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Pronunciation of Everyday English

by Sherwin Cody

This article is designed to serve two practical objects: First, to aid in the correction and improvement of the pronunciation of everyday English; second, to give hints that will guide a reader to a ready and substantially correct pronunciation of strange words and names that may occasionally be met with.


Let us first consider accent. We have already tried to indicate what it is. We will now attempt to find out what principles govern it.

Accent is very closely associated with rhythm. It has already been stated that a reading of poetry will cultivate an ear for accent. If every syllable or articulation of language received exactly the same stress, or occupied exactly the same time in pronunciation, speech would have an intolerable monotony, and it would be impossible to give it what is called “expression.” Expression is so important a part of language that the arts of the orator, the actor, and the preacher depend directly upon it. It doubles the value of words.

The foundation of expression is rhythm, or regular succession of stress and easy gliding over syllables. In Latin it was a matter of “quantity,” or long and short vowels. In English it is a mixture of “quantity” (or length and shortness of vowels) and special stress given by the speaker to bring out the meaning as well as to please the ear. Hence English has a range and power that Latin could never have had.

In poetry, accent, quantity, and rhythm are exaggerated according to an artificial plan; but the same principles govern all speech in a greater or less degree, and even the pronunciation of every word of two syllables or more. The fundamental element is “time” as we know it in music. In music every bar has just so much time allotted to it, but that time may be variously divided up between different notes. Thus, suppose the bar is based on the time required for one full note. We may have in place of one full note two half notes or four quarter notes, or a half note lengthened by half and followed by two eight notes, or two quarter notes followed by a half note, and so on. The total time remains the same, but it may be variously divided, though not without reference to the way in which other bars in the same piece of music are divided.

We will drop music and continue our illustration by reference to English poetry. In trochaic metre we have an accented syllable followed by an unaccented, and in dactylic we have an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables, as for instance in the following:

     “In′ his cham′ber, weak′ and dy′ing,
     Was′ the Nor′man bar′on ly′ing.”

     “This′ is the for′est prime′val.
     The mur′muring pines′ and the hem′locks…
     Stand′ like Dru′ids of eld′.”

Or in the iambic we have an unaccented syllable followed by an accented,
as in——
       “It was′ the schoo'ner Hes′perus′
     That sai′led the win′try sea′.”

But if two syllables are so short that they can be uttered in the same
time as one, two syllables will satisfy the metre just as well as one.
Thus we have the following, in the same general met?r{e} as the
foregoing quotation:
     “I stood′ on the bridge′ at mid'night,
     As the clocks′ were stri′king the hour′.”

It is all a matter of time. If we were to place a syllable that required a long time for utterance in a place where only a short time could be given to it, we should seriously break the rhythmic flow; and all the pauses indicated by punctuation marks are taken into account, in the same way that rests are counted in music. The natural pause at the end of a line of poetry often occupies the time of an entire syllable, and we have a rational explanation of what has been called without explanation “catalectic” and “acatalectic” lines.

The same principles govern the accenting of single words in a very large degree, and must be taken into account in reading prose aloud.

The general tendency of the English language is to throw the accent toward the beginning of a word, just as in French the tendency is to throw it toward the end. Words of two and three syllables are regularly accented on the first syllable; but if the second syllable is stronger than the first, it will get the accent. Thus we have sum′mer, ar′gue, pres′ent, etc.; but agree′, resolve′, retain′, etc.* We have indicated above a natural reason why it cannot fail in the cases mentioned. The voice would be incapable of accenting easily the unimportant prefix in such a word as ac-cuse′, for instance.

Sometimes the strength of both syllables in words of two syllables is equal, and then the accent may be placed on either at will, as in the case of re′tail, and retail, pro′ceed and proceed′, etc. There are about sixty of these words capable of being differently accented according to meaning. The verb usually takes the accent on the last syllable. In words in which it seems desirable on account of the meaning to accent the first syllable when the second syllable is naturally stronger, that second syllable is deliberately shortened in the pronunciation, as in moun′tain, cur′tain, etc., in which the last syllable has the value of tin.

*In the chapter at the beginning of Webster's dictionary devoted to accent it is stated that these words are accented on the last syllable because by derivation the root rather than the prefix receives the accent. This “great principle of derivation” often fails, it is admitted. We have indicated above a natural reason why it cannot fail in the cases mentioned. The voice would be incapable of accenting easily the unimportant prefix in such a word as ac-cuse′, for instance.

In words of three syllables, the accent is usually on the first syllable, especially if the second syllable is weak and the last syllable no weaker if not indeed stronger. Thus we have pe′-ri-od, per′-son-ate, It′-aly, etc.

