22 December 2020

Philology: a strange stress shift?

I keep hearing such things as ...

mandatory pronounced mandatory

formidable pronounced formidable.

pastoral pronounced pastoral. 

adversary pronounced adversary.

integral pronounced integral.

efficacy pronounced efficacy ... this last example recently afforded some comedy. There is an 'Andrew Marr' who does an interview programme on the Beeb (he has never been exactly the sparkiest match in the box, despite an expensive private education in Scotland and a first at Cambridge in English) and who pronounced it thus; and admitted that ... he had never met the word before!! The Imperial don he was interviewing (about Covid vaccines) pronounced it correctly; so did the First Minister of Scotland ... but Marr stuck, poor fellow, to his guns.

Is there a widespread unease with regard to words in which the stress seems "too far back" for the oral comfort of many otherwise apparently healthy and even admirable folk?

If the dear ancient county of Westmorland still existed, I bet they'd be pronouncing it Westmorland, as I believe people do in some American place of the same name. So could the phenomenon which puzzles me be an Americanism?

I remember being puzzled some years ago when I was dealing with an early sixteenth century will. The property concerned was called Westmanton. But the scribed copy of Dame Thomasina Percival's will read it as Westpinton. 

-man- and -pin- are, on the face of things, really rather different-sounding syllables. But the penny then dropped in my mind. The placename must have been pronounced Westmanton, Westm'nt'n, which left the London scribe uncertain how to spell the unstressed middle syllable.

So what is the modern problem about English polysyllabic words with an early stress? Is there a parallel mutation in any other modern languages? Is it really that, for some reason, early stress has come to feel awkward to mis-shapen modern mouths? 

I don't think so.

On my theory, it is the result, in a semi-educated society, of an over-mastering fetich for orthography. This is what leads the fluvial peasantry North of Oxford to think that the river Cherwell (first syllable correctly rhyming with car, as in Berkshire), should be pronounced so that the first syllable rhymes with fur. Similarly, I suggest, individuals who have been more accustomed to meeting  'formidable' and 'mandatory' in print than they have been to hearing them in spoken discourse, feel a compulsion to 'regularise' the middle vowel. They have heard the words so rarely that, when they do need to use them, they don't know how most people in the past (which, of course, is what the dictionaries are recording) have pronounced them.

Should I call this 'schwaphobia'? Or, as one learned reader informs me, "Spelling Pronunciation"?

Or is it something else I haven't thought of?



PS: A Latin word which has suffered the same ruthless treatment on fallible modern tongues: musicians seem invariably to mispronounce Carmina (as in Carmina Burana) as cameeena.


Et Expecto said...

It was exactly the same with post Vatican II reforms. Some people felt that, if it was capable of being changed, it had to be changed.

Thomas said...

I believe primary aged children in America are drilled from day one in "spelling pronunciation". This is regarded as a logical and helpful approach to the challenges of English spelling, but it also tends to wipe out any distinction between stressed and unstressed vowels, which is what give English its particular sense of rhythm and melodic flow. I also think this instinct comes from the influence of Spanish on American speech as Spanish gives equal weight to all syllables. (More Americans now have Spanish as a first language than English). I hear this kind of machine-gun-patter, equal-stress rhythm in a lot of American pronunciations: e.g. "BER-MING-HAM", rather than "BERming'm".

motuproprio said...

And when did research become reesearch?

motuproprio said...

Manifold seems to trip up many, where the adjective should not be pronounced in the same way as the noun.

Colin Spinks said...

As Fr H often inserts, *TRIGGER WARNING - IRONY ALERT*. We linguists have to face the fact that living languages do change and develop, and always have done, often for what we might consider 'ill-educated' reasons. Two things to watch out for: 1) some objective rules must still apply, for instance, tautology is something to be avoided - "I met with my fellow colleagues for the purpose of forward planning around..." will always (until we are able to plan backwards, meet without and have colleagues who are not our fellows!) be inferior to "I met my colleagues (in order) to plan..." 2) just as people used to be (or perhaps still are) excluded from polite company for using words like "toilet" and "serviette", will there develop a new form of snobbery which regards those who do not keep up with the changes in pronunciation outlined in your blog as somehow backward-looking, patriarchal, colonialist and probably opponents of the abolition of slavery?

KaeseEs said...

