Man: reduced or not?

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Ben Yagoda wrote to ask about the reduced or unreduced pronunciation of man ([mən] vs. [mæn]) in noun compounds: policeman, fireman, garbage man, mailman, gunman, lineman, etc.

I don't know of any scholarly treatments of this precise subject. For an extensive discussion of the textual history and distribution of man- compounds, you can read Kirsti Peitsara "MAN-Compounds in English", Selected Proceedings of the 2005 Symposium on New Approaches in English Historical Lexis. And for some background discussion on the relations among structure, sense, and stress in such phrases, see Mark Liberman & Richard Sproat, "The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun Phrases in English", in Sag & Szabolsci eds., Lexical Matters, 1992. But I don't know of any discussion of (for example) why the -man in policeman is reduced, while the -man in mailman isn't. (Those are my judgments, anyhow, and Merriam-Webster's agrees with me…)

So I'm throwing the floor open for contributions from readers.

My own judgments divide (a small sample of) these words up this way:

mən     clansman, clergyman, fireman, gentleman, gunman, journeyman, lineman, oarsman, policeman, postman
mæn     anchorman, caveman, garbageman, frogman, handyman, madman, mailman, taxman, weatherman

Though it wouldn't surprise me to learn that I vary in how I actually pronounce e.g. gunman. Anyhow, the distinction looks pretty arbitrary to me, in synchronic terms — maybe the history is a clue… (again).


  1. Dick Margulis said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 3:58 pm

    Quickly surveying a few examples from your two lists, the mən words seem, using the Google ngram viewer, to have arisen much earlier than the man words. So maybe it's just a matter of age.

  2. Y said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 3:59 pm

    Do all superheroes -man names use [æ]?
    Do all last names ending with -man or -mann use [ə]?

  3. Jongseong Park said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 5:00 pm

    Here is the entry on -man from the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary by John Wells:

    -man mən, mæn —This suffix may be weak or strong. (i) In most well-established formations, written as one word, it is weak, mən: policeman pə ˈliːs mən. (ii) Where written hyphenated or as two words, and in new formations, it is usually strong, mæn: spaceman ˈspeɪs mæn. Note batman 'army servant' ˈbæt mən, but Batman (cartoon character) ˈbæt mæn

    The LPD agrees with most of your pronunciations. The exception is that for 'gunman', it also recognizes -mæn as a secondary pronunciation, and that it only has -mən for 'frogman' and 'madman'. It doesn't include the Americanism 'garbageman'.

  4. Sockatume said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 5:02 pm

    There's a classic Friends bit about this:

  5. chips mackinolty said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 5:07 pm

    @ Jongseong Park
    How is Longman pronounced?

  6. Jongseong Park said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 5:24 pm

    @ chips mackinolty,
    Longman is pronounced with mən according to the LPD and other pronunciation dictionaries. This agrees with my intuition as well on the pronunciation of surnames ending in -man. I would say 'yes' to both of Y's questions above, though I would put in the caveat that -man should be a suffix from a Germanic root to rule out cases like Rahman.

  7. empty said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 5:27 pm

    I'm not saying this is relevant, but I think that at least some UK speakers have a reduced vowel in the second syllable of "saucepan".

  8. David L said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 5:39 pm

    I would move journeyman and lineman (less confidently) into your second list.

    I have no theory or reasoning of any kind to say why.

  9. Jongseong Park said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

    Actually, LPD gives the reduced vowel in the second syllable of 'saucepan' as the only possibility in Received Pronunciation. An unreduced vowel is possible in British English, but marked as non-RP. In American English, only the unreduced vowel is given as a possibility.

    Compounds in -land would also be worth examining.

  10. Laura Morland said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

    Picking up on your last comment, Jongseong Park: I thought that I'd submit a quick response, having been known in my youth as "Laura Morland from DeLand." ("DeLand" is university town in Central Florida where I was born and raised, which was named after its founder, a New Yorker named Henry DeLand.)