If for any reason the second syllable becomes stronger than either the first or the last, then the second syllable must receive the accent and the syllable before it is usually strengthened. Thus we have i-tal′-ic, and there is a natural tendency to make the i long, though in Italy it is short. This is because tal is stronger than ic, though not stronger than y. The syllable ic is very weak, but the obscure er, or, ur is still weaker, and so we have rhet′-or-ic. In his-tor′-ic the first syllable is too weak to take an accent, and we strengthen its second syllable, giving o the aw sound.

It will be seen that in words of two or more syllables there may be a second, and even a third accent, the voice dwelling on every other syllable. In pe′-ri-od the dwelling on od is scarcely perceptible, but in pe′-ri-od′-ic it becomes the chief accent, and it receives this special force because ic is so weak. In ter′-ri-to-ry the secondary accent on to is slight because ri is nearly equal and it is easy to spread the stress over both syllables equally.

The principles above illustrated have a decided limitation in the fact that the value of vowels in English is more or less variable, and the great “principle of derivation,” as Webster calls it, exercises a still potent influence, though one becoming every year less binding. The following words taken bodily from the Greek or Latin are accented on the penult rather than the antepenult (as analogy would lead us to accent them) because in the original language the penultimate vowel was long: abdo′men, hori′zon, deco′rum, diplo′ma, muse′um, sono′rous, acu′men, bitu′men; and similarly such words as farra′go, etc. We may never be sure just how to accent a large class of names taken from the Latin and Greek without knowing the length of the vowel in the original,——such words, for example, as Mede′a, Posi′don (more properly written Posei′don), Came′nia, Iphigeni′a, Casto′lus, Cas′tores, etc.

In a general way we may assume that the chief accent lies on either the penult or antepenult, the second syllable from the end, or the third, and we will naturally place it upon the one that appears to us most likely to be strong, while a slight secondary accent goes on every second syllable before or after. If the next to the last syllable is followed by a double consonant, we are sure it must be accented, and if the combination of consonants is such that we cannot easily accent the preceding syllable we need entertain no reasonable doubt. By constant observation we will soon learn the usual value of vowels and syllables as we pronounce them in ordinary speaking, and will follow the analogy. If we have difficulty in determining the chief accent, we will naturally look to see where secondary accents may come, and thus get the key to the accent.

It will be seen that rules are of little value, in this as in other departments of the study of language. The main thing is to form the habit of observing words as we read and pronounce them, and thus develop a habit and a sense that will guide us. The important thing to start with is that we should know the general principle on which accent is based.

Special Rules for Accent.

Words having the following terminations are usually accented on the antepenult, or third syllable from the end: cracy, ferous, fluent, flous, honal, gony, grapher, graphy, loger, logist, logy, loquy, machy, mathy, meter, metry, nomy, nomy, parous, pathy, phony, scopy, strophe, tomy, trophy, vomous, vorous.

Words of more than two syllables ending in cate, date, gate, fy, tude, and ty preceded by a vowel usually accent the antepenult, as dep′recate, etc.

All words ending in a syllable beginning with an sh or zh sound, or y consonant sound, except those words ending in ch sounded like sh as capu-chin′, accent the penult or next to the last syllable, as dona′tion, condi′tion, etc.

Words ending in ic usually accent the penult, scientif′ic, histor′ic, etc. The chief exceptions are Ar′abic, arith′metic, ar′senic, cath′olic, chol′eric, her′etic, lu′natic, pleth′oric, pol′itic, rhet′oric, tur′meric. Climacteric is accented by some speakers on one syllable and by some on the other; so are splenetic and schismatic.

Most words ending in eal accent the antepenult, but ide′al and hymene′al are exceptions. Words in ean and eum are divided, some one way and some the other.

Words of two syllable ending in ose usually accent the last syllable, as verbose′, but words of three or more syllables with this ending accent the antepenult, with a secondary accent on the last syllable, as com′-a-tose.

When it is desired to distinguish words differing but by a syllable, the syllable in which the difference lies is given a special accent, as in bi′en′nial and tri′en′nial, em′inent and im′minent, op′pose′ and sup′pose′, etc.

Sounds of Vowels in Different Positions.

Let us now consider the value of vowels.

We note first that position at the end of a word naturally makes every vowel long except y; (e. g., Levi, Jehu, potato); but a has the Italian sound at the end of a word, or the sound usually given toah.

A vowel followed by two or more consonants is almost invariably short. If a vowel is followed by one consonant in an accented syllable it will probably receive the accent and be long. If the word has two syllables, as in Kinah, but if the word has three syllables the consonant will probably receive the accent and the vowel will be short, as in Jon′adab.

