Wednesday 8 April 2009


Martin Ball writes
I have a Speech Pathology colleague (of many years standing) who I have heard several times recently pronounce obstruent as /əbˈstr.../
I was wondering whether this is just because it is a word she had not heard said often (though in this same meeting I had used it several times), or whether this is a recognized US variant (not in LPD).
I share Martin’s bemusement. I have never heard anything but initial stress for this word, ˈɒbstruənt.
All other English words ending in -uent have antepenultimate stress for most of us, too: affluent, effluent, congruent, constituent. However, some Americans do say conˈgruent with penultimate stress, and some do the same with affluent and effluent, so perhaps this is what provided the model for the obˈstruent produced by Martin’s colleague. (But I don’t think even Americans ever say constiˈtuent.)
Classicists will know that the Latin etymon has a short vowel, obstrŭ-ō, -ent-, and therefore initial stress.
Words with other vowel stems plus -ant ~ -ent include brilliant, radiant, valiant, variant, gradient, lenient, prurient (all antepenultimate), but on the other hand compliant and defiant (penultimate, because of the verbs comply and defy).
A word I don’t think I’ve ever encountered outside early nineteenth century poetry is reboant. The OED says it has initial stress, ˈrebəʊənt. Merriam-Webster agrees (sound clip).


  1. The colleague in question probably began pronouncing obstruent this way when he was in his teens, and before he ever heard anyone say it. And the habit stuck.

    I remember that for a long time I imagined that "misled", which I had never heard anyone pronounce, was the past tense of a verb "to misle".

  2. @ Lance: The "to misle" pronunciation of "misled" is featured in How Green Was My Valley. So you're in good company.

    @ John: In the US I sometimes hear "influence" with stress on the second syllable. Also, on home improvement shows (my not-so-secret vice), I have heard "damask" with ultimate stress, "tester" (as in tester bed) with [i:] in the first syllable, and "foliage" as "folage" (presumably following the "silent i" pattern of "marriage, carriage" and so forth (I think this last has come up before).

    I mispronounced "alveolar" as "al-vee-OH-ler" until a few years ago, when I heard it pronounced properly, and then looked it up to confirm that I'd been mistaken.

  3. For the longest time I used to pronounce "velar" as ["vEl@`], until I finally found out it was ["vi:l@`]. Likewise I used to pronounce "ablative" as [@"bleI4Iv], rather than ["{bl@4Iv].

  4. I don't know whether to thank you, Amy, or to cure vehemently.

    I've never before heard the word until I checked it online now. Who designed this language?!! I want to register a complaint.

    Of course, I used to pronounce (or at least think) "vehement" as /'vɛhəmɛnt/.

  5. I also was an alve'olar and vɛlar speaker for most of my life, and occasionally still slip. The first is just a bit more evidence for my claim that English is by default a penultimate-stress language; in the absence of other clues to stress, we assume penultimate stress. All I can say is, linguists writing introductory works ought, after explaining the IPA, to give pronunciations of all their technical terms, and not leave the matter to general dictionaries or oral tradition.

    I also say con'gruent, having learned that pronunciation in high-school geometry class (where there was much talk of congruent triangles), but in'congruous.

    Ab'lative is, I believe, standard for the deverbal adjective from ab'late, as in the ablative shield that used to protect space capsules from burning up in the atmosphere by itself burning away.

  6. Bah humbug on "alveolar". Never heard anything but [ɛlviˈæələ] (if you'll allow me a parody of Melbourne accent) for all the years I was in Melbourne University linguistics—including tutoring phonetics. I hereby deem this a language change.

    (Parenteze al la gastiganto: dankon pro via vortaro, Malgraŭ ke mi jam delonge kabeis...)


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