Wednesday 27 October 2010
In English adjectives ending in the suffix -ant or -ent we still see the ghost of the Latin stress rule.
By this I mean that the word stress in such adjectives depends on how the stem to which the suffix is attached ends. (Obviously, we are dealing here with words of three or more syllables, i.e. with stems of two or more syllables.) If the stem ends in what Chomsky and Halle (The Sound Pattern of English) call a ‘weak cluster’, then the stress goes on the preceding syllable. If it ends in a ‘strong cluster’, then the stress goes on that syllable itself. A weak cluster consists of a short vowel followed by a maximum of one consonant. A strong cluster, on the other hand, has either a long vowel, or 2+ following consonants, or both. So a weak cluster reflects a Latin single-mora (‘light’) syllable, while a strong cluster reflects a Latin multi-mora (‘heavy’) syllable.
The stress rule in Latin itself is: stress the penultimate if it is heavy (impeˈrātōr; conˈfectus, asˈcendō), otherwise stress the antepenultimate (conˈfĭcĭō, ˈrăpĭdus). Classicists call this the ‘Penultimate Law’ (W. Sidney Allen, Vox Latina, CUP 1965, p. 83).
So in English we have on the one hand
(i) ˈarrogant, belˈligerent, beˈnevolent, conˈstituent, ˈdecadent, ˈfumigant, perˈcipient, ˈpermanent, ˈreticent, sigˈnificant, ˈsubsequent
—with antepenultimate stress reflecting the Latin short vowel in rŏgō, gĕrō, vŏlō, etc.; and on the other hand
(ii) exˈponent; abˈsorbent, aˈbundant, aˈstringent, correˈspondent, conˈvergent, inˈsistent, maˈlignant, reˈluctant
—with penultimate stress reflecting the Latin long vowel in pōnō and the consonant clusters in the other words.
In acquiescent and abhorrent the spellings sc, rr reflect what were consonant clusters in Latin, even though we now pronounce single consonants in English. In apparent the Latin vowel of appārĕō was long, even though we now pronounce it in BrE as short æ rather than as long eə. Conversely in provident Latin -vĭd- was short, generating antepenultimate stress, although we have a long vowel aɪ in provide.
It wouldn’t be English if we didn’t have a number of exceptions and irregularities. The vowel of Latin plăcĕō was short, yet we say complacent kəmˈpleɪsənt as if it were long. By rights excellent ought to be penultimate-stressed (Latin excellens with a double consonant), as should protestant. But they aren’t.
All this is by way of a lead-in to an unusual pronunciation I heard the other day: prevalent pronounced not as the usual ˈprevələnt but as priˈveɪlənt. Latin vălĕō had a short vowel, which is why most of us use antepenultimate stress not only in prevalent but also in equivalent and ambivalent.
I can see two factors which might lead someone to give this word penultimate stress, -ˈveɪl -. One is the verb to prevail, obviously related in morphology and (to some extent) in meaning. The other is chemical terminology, which has now spread to disciplines such as linguistics. In chemistry, valency ˈveɪlənsi (BrE) or valence ˈveɪləns (AmE) is a measure of the combining power of atoms of a given element. Chemists pronounce words such as trivalent, pentavalent and multivalent with penultimate stress, -ˈveɪlənt.
In LPD I do recognize the possibility of ˌæmbɪˈveɪlənt. But not yet of priˈveɪlənt, prə-. Ought I to?
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I won't be posting a blog entry tomorrow (Thur.), because I'll be busy in the BBC studios for brief interviews on BBC Radio 5 (around 07:35) and Radio 4 (around 08:10). It's to do with a new pronunciation initiative at the British Library.