Put the accent on the right syl-LA-ble

A view from the Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, for no excuse other than that this post mentions "The Irish Washerwoman", and for no reason except that such an amazing green is a welcome sight in an English winter.

In Isaac Asimov’s 1963 essay “You, Too, Can Speak Gaelic” he writes of going, as a student, to the chemistry lab stockroom to get some paradimethylaminobezaldehyde—No! Wait! I’m really writing about England and the English, just stay with me—but he didn’t know how to pronounce it. You’ll never forget it, said the stockroom attendant, if you sing it to the tune of The Irish Washerwoman—and he was right, as I’ve never forgotten it either and, like Asimov, at odd moments I find it running through my head.  Years later Asimov, mumbling through it under his breath in the waiting room of a doctor’s office (UK: doctor’s surgery), was startled when the receptionist said “My God! You know it in the original Gaelic!”

My organic chemistry professor, in common with the rest of his kind, had to teach students how to pronounce the names of these compounds, and often joked that we had to “put the emphasis on the right syl-LA-ble”.

But it turns out that in everyday speech the British put the stress on a different syllable than I do in lots of common words. I don’t know what to make of this, why it should be. It seems to be innate. I was laughed at just after we moved here when,  in a conversation about househunting, I pronounced the name of Godalming, a nearby town, as godALming–which seemed natural to me–when everybody knows (of course) that it’s GODalming.

I’ll leave further comment on the pronunciation of British placenames for another time; today I’m only looking at the way the syllables are emphasized. Godalming is perhaps not the best example because I was stressing the second syllable and the British locals stress the first.  It’s usually the other way around.  Of the handful of examples I can think of as I sit here, only one or two don’t involve a surprising (to me) stress on the second syllable.

The most recent such surprise came from a telly advert (US: TV commercial) for a film based on a book by Patricia Cornwell, when the voice-over guy said “Patricia cornWELL”. Did I hear that right? It is the nature of telly adverts to run again and again so I heard plenty of iterations and, yes, he was pronouncing it cornWELL.

The first example I noticed when I moved to England was someone on the radio talking about the best books of the last deCADE.  deCADE?   I thought it must have been a personal idiosyncracy, until I heard other people say the same. (Not everyone here does; that one seems to vary.)

Between those two I ran into any number of other examples. ConTROversy and perSEVerance are seen by some British people to be incorrect, but I hear the words said that way all the time. In sports—or in a metaphor taken from sports—we British don’t pass the batON, we pass the BATon. In the kitchen, we have PAPrika and oreGAno (PAPrika being one of those examples, like Godalming, in which the stress on the first syllable seems surprising; why the stress in oregano should slip all the way back to the third syllable is anybody’s guess). Plenty of British people call one of the popular internet service providers yaHOO.

I will leave you with that misCELLany. I wish I had some scholarly explanation to present about how words came to be pronounced so differently by descendants of the American colonists, or even some cockeyed reason I could try to pass off as the real thing. All I can do is to report the differences, and ask anyone who knows more to let me in on the secret.

People who know me in the off-line world won’t believe, I’m sure, that I’m ever quiet if there’s a chance to chatter, but I’m often quiet here in England, not wanting to advertise, the second I open my mouth, that I’m a foreigner. Keeping shtumm also gives me a chance to hear how the people I’m speaking to sound, and maybe adjust the way I speak to fit in.

That’s a technique I learned in graduate school at Stanford, when it turned out that my old organic chemistry professor had taught me the wrong pronunciation of several important terms. I learned not to use them until I’d heard someone with a better undergraduate education say them. Getting laughed at is a great teacher; you never forget the lesson. I’ll never say those terms the wrong way again, although there’s been little need for me to say them at all since I left academe.

I can, however, still pronounce paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde, and sing it to the tune of “The Irish Washerwoman“, too.



Filed under Culture, Language

17 responses to “Put the accent on the right syl-LA-ble

  1. Today’s World Wide Words column by Michael Quinion mentions conTROversy and other disputed pronunciations in an item about a British Library project to map the ways in which English is spoken around the world. He mentions a Telegraph article on the subject http://tinyurl.com/TelegraphPronunciation — it even uses “controversy” in the headline — and gives this link for those who’d like to participate: http://www.bl.uk/evolvingenglish/.

    You can read Quinion on the subject at http://www.worldwidewords.org, although today’s issue doesn’t seem to have been posted there yet. I recommend that you subscribe, as I’ve done for years. He’s always got something entertaining, surprising, or educational, and usually all three at the same time. (When the column for 12 Feb is posted, look at section 4, “The Wordface”, for the conTROversy piece.)

