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15.13: VCV and Words like Lemon

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12

VCV and Words like Lemon

1. The Third Vowel Rule. The third vowel sound from the end of a word will often be short if it is stressed, even if it is the first vowel in a VCV string.

The Suffix -ity Rule. The vowel right in front of the suffix ity will be short even if it is the first vowel in a VCV string.

2. There is a third rule that causes many other VCV strings to have short head vowels. Look at and say the word lemon: It has the VCV string <emo> in the middle, but the <e> is short. There is no suffix -ity and the <e> is not in the third syllable from the end:

&\text{l}\acute{\text{e}}\text{mon} \\ & \text{vcv}

So why is the <e> short in lemon, instead of being long, as it is in a word like demon?

The brief answer to that question is that lemon was borrowed from French, and many of our words from French have that same pattern. Demon, on the other hand, has a long <e> at the head of its VCV string because demon was borrowed from Latin, not from French.

Six of the following twelve words were borrowed from French and have short vowels at the head of VCV strings. None of the other six were borrowed from French; all have long vowels at the head of VCV strings. Mark all twelve words to show the VCV string as we have done with lemon:

& \text{lemon} && \text{model} && \text{scholar} && \text{river} \\& \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} && \quad \text{vcv} && \text{vcv} \\& \text{demon} && \text{yodel} && \text{molar} && \text{precious} \\& \ \text{vcv} && \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} \\& \text{driver} && \text{specious} && \text{navel} && \text{gravel} \\& \ \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv}

3. Sort the twelve words into the following two groups:

Words with a VCV string with a ...
long vowel short vowel
demon specious lemon river
driver molar model precious
yodel navel scholar gravel

4. Starting with the first vowel in each word mark the VCV string. Then sort the words into the two groups described below:

& \text{minor} && \text{chorus} && \text{legend} && \text{local} \\& \ \ \text{vcv} && \quad \text{vcv} && \ \text{vcv} && \ \text{vcv} \\& \text{balance} && \text{tenant} && \text{agent} && \text{visit} \\& \ \ \text{vcv} && \text{vcv} && \text{vcv} && \text{vcv} \\& \text{soda} && \text{color} && \text{paper} && \text{dozen} \\ & \ \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} \\& \text{legal} && \text{ratio} && \text{pigeon} && \text{recent} \\& \ \ \text{vcv} && \  \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} \\& \text{column} && \text{moment} && \text{closet} && \text{motor} \\& \ \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} \\& \text{schedule} && \text{stomach} && \text{focus} && \text{lizard} \\  & \ \quad \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} && \ \ \text{vcv} && \text{vcv}

Words with a VCV string with a ...
long head vowel short head vowel
minor agent balance legend
soda paper column pigeon
legal focus schedule closet
chorus local tenant visit
ratio recent color dozen
moment motor stomach lizard

5. Since so many words like lemon that have two vowel sounds and were borrowed from French have a short vowel in a VCV string, we will call this the French Lemon Rule:

Words that are two syllables long and were borrowed from French will have a short first vowel, even in a VCV string.

Teaching Notes.

1. Item 2. The reason for the short head vowel in the VCV in words like lemon is that the French source words had stress on the second vowel, not the first, and the first vowel was short. After they were taken into English, the stress shifted up front, to the first vowel. English prefers stress early in the word; French normally stresses the very last syllable of a word. Since the first vowel had been short in French, it stayed short after the stress shifted to it in English. So words like lemon now have a short vowel at the head of a VCV string. Since we adopted so many words from French, this rule covers hundreds of words.

2. Items 2 and 3: It is important that the students see that the twelve words are actually six short-long pairs: model-yodel, lemon-demon, river-driver, scholar-molar, and precious-specious. You might have the youngsters discuss these short-long pairs by asking them which six words probably were borrowed from French. If they have access to a dictionary with etymological information in it, this would be a good chance to have them work with the dictionary, looking up the sources of the six, or all twelve, words. (It is possible that some dictionaries may show some of the six words with long vowels as coming from French. Dictionaries don't always agree on etymological information. My sorting is based on the information in the OED, Webster's Third, and the AHD.)

3. Item 5: This is not a very helpful rule for predicting the correct spelling of a given word, since most people don't know whether or not words were adopted from French. The major use of the French Lemon Rule is to explain the existence of the very large number of words, like lemon, that may at first appear to be “exceptions to the rule.” It is useful for the youngsters to see that there can be rules within rules and that by and large “smaller” rules — that is, rules that are more local or more specific — tend to preempt, or overrule, “larger,” more global and general rules. It can be a useful lesson in places beyond spelling, too. A second value of the work with the French Lemon Rule is that after having done it, when students encounter a new word that has two syllables and a short vowel at the head of a VCV string, they may be inclined to say, “Ah ha, that must be one of those French words we talked about.” And that response is much more useful than “Oh my, there's another exception to that VCV business.” For more on the French Lemon Rule see AES, pp. 123-30, especially pp. 127-28, where it goes by its technical name, the Stess Frontshift Rule.

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Date Created:

Feb 23, 2012

Last Modified:

Jul 07, 2015
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