Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Iapetus and tonotopy

I was reading a book about the geology of the British Isles when I came across the word Iapetus, the name of an ancient ocean that is believed to have once divided Laurentia from Baltica/Avalonia, and hence the future Scotland from the future England.
I read it to myself as aɪˈæpɪtəs, but was then struck by doubts. Ought it rather to be ˌaɪəˈpiːtəs?
This type of uncertainty arises whenever we meet a word from Greek or Latin for the first time, and the penultimate vowel in that word’s spelling is followed by a single consonant letter. The general rule is that if that vowel was long in Greek/Latin we’ll stress it in English, but if it was short we won’t, placing the stress instead on the antepenultimate.
So my hesitation can be reformulated as uncertainty over the ancient quantity of the e in Iapetus.
Iapetus is also the name of one of the moons of Saturn. In Greek mythology he was one of the titans.
I suppose I must have heard this word pronounced once or twice in my life. And I must have looked it up somewhere twenty years ago, because it is there in LPD. It’s also to be found in the Oxford BBC Guide.
In any case, my first surmise was right: it is indeed stressed on the antepenultimate, because the e was historically short. We say aɪˈæpɪtəs.
Greek spelling makes the history clear, because in Ancient Greek long and short e are represented by different letters: η (eta) for ē, ε (epsilon) for ĕ. And the titan was Ἰαπετός Iapĕtŏs.

Ancient Greek also distinguished long and short o: ω (omega) for ō, ο (omicron) for ŏ. The vowel in -log- ‘word, reason’ was the short one, which is why we stress words such as biology, philology on the antepenultimate. So was the vowel in -top- ‘place’, which is why I was taken aback when Sophie Scott (blog, 2 April) pronounced tonotopy as ˈtəʊnətɒpi. I would have expected təʊˈnɒtəpi.
— —
I shall be away for the rest of this week. Next blog: 19 April.


  1. This rule is very helpful indeed, but, as Fowler pointed out somewhere, it's much less simple if the word in question isn't an unchanged loan from Latin or Greek but has entered English through another language, has undergone changes in English or both. Greek had -to'pia and -lo'gia, and French -lo'gi(e), so the English stress of bi'ology has to be traced back to bi'ologos. Nevertheless, there's an established stess pattern for English words in -topy, and ˈtəʊnətɒpi certainly is unexpected.

  2. I naturally want to pronounce Iapetus jˈæpɪtəs. I think I have a tendency to over-classicise my pronunciation, though. For example, I pronounce the leading t in tmesis even though there is supposedly no legal initial 'tm' cluster in English. But then again, the dictionary (OED Shorter) agrees with me on that one.

  3. I would only ever say jæˈpɛtəs or jəˈpɛtəs for this. Initial aiə would never occur to me.

  4. As far as we can tell, Ancient Greek η differed in quality as well as length from ε. The former was mid-open, the latter mid-close, which is tricky to remember when you've got firmly in mind that ε is IPA for the mid-open vowel! The same is true of ω and ο respectively.

    The regular representations of the long mid-close vowels were ει and ου, frequently but not always derived from pre-Classical diphthongs. These later moved up to /i:/ and /u:/ respectively, the former merging with ι and the latter either pushing υ to /y/ or being pulled by it. Eventually /y/ was unrounded and vowel length was lost among other changes, leaving six spellings in Modern Greek for /i/: ι ει οι η υ υι.

  5. /aɪ'æpɪtəs/certainly seems to be standard for the Saturnian moon. I was using /'jæpɪtəs/, myself, too, until I first heard it, though.

    On the topic of astronomy I have to say that I'm being driven nut by Pluto enthusiasts pronouncing the moon/second half of the double planet /'ʃaːɹən/ (at least I haven't heard /ʃə'ɹɔn/ - yet).

    I need to relisten to the Guardian Daily podcast - they used a plural form I don't recall hearing before. I'm almost certain it was /ɹuːðz/ where I woulda expected /ɹuːθz/ - am I just wrong.

    Speaking of the Grauniad - they've fallen in love with /bɛiʒɪŋ/ too. Damn them.

  6. Before I heard the pronunciation of Iapetus, I thought it was /ˈdʒæpɪtəs/, by analogy from Oedipus' mother invariably being called Jocasta (and not Iocasta) in English.

    As for the nine modern Greek ways of writing /i/, I am reminded of this post on spelling reform.

  7. Like Graham and Michael, I instinctively knew it was jˈæpɪtəs.

    I can't remember what this instinctive knowledge is based on. Quite possibly, I read the name in Greek before I saw it in Roman spelling.

    I also pronounce a /t/ in tmesis, and I do remember why. It was a Classics teacher who taught me the word, and that's how he pronounced it.

  8. I met an RP-speaking professor consistently saying ˈhəʊmətɒpi (homotopy, a technical term in mathematics). Usually, however, it's həʊˈmɒtəpi or həˈmɒtəpi.

  9. Anonymous

    Not knowing the word, I would pronounce it hə'mɒtəpi until told otherwise.

  10. ACK! I *am* just wrong.

    "I'm almost certain it was /ɹuːðz/ where I woulda expected /ɹuːθz/ - am I just wrong."

    That should of course be /ɹuːvz/ vs. /ɹuːfs/ for the plural of "roof".

  11. this is a very cool information... the pangea is really a cool story... I encountered the word Iapeutus in natural skin care products... I don't know why???

  12. Perfect website:) Keep doing your work - it really helps.
    Especially, for foreigners.

  13. Hello. Have you ever thought about making short movies how to pronounce each sound - vowel or constant? It would be so helpful.

  14. I suspect it's only the politeness to which JW attributed his demurral to show surprise at əˈɡæθə ( which makes him demur to call anything as out of line as ˈtəʊnətɒpi plain wrong. Likewise ˈhəʊmətɒpi, however RP its attestor.

    I also remember a Classics teacher teaching us tmesis, but that's such a technical term, and ˈmiːsɪs would be absurd and probably incomprehensible.

    The spelling rooves, seems to be obsolete or at least obsolescent, but ruːvz is still around. I have observed that the Prince of Wales uses it, for example, and LPD acknowledges it as an RP alternative for the spelling 'roofs' (as it does rʊfs, which I find surprising). I wonder if there are any other examples of this curious phenomenon.

    Damn *all* lovers of /bɛiʒɪŋ/.

  15. I read the name in Greek before I saw it in Roman spelling.I can't remember what this instinctive knowledge is based on.

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