those I heard on BBC R4 all pronounced it with penultimate stress, as skɪˈliːtl̩. There is, though, an alternative pronunciation, with initial stress, ˈskelɪtl̩.

So this is a word like palatal, in which uncertainty about the quantity of the penultimate vowel leads to rival pronunciations, one having the antepenultimate stressing and penultimate vowel reduction predicted if the penultimate is short (ˈpalətal, ˈskelɪtal), the other having the penultimate stressing to be expected if that vowel is long (paˈleɪtal, skeˈliːtal). In the case of palatal, phoneticians and linguists have settled for the first, although anatomists prefer the second (blog, 21 March 2011).

Since skeleton is derived from the Greek σκελετόν, where the epsilon spelling of the penultimate vowel indicates a short vowel, the regular pronunciation according to the Latin stress rule is indeed the usual one, ˈskelɪtn̩.

Actually, the adjective-forming suffix -al is normally disregarded for purposes of the stress rule: we keep the stress on the adjective in the same place as it has for the naked stem, thus from ˈperson we form ˈpersonal (despite the long ō in Latin persōna). From ˈuniverse we have ˌuniˈversal, because the extra syllable in the adjective means that Chomsky and Halle’s Alternating Stress Rule comes into play. So in skeletal, which does not involve an extra syllable compared with skeleton, it would be expected that the stress would be located on the same syllable as in skeleton.

And please don’t ask about adjectival, because I don’t understand why it’s ˌædʒɪkˈtaɪvl̩, either.


  1. And the OED (state of 1911?) has a full e in the first syllable of the second pronuncation, skeˈliːtl̩.

    1. The original has only the pronunciation with initial stress, as, indeed, does the 1973 SOED.

    2. Thanks. I had been too lazy to walk the 2 yards from my desk and relied on the online version, which has "not yet been fully updated (first published 1911)".

  2. Funny, I've never heard the pronunciation used on Radio 4 before.

  3. All the American dictionaries have initial stress in skeletal, and I have never heard any American say it otherwise.

  4. Same here in Canada, where 'skeleton' is also a winter sport ;) And perhaps as strange as [aɪ] showing up in 'adjectival' is the fact that [e] shows up in 'consonantal'.

  5. I don't know about anyone else, but I was shocked to hear that there are people out there who say [skɪˈliːtl̩].

    Yuri Ivanov

  6. Also urinal /juˈraɪn(ə)l/, cervical /sə(r)ˈvaɪk(ə)l/.

    1. Urinal and cervical are different in that their penultimate vowels are long in the Latin words from which they are derived.

  7. ˌædʒɪkˈtaɪvəl seems to me to be the most natural way to stress the result of suffixing -al to ˈædʒɪkˌtɪv. Keeping the primary stress where it is, on the 1st syllable would result in a sequence of 3 syllables too heavy to have no primary stress among them. It seems a natural second choice to put the the primary stress where the root word's secondary stress is.

    The anomaly is why "adjective" is ˈædʒɪkˌtɪv rather than ædˈʒɛktɪv on analogy with objective, collective, connective, directive, detective etc.

    ˈɹɪtʃəd ˈseibi

    1. Nah, /ˈæʤɛkˌtɪvl/ works fine. A secondary stress in the middle of three otherwise unstressed syllables is how English usually handles that issue.

  8. It may not be mentioned in dictionaries, but there are quite a lot of people who place the stress in adjectival on the second syllable. Still others keep the stress on the third syllable, but do not use the /aɪ/ vowel, instead going for either /iː/ or /ɪ/.

    Wiktionary has the actual vocal sample say, /ˌæʤɪ̈kˈtiːvl/ and Project Shtooka has /ˈæʤɛkˌtɪvl/. It also has an accent that reduces the /k/, /ˌæʤəˈtaɪvl/.

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