October 31, 2021

Why are gamers pronouncing 'subsequent' like this?

Today's post: a minor one on a variant pronunciation I've heard of the word 'subsequent.'

Firstly, the way I'm used to hearing the word. Something like 'SUB-suh-kwent' and 'SUB-suh-kwent-lee'.

And now, the alternate version I've heard, 'sub-SEE-kwent.'

When I first heard this word, I thought it was one person's spelling pronunciation. When I heard it twice, I looked it up and found that there do appear to be some people who use this pronunciation. It's rare enough to not appear on Wiktionary or the Oxford English Dictionary.

Of note is that the British pronunciation for 'subsequent' has a reduced [ᵻ]: sʌbsᵻkw(ə)nt, whereas the American one has a schwa. I don't think this was influential, since all of the people I've heard use the 'sub-sequent' pronunciation are American or Canadian, but interesting nevertheless.

The pronunciation does appear on the most hallowed of websites, the English section of Stack Exchange. User herisson gives some possible motivations for the pronunciation, but the one I find most convincing is the morphological one:

Morphological motivation for penult stress: Sometimes, penult stress seems to occur just because the third-to-last syllable is (part of) a prefix, as in supernatant /ˌsuːpərˈneɪtənt/, from Latin sŭpĕrnătāns = sŭpĕr-nătāns, and covalent, from co- + valent from Latin vălēns.

This might be why the person you heard said /sʌbˈsiːkwənt/: it may be meant to represent the structure of the word as "sub-sequent". Sometimes people consciously choose to use unconventional stress to draw attention to the structure of a word: I had a science teacher in high school who liked to pronounce "hydrolysis" as /haɪdroʊˈlaɪsɪs/ in class to bring our attention to the fact that it meant "splitting by water".

Other users point out the word 'subsequence', which is used as part of mathematical jargon and does allow a stress on the second syllable, as in "sub" + "sequence."

herisson points out that people may alter a word's pronunciation to bring attention to the component parts of the word, especially when this is obscured by reduction. However, that would suggest that this is a one-time occurrence. The context of the two videos in which I heard this pronunciation was not educational - or rather, not intending to educate us on math or the nature of sequences in general. The speakers seemed to just have 'subSEquently' as the pronunciation for the word.

Both videos relate to computing, broadly speaking, and so it's conceivable that the speakers did go to a school where math teachers may have used the 'subSEquent' pronunciation.

What interests me is that 'subsequent' and 'subsequently' are hardly rare words. It seems unlikely that the first time they heard the word was in a college environment. The Oxford English Dictionary puts 'subsequent' in its frequency band 6, which is the 3rd most frequent band:

"This word belongs in Frequency Band 6. Band 6 contains words which occur between 10 and 100 times per million words in typical modern English usage, including a wide range of descriptive vocabulary. It contains many nouns referring to specific objects, entities, processes, and ideas, running from dog, horse, ship, machine, mile, assessment, army, career, stress to gas, explosion, desert, parish, envelope, and headache..."

Speculation: they were familiar with the 'SUBsequent' pronunciation beforehand, but (subconsciously) switched to using the 'subSEquent' pronunciation after hearing it from someone else, especially if that someone is respected in their field. It may function as a (subconscious) signal that the speaker is familiar with math.

Of course, my sample size is two YouTube videos. Have you heard anyone use this pronunciation? Do you use it yourself?

2 comments:

  1. To answer your closing questions - I have heard it, only in work as an IT professional. That supports your idea re: computing or generally, STEM fields.

    In my experience, it’s more common among younger folks (primarily Gen Z). Initially, I considered this at odds with your speculation that they’re mimicking respected leaders of their field. My thought process there is likely flawed in assuming respect is tied to tenure.

    I don’t use it. It sounds incorrect to me. I always assumed the people I heard use this pronunciation just didn’t know any better. In any case, language is fluid and the rules change not by some governing body, but by practical application and consensus adoption within a community (my thoughts, but I am not the pro here!). If it can be understood, I’m not sure anything can truly be considered “wrong.”

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    Replies
    1. Interesting you've heard this pronunciation in real life! It may be more widespread than I thought.

      If this pronunciation is being spearheaded by younger people, then perhaps it's based on reanalysis of 'subsequent' after hearing the word 'subsequent,' which is indeed pronounced with stress on the second syllable. And the spread may have less to do with older people than with trying to mimic respect people of their age group.

      You're correct than 'wrong' is a matter of perspective (and power). It is perfectly neutral to point out that 'SUBsequent' is a more common pronunciation than 'subSEquent', and that the '-SEquent' pronunciation appears to be so rare, that pronunciation dictionaries don't list it as a possibility. It is possible that if it spreads, the -SEquent' pronunciation may come to be associated with some level of expertise or familiarity with math or computer science. Who knows - it might even end up being a prestige pronunciation one day.

      In fact, that not even online dictionaries seem to have this pronunciation suggests that it might be very new. The StackExchange post is from 2017.

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