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 . Conversely in provident Latin -vĭd- was short, generating antepenultimate stress, although we have a long vowel 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?

_ _ _

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.


  1. I haven't heard ˌæmbɪˈveɪlənt or priˈveɪlənt, prə-. Maybe I will one day.

  2. ˌæmbɪˈveɪlənt was formerly the preferred pronunciation in the 'Daniel Jones' dictionary (certainly in the 13th edition by A. C. Gimson), but had disappeared by the 15th edition. The word was (æmbi·vǎlĕnt) in the 1933 supplement to the OED.

  3. Correction: ACG actually gave equal stress (ˈæmbɪˈveɪlənt).

    I should also say that the OED transcription is equivalent to IPA æmˈbɪvələnt.

  4. My rule for English as an international language is that we should avoid proliferating forms.

    For example, I have expelled "ought to" from my little box of modals: "can, may, might, must, could, should, would, will."

    I need a clean list because I have composed a set of 60 verb elements of the past, including 15 sentences containing modals in a past context (based on "might, had to, could, should, would") with an active, passive, and continuous "past modal" inside a sentence following the pattern: verb, or adjective, or noun: 2.past modal: 3.conditional, purpose, reason, or result clause: "I knew I had to work like hell to avoid being seen as a slacker."

    Unless you create four memory pages for 1.tenses and voices, including present and past perfects 2.past modals 3.modal past perfects 4.non-finites in a past context, students will never master instant recognition of the forms and attain facility with the past in composition and speech.

    I think that professors of phonetics should center their work in describing and analyzing the sound system(s) of English in "Macbeth" and an official database of 40 lyrics from 1600-1900 (the very best poem for sound symbolism is "The Sick Rose"). American pronunciation per is an ideal target. In reading "Macbeth," we clicked on the LDOCE 5th "hurlyburly." This will not do at all. We went immediately to and got a superior pronunciation.

    I would strongly recommend that you provide good targets for students and stay well away from bizarre pronunciations. British English has far too many ins and outs that are better suited to the circus than serious work.

  5. @Clayton Burns:


  6. vp: can i out-question-mark you? probably not. pv.

  7. Surely a troll. I mean it must be... right?

  8. @Clayton Burns:
    Perhaps your thoughts would be better expressed as posts on a blog of your own than as comments on somebody else's blog.

  9. ˈdecadent or alternatively deˈcadent - this, as maybe some others, is more complex because of the double origin from Latin and French, which might explain some cases of seemingly exceptional stress.

  10. If I saw prevalent where I would expect prevailing ("prevalent winds", for example), I might tend to give it penultimate stress. Similarly, I gave impious penultimate stress for years, obviously by analogy with pious, until I happened to hear my father say it.

    You omit the muta cum liquida exception, which gives us ˈtenebrous rather than teˈnebrous, because a stop followed by l or r did not make the preceding syllable heavy in Latin. This rule was lost in Vulgar Latin, which is why Spanish has teniebla 'darkness' < tenebra rather than tínebla or the like.

  11. This is intuition only, but I think that priˈveɪlənt (or possibly prəˈveɪlənt) may be variations that are more commonly found in AmE.

  12. @ Ella: I've never heard either one of those here in America.

  13. I think Clayton Burns ought to have been thanked by us for his contribution, oughtn't he to have been? Some people here might say "Those things needn't have been mentioned here, needn't they have been?" But we all may sometimes wander off topic, mayn't we? There may be some who daren't, but there always used to be odd comments cropping up here, usen't there?

  14. John,
    when will the interviews be aired?

  15. Kraut

    The two interviews were aired this morning. If you go to the BBC iPlayer page for the Radio Four Today Programme and the radio Five Breakfast programme you can listen. At least you can listen if you're in the UK. I don't promise that you can from elsewhere.

    These are long programmes, but you can select your starting point.

    For Radio Four Today
    1. this separate link
    2. the above link starting at 2:19.26

    For Radio Five Breakfast
    the above link starting at 2:24.55

  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  17. I have deleted Clayton Burns's further comment as even less relevant than the preceding ones.

  18. This American has only heard 'ex,ponent. I say com'ponent, but I've often heard 'com,ponent, and I knew one person who said 'component (the way I say "competent").

  19. I enjoyed your radio interviews John.

  20. "Surely a troll. I mean it must be... right"
    More likely a crackpot. "Never attribute malice where stupidity may suffice."

    I've been the /pri'veɪlənt/ camp, myself, and I still tend slip on it occasionally.

    As it happens I'm a chemist (if a failed one). (And a NNS.)

  21. I never ever pronounce prevalent with a stress on the second syllable and when I hear such a thing, I shudder as if by epileptic seizure.

    John Wells (in his above blog entry): "In English adjectives ending in the suffix -ant or -ent we still see the ghost of the Latin stress rule."

    Oddly enough, the idea of "ghost remnants" left by substrate languages inspires a connection to Beeke's "Pre-Greek" etyma. Could Classical Greek likewise contain "ghosts" of Minoan stress rules? As they say, history repeats itself. Just an idle idea for other paleoglots out there to ponder on.

    Sili: "Never attribute malice where stupidity may suffice."

    I used to believe this adage until I realized that stupidity can be a form of malice too. To persist with ignorance is to have contempt for others and their valuable time.

    Conversely, malice is certainly a form of stupidity since there's simply no point in it.

    Ergo, the dichotomy between stupidity and malice is a nonsensical myth, often promoted rather ironically by other trolls to guilt people into feeling ashamed for calling a stupid person stupid.

  22. I know that this post is by now terribly out of date, but for whatever interest it might have to the LPD, I thought that I would 'report my findings'.

    My boyfriend and I were both slightly surprised (both being horrible pedants) when we heard /prəˈveɪlənt/ from one of our friends with a broad Home Counties accent about a week ago. Obviously, the penultimate stress wasn't in the LPD when I checked it today, as you, John Wells, pointed out yourself. However, he had allegedly never heard /ˈprevələnt/, and I find it almost impossible to believe that he has never heard the word pronounced before having done very well in English literature in his A-levels.

    My friend is male, born in 1986, and has lived in the Home Counties all his life, although he has been abroad for large portions of 2009-2012.


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