    I normally pronounce my surname as "Mɔrlənd," and my hometown as "DəLænd" (stress, as you can probably guess, on the 1st syllable in the 1st case, and 2nd in the 2nd).

    Only when trying to mimic a deep Southern accent would I pronounce them as "Mɔrlænd" and "Dilænd" (in both cases with stress falling on both syllables just about equally).

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    As for the OP, is there any possibility that familiarity impedes vowel-reduction? The fireman and policeman are men whom we rarely see (and frankly would prefer not to), whereas we welcome the mailman and garbageman daily and weekly to our homes.

    Further, it is mostly children who talk about a "spaceman" (grownups say "astronaut") or "Batman, Superman, Spiderman" and their brethren. Could that possibly be a factor in the lack of reduction?

  11. Pat Barrett said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 8:51 pm

    I notice that where the -man is reduced, the first word is someone who does something, whereas the words where the derivative suffix is given a secondary stress, the "man" doesn't do that thing e.g. a mailman doesn't mail but a policeman polices and a gunman guns. The exceptions seem to be clansman and journeyman (but I don't know if to journey makes the grade, and an anchorman does anchor and a taxman does tax…. or does he just collect like the mailman does?)

    [(myl) There are quite a few other exceptions: a gentleman doesn't gentle, nor does an oarsman oars, or a swordsman swords. And in the other direction, a bossman does boss, … The relationship to verbs seems to be another one of the quasi-regularities characteristic of derivational morphology.]

  12. Xmun said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 11:04 pm

    The final vowel of "churchyard" is also reduced to something, not exactly a schwa in my experience of speech in UK and NZ. I'm not sure if it's always so reduced in RP, or only sometimes. By the way, did you know that the name "Kierkegaard" is simply Danish for "Churchyard"?

  13. Thomas Rees said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 11:39 pm

    I’m the Urban Spaceman, baby; I’ve got speed,
    I’ve got everything you need.

    Definitely reduced.

  14. Irina said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 12:07 am

    The distinction between 'mailman' and 'postman' is interesting!

    Also, yes, saucepan with -pən. For me a saucepan with -pæn is a pan with sauce in it already, or arguably a pan used exclusively to cook sauce in. Like 'batman' and 'Batman', really.

  15. michael farris said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 3:00 am

    Some years ago, I saw a bit of some British made English course on a German public tv station where they kept talking about something called sospens or sospans. When they finally showed one I wasn't much less confused. In my mental model any kind of pan is broader than it is tall and these weren't. I would have just called them pots.

    As to the topic here, my own pronunciations basically mirror those of the author but some would sound okay with either ə or æ (I'm sure if I've heard policeman and postman with æ but that might be a regional thing).

  16. Warren Maguire said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 3:39 am

    In my Northern Irish accent, these all have [a], and reduction to schwa sounds distinctly English to my ears. I also naturally have [ham] in Birmingham, though I've been trained out of that a bit by people laughing at the pronunciation…

  17. John Swindle said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 4:25 am

    So if Clergy Man were a superhero, he'd get the unreduced vowel, right?

    I seem to recall hearing "police man" with the unreduced vowel from some who stress the first syllable in "police."

  18. Laura Morland said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 4:26 am

    @ Michael Farris

    Funny you should mention that, because just last weekend my 15-year-old niece was baking madeleines for the first time on her own. At one point I walked into the kitchen to find that she had melted a large quantity of butter into a small frying pan,to which she was trying to add a cup of the batter. "Why would you use a pan for this?" I asked her.

    "The recipe called for a saucepan," she replied.

    "A saucepan is for making sauce in!" I exclaimed. "Think about it: you can't make a sauce in a frying pan — it's too shallow."

    (Being American, I pronounce it sacepæn.)