  2. The one I noticed immediately when I started work in Britain was “inVENtory” rather than “INventory.” When a video game character carries objects around with her, that collection of objects is known as her inventory, so we use the term frequently. I never got used to it.

  3. Here’s another one–I’ve heard it before, but heard it again just now on the radio: PAStel, not pasTEL.

  4. Candida

    So tell me, how do you stress Baton Rouge? We have BATon and PAStels I’m sure just to annoy the French. It is our favourite national pastime, after all.

    Our oreGANo is closer to the botanical oriGANum, I think: oRIGanum just doesn’t sound Latin. You studied Latin, though, and I didn’t, so does oRIGanum work?

    YaHOO! is a whoop of joy, while a YAHoo is an obnoxious, brutish, filthy creature from Gulliver’s Travels. So the exclamation mark in the name and the assumption that people tend to give their companies positive names makes that one make sense. I suppose calling your company YAHoo is meant to be a bit punk.

    • Baton Rouge is a proper name in a region that was a French colony and which abounds in mispronounced French names. Yes, it’s BATon, but that has nothing to do with passing a batON, nor does it have much to do with the proper French pronunciation of the phrase! The equivalent, I suppose, would be to find some Cornish town with a name that is pronounced differently from the way in which the same word is pronounced in most of the UK, and suggest that this trumps the rest of the usage in the wider world. I assure you than in BATon Rouge–near where my father grew up, as it happens–they pass the batON.

      My husband has a theory that the closer you are to a border, the worse the pronunciation of the language spoken on the other side, and I’ve always put any oddities of British pronunciation of French words/names down to that, though actively annoying them might be the motive–you’d surely know better than I would. By Ernest’s rule, it’s no surprise that when I heard his grandfather say the name of the town where he lived, I thought it was spelled Pulashes. It was Palacios, in Texas but very close to Mexico (by Texas standards) and therefore, by Ernest’s Law, ripe for the worst kind of mispronunciation.

      As for Yahoo, I doubt that the people who named it were taking Gulliver much into consideration, and I doubt very *very* much that they meant to be punk!

      • Candida

        Oh, I wasn’t meaning to suggest any “trumping” of a rule there – I was just wondering if my belief that it was BATon had been wrong all these years, and the Americans were nicer to French words in all cases that we are. since you don’t put the H in herbs, and things like that. I’m quite chuffed by inconsistencies, really. They should remind us how irrational we all are as a species.

    • Sorry — left out a response to yours re oRIGanum. But, er, I didn’t propose oRIGanum. You’ve got, I think, a straw man there.

      Look, I’m not by any means saying the British are wrong. I’m saying that the two kinds of English are *different*, that’s all, and they are. Millions and millions of Americans say oREGano who’ve never thought of the Latin name of the plant; it’s simply how it’s pronounced there. It just how things are. I doubt very many people on either side of the Atlantic stop to think, when they learn such words at their parents’ knees-or-other-joint-of-your-choice, whether the word as it is pronounced where they learn it is consistent with the pronunciation of the Latin from which it derives. But your milage may vary…

      • Candida

        No, it was just you wondered how the stress got onto the third syllable and I was saying I *think* it got there from the Latin – and then wondering if my Latin was right! I think we only came across oregano when Mediterranean food became more popular, well after WWII. I’ve never read Elizabeth David’s stuff, but you might even found she told us all how to say it, since she was the bible for that sort of stuff. I wonder how it’s pronounced in Italian, I always thing of it as “their” herb. what I don’t get is how the stress got onto the second syllable in America, when in most plant names it’s on the first. Maybe it’s just too awkward to do that, so it slid.

  5. I was allowing myself to be annoyed by the BBC pronunciation of Thailand, which is Thailnd, whereas Murkans say it Thai-land – a firm spondee. But then I remembered Ireland, and had to drop the annoyance. We don’t say Ire-land – we say Irelnd. Ok then.

    But what about businessman? Why is that pronounced businessmn? And what about Pentagon? Why is it Pentagn? But then again why is Oregon Oregn? Oh never mind.

    :- )

    • I’ll get to that kind of thing in due course, I hope. The only example that I really can’y get used to is medcn.

      (And as for Oregon, is it ore-eh-gone or are-eh-gone? And then there’s Floor-ih-da and Flah-ri-da…)

  6. “Baton” and “pastel” and the one that strikes British ears the hardest “Bernard” are all examples of words of French origin that Brits and Mercans pronounce differently. As you pointed out, the US tendency is to emphasise the first syllable but in these French words, the tendency is reversed. There is a theory in linguistics (about some of which I am highly suspicious) that the French language gives more or less equal weight to each syllable and American attempts to emulate this end up as shifting the emphasis to a different syllable from the “natural” one. This does make sense but doesn’t explain why we Brits don’t do it. Perhaps our natural contempt for foreigners in general and our neighbours in particular removes any need to pander to their linguistic oddities.

