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Bless our Messy Language

Posted by Bob on October 02, 2003

In Reply to: Pronunciation posted by R. Berg on October 02, 2003

: : : : : : Beaumont's Angels (= there are 6 of us, teaching English at "Lycée Beaumont, Redon, Britanny, France")are getting desperate ! we 're having a tough time finding some coherent grammatical rule we could give our students about the pronounciation of the adjectives finishing with "-ed". Why do you say "crooked"[-id], "wicked" [-id],"legged" [-id]...and "eyed" [aid],"barbed"(wire) [barbd]...?
: : : : : : Any help welcome !

: : : : : Why?
: : : : : Cause we are the US of A and can do anything we want--take out people we don't like, terrorize people, bomb innocents, imprison citizens who speak out and generally swagger drunkenly around the globe causing terrible misery.

: : : : : Now back to the real question you asked:
: : : : : I am sure some word smith that populates this region of the internet will surely help you soon.

: : : : I usually only like to swagger drunkenly around my own neighborhood. I can find my way home easier that way.

: : : Hmmm. I'm not sure that there's a hard and fast grammatically linked rule for pronunciation. In old hymn books you occasionally see a grave accent on certain e's in the lyrics where the congregation is intended to sing the word in question as two syllables - blessèd (pron. bless-id) being an example that comes to mind. I've seen the same device used in older poetry books where the publisher is determined to show the expected scansion. However that's all a side issue.

: : : The clear "regular" pronunciation is with a silent non-syllabic e - played, eyed, barbed, loved, etc. I wonder if the examples you quote as exceptions really are exceptions - consider "the crooked card dealer crooked his finger at me" or "the wicked landlord laughed as the water wicked its way up the bricks". In these cases, the bisyllabic pronunciation may be to distinguish the figurative adjective from the more simplistic verb.

: : : As to "legged", I'd use a monosyllabic pronunciation of this word to describe a supermodel as long-legged. I do grant you that there is a rote expression "long-legged beasties" where "legged is indeed bisyllabic. However, given that this phrase is taken from a poetic source - "ghoulies, ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night" - I suspect that my earlier point about verse playing fast and loose with the rules may still stand.

: : After thirty seconds' reflection, you could of course also consider the following example - "the long-legged beastie legged its way over the hills and far away." I'm sticking with straightforward verbal parts featuring a silent e, and figurative adjectival usages being differentiated by a bisyllabic e...

: : ...except in poetry and hymns.

: In the U.S., we give "legged" two syllables, as in "four-legged animal."

: Interesting question, and I don't know of any general rule. I believe Shakespeare used disyllables for some such words spoken as monosyllables now.

: Blessed, past-tense verb, one syllable; old spelling "blest"
: Bles-sed, participial adjective, two syllables

: Cursed, past-tense verb, one syllable; old spelling "curst"
: Cur-sed, particip. adj., two syllables in current use, but OED has examples of "curst" in this sense

: An aged man, two syllables
: An aged cheese, one syllable
: The wine aged well, one syllable

: Well, the man has aged, but the cheese has BEEN aged. So might the distinction between active and passive get us any closer to a rule?

: When pondering, remember that "barbed" means fitted with barbs but "wicked" doesn't mean fitted with wicks.

English pronunciation is messy. English grammar is untidy. Our unabridged dictionaries are the largest among the world's languages - and all stemming from our voracious appetite to vacuum up useful words from any language passing by. We're adept at adapting and adopting little nuggets of linguistic gold whenever we run across them. We feel no shame about appropriating phrases. We break rules. We defy rules. Most English grammar "rules" were written by people who were comforted by the reliable rules of L*tin grammar, and wanted English to behave, dammit. They pushed and they pulled, but English wriggled out of the cage again. French, by extreme contrast, has an Academie of rigid, constipated rule keepers who have managed to stifle the language sufficiently so that now only a small platoon of people speak it outside of France and its former colonies.