  19. phspaelti said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 4:38 am

    Don't know if there are enough examples to make a generalization, but do all examples with linking 's' have mən?
    Examples cited earlier:
    oarsman, swordsman, clansman

  20. Jongseong Park said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 5:42 am

    I think that for most of these compounds, [mən] vs [mæn] has more to do with the age of the formation than any semantic reasons. Apparently, 'postman' dates to the 1520s, while I think 'mailman' must be more recent. The longer a compound has been part of the language, the more likely it is to be subject to vowel reduction.

    Familiarity also plays a large part, which is why British English reduces saucepan while American English doesn't, as Americans are more likely to call it a 'pot'.

    [(myl) Yes, this does seem to be the winning hypothesis so far.]

  21. Lazar said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 5:49 am

    As a 20-something from Massachusetts, my preferences are identical to myl's. I would also note that I say "businessman" with [mæn].

  22. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 6:15 am

    The TRAP vowel in England shouldn't really be transcribed [æ] these days. Outside of old RP and Cockney, both of which are in long declines, it's [a]. This is the case in modern RP too. You will hear [æ] from older upper-class/accent-educated people and actors in period dramas, but not mch elsewhere.

    Geoff Lindsey has a good post covering this:

  23. lynneguist said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 7:02 am

    When I was an undergrad at UMass, this was the topic of my language acquisition term paper. I went to a preschool and asked children to match pictures with jobs, to see whether mǝn was more gender-neutral than 'mæn'. Made no difference, because the 4-year-olds refused to choose, saying 'anybody can be anything'. This was around 1986.

  24. Ray said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 8:11 am

    maybe the difference has to do with whether the -man word can also be thought of as a group of men (as a collective abstraction — a trade, profession, or organization) or is primarily understood in terms of a solo man?

    the first group of words describes men we also often think of in terms of a group of like people, the second group describes men we more often think of as individuals.

    I came to this thought when I realized that for years I had been pronouncing ‘women’ as if it were simply the plural of ‘woman.’ I was shocked when people pointed out to me that the plural of ‘woman’ is pronounced ‘wimmin’!

  25. Ben Yagoda said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 9:12 am

    Thanks, Mark and everyone. The reason for my initial query is that I could never understand why my wife says "policemæn," as well as "gunmæn" and "San-fræn-cisco." There may be a regional/generational variation: she is Massachusetts-born middle baby boomer.

  26. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 10:02 am

    What about the plurals of these compounds? /mɛn/ or /mən/?

  27. Rodger C said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 11:47 am

    I started to say that of course "journeyman" is pronounced with schwa, but then I thought of Fairport Convention: "There you'll see the journeymæn, / with a lantern in his hand." However, their "journeyman" seems to be a man who has to do with journeys.

  28. Jongseong Park said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 12:45 pm

    For -men in the plural of these compounds, the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary has this to say:
    -men mən, men —See note at -man. The pronunciation men is used for the plural rather more widely than mæn is for the singular.

    Note that LPD uses /e/ for the DRESS vowel and /æ/ for the TRAP vowel. For the compounds where LPD only shows /mən/ for the singular form, it seems to prioritize /mən/ for the plural form but also to give /men/ as an alternate possibility. It might be because people might need to disambiguate the plural from the singular form.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

    The "age" hypothesis seems suggestive but perhaps not exceptionless. What's the newest unreduced candidate and oldest reduced candidate? The n -gram viewer suggests that "milkman" (unreduced for me) is older than "lineman" (reduced for me, and also for Glen Campbell). The BrEng "dustman" (for garbageman) looks like it might be reasonably old but I have no intuition as to whether it's reduced or unreduced on account of it not being part of the AmEng lexicon.

  30. cameron said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 2:29 pm

    Note that batman is reduced, while Batman is not.

  31. Jongseong Park said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

    The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary gives only /mən/ for 'milkman'. For the same word, the Cambridge Pronouncing Dictionary only gives /mən/ as the British pronunciation, but has /mæn, mən/ for the American. Merriam-Webster also gives /mæn, mən/ for 'milkman'.

    The LPD, CPD, and M-W all give only /mən/ for 'dustman'.

