Homophony avoidance in acronym pronunciation?

During a discussion in our department meeting about whether to rename our TESL program a TESOL program (snore…), I learned that TESL is pronounced [tɛsəl] while TESOL is pronounced [tisɑl]. I’m curious as to why the pronunciation of the first vowel changes depending on the second vowel. I can think of two possibilities:

1) To emphasize the presence of the O in TESOL, speakers want a full vowel in the second syllable, which requires putting a secondary stress on the second syllable, which requires making the second syllable a foot, which in turn requires that the first syllable be a foot by itself: (t__)(sɑl). Being a single light syllable, (tɛ) would not make such a good foot, so (ti) is chosen instead.

2) Maybe [tɛsəl] and [tɛsɑl] would sound too similar, so an additional sound difference was introduced to disambiguate.

One thought on “Homophony avoidance in acronym pronunciation?

  1. Michael

    That’s interesting… I’ve only ever heard TESOL pronounced as [ˈtʰi.sɛl̴]. I attend University of Georgia. Phonetic variation is awesome. :D

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