Fr. Hunwicke,

I believe the Americanism related to the pronunciation of "Westmorland" stems not from a place-name (there isn't a prominent place of the same name in America), but rather from a name - specifically, Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in South Vietnam from 1964-1968 and thus a household name for anyone who was old enough to watch the news at the time.

Pelerin said...

I am surprised how many tv presenters seem unable to pronounce 'hospital' correctly. Instead of swallowing the 'tal' part they say 'hospi-t-al' which is how a young child might say it.

Mark Solomon said...

I think you're on to something with the 'schwaphobia' hypothesis. I tend to pronounce most of the words you mentioned with the antepenult stress, and picking foreign polysyllabic words with weak vowels in speech (especially in Russian) is challenging. I may be misremembering, but I've also heard a fair bit of this readers accent from university undergraduates, who are unfortunately pressured to such textual primacy.

I couldn't offer much in the way of sources, but a possibly connected phenomenon is the deliberate misspellings deployed in the written-oral culture of the youth, the language of text messages and memes and what have you.

Maureen Lash said...

The persistence of Radio 3 presenters in saying ‘carmeena burana’ is only their second most annoying habit. The first is Always referring to the Adagio from Khatchaturian’s Spartacus as they theme from the ‘Onedin Line’, something that can only possibly have meaning for those who are 60+ years old - which most Radio 3 presenters are not.

Dean Austin said...

Regarding the idea that these pronunciations might be Americanisms, and speaking as a lifelong speaker and observer of "the American Language":

I have heard (and said) mandatory many times, but only ever in jest.

Formidable is far more common here than the alternative.

Pastoral I have only ever heard from either a certain type of (gardenia-scented ) clergyman or one of said clergyman's hangers-on.

Adversary I have never heard at all (thank goodness)

For integral, see mandatory, supra.

Efficacy - no. No.

My very best to you and hopes for as Merry a Christmas as you can contrive to have under the circumstances.

√Čamonn said...

West-mor-land Street in Dublin has always in my experience been pronounced thus but then Dubliners pronounce Dorset St as Dore-sett St, so what would we know?

Sue Sims said...

Not to mention the most, er, controversial variation - controversy, which has now more or less completely become conTROversy among everyone younger than about 60, and even with many older people.

Ronald Knox discusses this shift in stress somewhere (no time to look it up now); the first example he uses, if I recall correctly) is divorce, which (he says) he pronounces DIEvorce, but which younger speakers* pronounce diVORCE. I don't think that anyone now would use the older pronunciation. And that's probably a lesson for us: this sort of language change is generally irredeemable (where the stress will probably remain on the third syllable for some time to come). The trick is not to become too HArassed by it. Or possibly too haRASSED.

*And he was writing at least 70 years ago.

wonastow said...

Fowler, in Modern English Usage, has much to say about 'Recessive Accent' and 'Speak as you spell.'

Greyman 82 said...

A very interesting item. I've noticed these mispronunciations growing over over the years:

I've heard amICable instead of AMicable, which is rather like Andrew Marr's "efFICacy", and "metalURGY" instead of "meTALlurgy".

Some cases of putting the stress further along in the word do seem to be Americanisms, such as "HarASSment" instead of "HARassment" and "verMOOTH" instead of "VERmuth" (for vermouth). It seems that I may be the last English speaker still using the proper British pronunciations of these words.

Some American pronunciations do pull the stressed syllable forward, however. The one example that stands out to me is "CIGarette" instead of "cigarETTE", which is creeping into British parlance.

frjustin said...

ForMIDable and pasTORal on now heard on both sides of the pond. Other philological inexactitudes are hosPITable (despite an unfortunate allusion to what enters a spittoon) and sancTORal. DocTRInal is often heard, with a long I in the middle. And many Americans make both A's in "extra-ordinary" into separate syllables, because they're right there in the spelling.

Banshee said...

Well, Americans do say forMIDable. But we're big on PAStoral -- except for the genre of literature, which I've only heard pronounced as "the paSTORal." I've only heard English people say "inTEGral," although we do sometimes say "INtergral" instead of "INtuhgral."

The other pronunciations are not from our side of the pond at all, so far as I know.

Mark said...

Being an American who speaks what I believe to be standard (Midwestern) American English, Britishers might be interested to know how I pronounce these words.

mandatory pronounced mandatory – not guilty
formidable pronounced formidable – GUILTY
pastoral pronounced pastoral – GUILTY
adversary pronounced adversary – not guilty
integral pronounced integral – GUILTY (except when used in mathematics)
efficacy pronounced efficacy – not guilty

Note that I don't find any of these words particularly obscure, and certainly hear them used.