  32. hector said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 3:41 pm

    I irritate the hell out of my wife, an American by birth, by enunciating the second "o" in Oregon, rather than saying "Oregn."

    I don't reduce the vowel in "lineman" if I'm referring to an electrical installer, but do if referring to a football player.

    I would almost always not reduce the vowel in "postman." "Policeman" would generally vary according to whether I was talking about any policeman in general (reduced), or a particular policeman, especially one I'd had an interaction with (not reduced). My late Uncle Sam was definitely a police-man (not reduced). Yes, I had a personal Uncle Sam.

  33. chips mackinolty said,

    March 29, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

    As a complete aside in this discussion. In Aboriginal English, at least in the Northern Territory and East Kimberley, two words are separated as Business Man, and definitely not reduced. A Business Man (or Woman) does not refer to commerce, but a person knowledgeable in law and ceremony.

  34. Chas Belov said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 12:44 am

    I actually reduce to min.

  35. RP said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 2:37 am

    I'm a BrE speaker but would divide the words up almost identically to myl, although I'd be more likely to put "gunman" in the unreduced category. I'd use the reduced vowel in "dustman", although the actual term I'd use is "binman", with an unreduced vowel.

    I think I'd generally pluralise with an unreduced "men". Even in cases where the schwa would be unambiguous ("two policemen") I find it easier to imagine myself saying "men" than "mən".

  36. mae said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 6:52 am

    There are two songs about the Candyman, and I'm not sure singers of the old blues version are using either pronunciation listed here. "Blind Boy" Paxton, especially doesn't sound like either one. Not sure about Sammy Davis, Jr (the other Candyman song — all on Youtube).

    Where –man is in a song or nursery rhyme it seems to depend on the meter and rhyme.
    "Simple Simon met a Pieman,"
    "Do you know the Muffinman?"

  37. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 9:07 am

    Gathering pronunciation data from songs is always potentially a bit hazardous because it is not uncommon for "singing" pronunciation (in general, or for a particular song, or particular genre) to vary from the singer's default speaking pronunciation of the same words. Here, there might be an additional issue that if the rhythm of the song puts stress on a usually-unstressed syllable that may tend to switch a usually-reduced vowel to unreduced without the singer even being necessarily conscious of the switch. Although FWIW the specific placements of the word "lineman" within the lyrics of "Wichita Lineman" are such that they seems unlikely to me to create such a distortion (and likewise they're not at places where they need to rhyme with anything). That said, someone with time on their hands could google up a large number of performances of the song by different singers (with presumably different regional accents etc when speaking) and see if they all converge on the same pronunciation or not.

  38. KevinM said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 9:20 am

    @mae, JWBrewer: Yes, use song lyrics with caution. In Anthony Newley's Candyman the pronunciation is dictated by an internal rhyme: "The Candyman can." (I can't explain why S Davis Jr. pronounces dew as "dyew," unless it's to mock Anthony Newley's diction or the general preciousness of the song.)
    The Grateful Dead Candyman song is pretty clearly unreduced (although it's rhymed with "again"!).

  39. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 10:30 am

    In "Sweet Transvestite" (from the Rocky Horror Picture Show), "candyman" is rhymed with "handyman," and both have the unreduced vowel. But that's how I would personally pronounce both of them anyway . . . I don't think "candyman" is an active word in my own lexicon outside of its appearance in song lyrics, but it probably was for some speakers at some point, since it seems likely that the "dope dealer and/or pimp" senses are metaphorical extensions of some core meaning involving someone who sells literal candy. Google books reveals that "candyman" was also pejorative slang in 19th century northern England for bailiff/process-server/guy-who-comes-to-evict-you-from-your-humble-abode-when-the-landlord-wants-you-out . . .

  40. Chris C. said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

    My sense of what is and is not reduced is identical to yours, for what it's worth.

  41. David Marjanović said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 5:19 pm

    Outside of old RP and Cockney, both of which are in long declines, it's [a].