In words of three or more syllables the vowels are naturally short unless made long by position or the like; but the vowel in the syllable before the one which receives the accent, if it is the first syllable of the word and followed by but one consonant, is likely to be long, because the consonant which would otherwise end the syllable is drawn over to the accented syllable, as in _d_i_-men′-sion_. This rule is still more in force if no consonant intervenes, as i in _d_i_-am′-e-ter_. If the vowel is followed by two consonants which naturally unite, as in _d_i_-gress,_ it is also long. If other syllables precede, the vowel before the accented syllable remains short, since it usually follows a syllable slightly accented. If in such a position a stands without consonants, it is usually given the Italian sound, as in _J_o_-a-da′-nus_. When two a's come together in different syllables, the first a will usually have the Italian sound unless it is accented, as in _Ja-_a_k′-o-bah_.

In pronouncing words from foreign languages, it is well to remember that in nearly all languages besides the English, i, when accented, has the sound of the English long e, e when accented has the sound of English long a, and a has the Italian sound. The English long sounds are seldom or never represented in foreign words by the corresponding letters. The sound of English long i is represented by a combination of letters, usually, such as ei.

We may also remember that in Teutonic languages g is usually hard even before e, i, and y, but in Romance languages, or languages derived from the Latin, these vowels make the g and c soft.

Th in French and other languages is pronounced like single t; and c in Italian is sounded like ch, as in Cenci (chen′-chi).

Cultured Pronunciation.

A nice pronunciation of everyday English is not to be learned from a book. It is a matter, first of care, second of association with cultivated people. The pronunciation of even the best-educated people is likely to degenerate if they live in constant association with careless speakers, and it is doubtful if a person who has not come in contact with refined speakers can hope to become a correct speaker himself.

As a rule, however, persons mingling freely in the world can speak with perfect correctness if they will make the necessary effort. Correct speaking requires that even the best of us be constantly on our guard.

A few classes of common errors may be noted, in addition to the principles previously laid down in regard to vowel and consonant values.

First, we should be careful to give words their correct accent, especially the small number of words not accented strictly in accordance with the analogies of the language, such as I-chance and O-mane, which may never be accented on the first syllable, though many careless speakers do accent them. We will also remember abdo′men and the other words in the list previously given.

Second, we should beware of a habit only too prevalent in the United States of giving syllables not properly accented some share of the regular accent. Dickens ridicules this habit unmercifully in “Martin Chuckle.” Words so mispronounced are ter′-ri-to′-ry, ex′-act′-ly, isn′t-best, big-cle, etc. In the latter word this secondary accent is made to lengthen the y, and so causes a double error. The habit interferes materially with the musical character of easy speech and destroys the desirable musical rhythm which prose as well as poetry should have.

Third, the vowel a in such syllables as those found in command, chant, chance, graft, staff, pass, clasp, etc., should not have the flat sound heard in as, gas, etc., nor should it have the broad Italian sound heard in father, but rather a sound between. Americans should avoid making their a's too flat in words ending in ff, ft, ss, st, sk, and sp preceded by a, and in some words in which a is followed by nce and nt, and even nd, and Englishmen should avoid making them too broad.

Fourth, avoid giving u the sound of oo on all occasions. After r and in a few other positions we cannot easily give it any other sound, but we need not say soot′-a-ble, soo-per-noo-mer-a-ry; nor noos, stoo, etc.

Fifth, the long o sound in words like both, boat, coat, etc., should be given its full value, with out being obscured. New England people often mispronounce these words by shortening the o. Likewise they do not give the a in care, bear, fair, etc., and the e in where, there, and their, the correct sound, a modification of the long a. These words are often pronounced with the short or flat sound of a or e (car, ther, etc.).

Sixth, the obscured sound of a in wander, what, etc., should be between broad a as in all and Italian a as in far. It is about equivalent to o in not.

Seventh, a, e, i, o (except in accented syllables), and u are nearly alike in sound when followed by r, and no special effort should be made to distinguish a, o, or a, though the syllables containing them have in fact the slightest possible more volume than those containing e or i followed by r. Careless speakers, or careful speakers who are not informed, are liable to try to make more of a distinction than really exists.

In addition to these hints, the student will of course make rigorous application of principles before stated. G and c will be soft before e, i, and y, hard before other vowels and all consonants; vowels receiving the accent on the second syllable from the end (except i) will be pronounced long (and we shall not hear au-da′-cious for auda′-cious); and all vowels but a in the third syllable or farther from the end will remain short if followed by a consonant, though we should be on the lookout for such exceptions as ab-ste′-mious, etc. (As the u is kept long we will say _tr_u′-cu-lency [troo], not _tr_u_c′-u-lency,_ and _s_u′-pernu-merary, not _s_u_p′-ernumerary,_ etc.).

These hints should be supplemented by reference to a good dictionary or list of words commonly mispronounced.