Voice from the roof top said...

In India most people speak English without accent/stress.

Joshua said...

This somehow reminds me of how the adjective referring to the Governor of an Australian State (or to the Governor-General of the Commonwealth) is "viceregal" (also used for Governors of British colonies, and above all for the Viceroy of India), whereas the equivalent adjective for the Governors of States of the U.S.A. is, understandably but unfortunately, that ugly, ugly, ugly word "gubernatorial", emphasis being on the antepenultimate syllable.

PM said...

'had never met the word before'?

'And he invented/ medicinal compound/ most efficacious/ in every way.'

Farmer's boy said...

How have we come to a state where such people as RP speaking school headteachers and products of minor public schools can say 'somethink' and 'everythink'? Many BBC presenters now routinely say NhaitchS for our sainted health service. Are these now accepted speech?

The Saint Bede Studio said...

A deliberate mispronunciation, for theatrical effect, was used by Lord Marchmain (Sir Laurence Olivier) in the Brideshead Revisited television serial. The name "Beryl" (being Bridie's wife) he pronounced "Burial".

Seamus said...

Not to mention the most, er, controversial variation - controversy, which has now more or less completely become conTROversy among everyone younger than about 60, and even with many older people.

Not in the United States. We rarely hear conTROVersy, and when we do, we think it's a British affectation. (I had a professor in college--or as the Brits would say, when I was at university--who had been a Rhodes Scholar, and he pronounced it conTROVersy, which I thought was dashed silly.)

On the other hand, in the Southern United States, we pronounce the words "insurance" and "umbrella" with the accent on the first (antepenultimate) syllable, while the rest of the country pronounces them on the penult. (That pronunciation figured in Hitchock's movie "Marnie," where Sean Connery's character identifies Marnie as a Southerner, because she says INsurance.) I'm not sure how Brits pronounce them.

GOR said...

I suppose that being of Irish extraction I am likely not to be overly disturbed by the vagaries in pronunciation these days. As you are familiar with the southwest of Ireland I’m sure you can recall how one who fashions wood is referred to as a carPENTer, etc.

However I still baulk at people over here pronouncing the second ‘w’ in Warwick – or the ‘w’ in any word ending in –wick. That would make you father – HunWICKE - I suspect. Horrors!

Pastor in Monte said...

Greyman 82 mentions Vermouth. An old friend of mine, an opera lover, was once able to offer Dame Eva Turner, the real and original Turandot, a drink at a bar. She answered directly: 'A vermoout', the accent definitely on the last syllable. That settles it for me.

Zephyrinus said...


Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Father. The Python Oxford Pronunciation Guide to English teaches us that migratory is pronounced mi-grate-ery

See Scene 1, In Search of The Holy Grail

Ladyhobbit said...

You are right about "Westmoreland"--I live in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, USA, and we do pronounce it "WestMOREland."
However, I place the emphasis on the first syllable in all the other words listed.
And "pasTORal" makes me shudder.

Ladyhobbit said...

You are right about "Westmoreland"--I live in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, USA, and we do pronounce it "WestMOREland."
However, I place the emphasis on the first syllable in all the other words listed.
And "pasTORal" makes me shudder.

Adrian said...

I have spent Advent vainly trying to pronounce the first word of the evening office hymn as though it meant 'creator' rather than 'pickler' (or even 'mummifier'). The tune makes it virtually impossible.

Mariana said...

Non-native English speaker here.

What about Purgatory, which I thought was Purga-tree, but everyone (on You Tube and such places, which I, a Cathilic convert in a Lutheran, country depend on) seems to pronounce Purga-tor-ee?

frjustin said...

Mariana: Americans say Purga-tor-ee, and Britons say Purga-t'ree. If those on You Tube or other such places say Purga-tor-ee, it's a sign that they're American (or possibly Canadian).
But if you're from Europe, you should be consistent and use the British pronunciation, which is taught in the schools.

Josephus Muris Saliensis said...

One wonders whether we don’t need stress signs in English as in Church Latin.

Mariana said...

My thanks to Fr. Justin.

Percy said...

May we agree on promoting long-lyved and short-lyved?

Alan said...

A recent change which I find jarring is measuring distance in kiLOMetres, Since the same stress is not visited on millimetres or centimetres, I assume that the reason is a false analogy with "gasometer".