    Not quite, no. It's more open than it used to be, and more open than what I think cardinal [æ] would be, but I have no chance to confuse it with [a] as found in French, B[a]stonian and various northern English accents. If you want an IPA symbol without a diacritic, æ is still the safer choice.

  42. Bean said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 5:56 pm

    I submit that (wrt singing pronunciation) if it's a word that someone really doesn't use very often and they first heard it in a song, they'll prefer the song pronunciation as more euphonous? (Maybe this is just me, haunted by every earworm I've ever heard, brought immediately to mind by certain words from the lyrics, and hey, I *like* rhymes!)

    Did someone already point out that the unreduced ones are words that you sometimes still see written as two separate words, whereas the reduced ones never appear that way?. Besides, "a gentle man" means something different from "a gentleman". Which ones of these used to be hyphenated before collapsing into a single word?

  43. Leslie said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 6:03 pm

    Isn't it "mail man" instead of "mailman"? That's how I've always thought of it (and recall it in print).

    [(myl) Nope:


  44. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 6:37 pm

    @ David Marjanović –

    For me it's certainly open enough for /a/ – especially in the North – though tends to be somewhat central.

    Did you listen to the examples in Geoff Lindsey's post that I linked to?

  45. Jonathon Owen said,

    March 31, 2015 @ 10:55 am

    The varying pronunciation of –man was a minor running joke on Homestar Runner. Here's a list of its appearances in Homestar cartoons.

  46. BZ said,

    March 31, 2015 @ 3:36 pm

    I recently saw "talismen" as a plural of "talisman" in edited prose. Had to double-check the etymology to make sure this wasn't a correct usage, though every intuition told me it was wrong (and it is)

  47. kevinm said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 11:58 am

    And on the subject of songs, "Come Mr. tally man, tally me banana." Definitely unreduced, if Harry Belafonte's ersatz accent can be trusted.

  48. Tye said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 2:13 am

    Do you want to build (an unreduced) snowman?

  49. Colin said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 6:36 am

    Pflaumbaum: The old RP [æ] (verging on [ɛ]) TRAP sound is also alive and well in present-day NZ English (although I'm not sure if this is an older pronunciation that has been retained, or a NZ-specific innovation).

    Another reduced versus unreduced suffix I've noticed that causes diagreement in the Anglosphere is '-ham' in placenames and surnames. In Britain, it's almost always pronounced [(h)əm], but elsewhere in the English-speaking world, [hæm] seems to be quite common. It's particularly noticeable in Australian English, as many speakers elongate the 'a' sound before m/n (so [mæ:n], [hæ:m] and so on).

  50. Terry Collmann said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 9:12 am

    The Welsh for "saucepan", "sosban", which is presumably a direct import from the English word, definitely seems to be pronounced with [æ], if Cerys Matthews's pronunciation of the word in her version of the old song 'Sosban Fach' is any guide, though as J.W. Brewer says, gathering pronunciation data from songs is always potentially a bit hazardous.

  51. Eurobubba said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 11:26 am

    There's something similar going on with -land in England, Scotland, Holland, Finland vs. Swaziland, Somaliland, Disneyland, Candyland.

  52. Matt McIrvin said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 3:01 pm

    In that list, the vowel in "land" gets reduced whenever the suffix is preceded with a consonant sound, but not if it's preceded with a vowel.

    However, "Maryland" breaks that, so it may not be a general pattern.

  53. Jay Livingston said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 3:36 pm

    "Friends" considered this matter in episode 3:19, written by Adam Chase. The implication is that Spiderman would be Jewish.

    Phoebe: Hey! Why isn't it "Spidermun?" Ya know, like Goldman, or Silverman?
    Chandler: It's not his last name.
    Phoebe: It isn't?
    Chandler: No. It's not like… like "Phil Spidermun". He's a spider-man. You know, like, uh, like Goldman is a last name, but there's no Gold-Man.
    Phoebe: Oh, okay! There should be a "Gold-Man!"

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