    By the way, I was very concious of typing “different from” in the preceding paragraph and noticing “different than” in MEF’s article. It is one of those Americanisms that really jars – but seems to be catching on over here (along with “o-REG-ano”). Why do some Amercianisms, such as “different than” and “Ber-NARD” and “‘erbs” grate so badly on British ears while other are either neutral or positively charming? I wonder whether this negative-to-positive scale of reaction to language is common to all Brits? And I wonder if there are similar responses among Americans to Britishisms.

    • Ah, but you see I didn’t say “different than”, I said “put the stress on a different syllable than I do”. I would never say “A is different than B”, always “A is different from B”. And one of the Britishisms that makes my skin crawl is “A is different to B”. (Brrrrr!) I wish I were enough of a linguist to support my assertion that “put the stress on a different syllable than I do” is grammatically a completely different animal from/than/to “A is different than B”; I can only tell you that I very firmly believe that’s the case. (I could also be very firmly wrong here.) (What would you say? “…put the stress on a different syllable from the syllable that I stress?” To use a phrase my neighbor says before just about every sentence, “I’m not trying to be funny”; just asking.)

      As for BER-nard, may I add MAU-rice? As you point out, Americans generally say BerNARD and MauREECE; if we want the name pronounced MAU-riss, we name the person Morris. I knew an Irishman who lived near San Francisco and thought for ages that his name was Morris, but it was Maurice; when I eventually realized this and said how surprised I was, he said he’d always wondered why Americans use the French pronunciation. So with a data point of one Irishman, I can say that there are some in (or at least from) these islands who think that the stress on the final syllable is French, rather than that French is unstressed.

      You’re suggestion that French (about which I know very, very little) is unstressed is interesting and a surprise; when I took Japanese (briefly), I learned that the Japanese for all intents and purposes do not stress any syllable, but that no Western language is like that. In any case, I could (and probably will) at some point do a whole article about how the British pronounce French words, which seems almost a shove-it-in-their-faces attempt to get it wrong. Filet mignon, anyone? (For the Americans in the crowd, the British pronounce it FILL-it, with a very firm T to mark the ending.)

      I think everyone probably has a personal negative-to-positive scale for these things. Thank goodness we’re all different, or life would be boring…

    • Just heard from an economist on Radio 4: “for different reasons to the other two [economists]”.

  7. To my ear putting extra words between “different” and “than” just makes it longer 🙂 It still sticks out like a sore opposable. I think I would have phrased it “the British and I put the stress on a different syllables in lots of common words” or something like that.

    I think “different to” arises out of confusion with “compare to”. I remember being told at school that if you “compare X with Y” you are listing likenesses and differences whereas if you “compare X to Y” you are pointing out a single difference. Given that my English teachers were not the sharpest pencils in the box I have never quite known whether to believe this or not.

    Regarding “fillet/filet” (note different spellings), we Brits pronounce the T in “fillet steak” but not in “filet mignon”. At least that’s how this Brit does it. The one being thought of as an English word and the other as a French phrase. The one that always amuses me is “duck a l’orange”. At least “canard a l’orange” is consistent (if pretentious). Note that we pronounce the “ck” in “duck” but not the “d” in “canard”.

    Please note that I put a caveat of suspicion around the assertion that French evenly accents all words. I have spent long periods listening to both French and Japanese to try to convince myself one way or the other. What is certain is that both languages vary the emphasis, syllable to syllable, much less than we do in English. I agree that we British Islanders do as the Americans do and overemphasise final syllables when pronouncing French words (at least when attempting to pronounce them properly). It’s just that we hear it more clearly when Americans do it because you do it as a matter of course in so many more words than we do. Generally we only do it in phrases that are seen as being borrowed, such as “filet mignon” and “canard a l’orange” but not in words that are seen to have made it all the way into British English, such as “fillet”.

    • Malcolm

      Compare to/with: The key sentence to remember is “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (say you are like unto a summer’s day?
      So, by default, ‘compare with‘ is the usage for weighing or adjudging one thing or class against another or others.

  8. Oh, just to add a point about Japanese emphasis. Strong or weak emphasis is applied throughout and is used to show your own place in the hierarchy. Hence all the apparent shouting by Japanese military officers in those old WW2 films. My female Japanese teacher had to learn to put more emphasis on her words when she came to Britain so she could be heard and understood. When she went home and was still “overemphasising” her words, her sister, who had collected her from the airport, was deeply embarrassed because she was being so unladylike.

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