A friend of mine, Kerry, read my post of the Hopkins poem from the other day, “Spring and Fall” and questioned my comment on accents in English. This led me to contemplation, a little research, and enough of new thoughts to create a second post. First let me present our email exchange and then I’ll have to modify my comment on accenting.
So just read your latest piece. Interesting thought on the accent. You mention preferring to let the language run naturally, but what is naturally? As I watch more and more British television, I notice that the syllables stressed in English English is different than American English and even Scottish English and Irish English. So natural for whom?
Hmm good question. I'm not aware of stress differences. I thought the differences between American and English English are vowel sounds. I'll have to look into that.
The one standing out in my mind right now is garage.
Holy smoke, you're right. There are stress differences between the two. Check here:
I knew it! See... all that BBC America watching is paying off. Plus my "Mock the week" viewing on YouTube. I do not know how to write out the accent though. Just that when we say garage it is more of "ga rage" versus British "gar age"
Apparently the British tend to accent the first syllable while we accent the second on most two letter words that have a French origin. So they must say GAHrage while we say gaRAGE. The accent does effect the vowel pronunciation.
I was surprise to find that on certain type of words, the pronunciation differences between British English and American English is not only vowel sounds, but actual syllabic stress differences. I was so surprised that I went back to my graduate class text book (I never throw textbooks out) on the evolution of the English language to see what it said about this. I have The Origins and Development of the English Language, Third Edition by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo published back in 1982. I wonder when I took the class. Must have been some time in the 1990s. You can find later editions on Amazon. Now to vindicate my original thought, Pyles and Algeo have a whole chapter on British and American language differences and while they do go through vowel pronunciation differences, they never mention differences due to syllabic stress. Apparently they didn’t think this a significant issue.
Granted the stress differences seem to be mostly on French loan words. What’s interesting (and counter intuitive to me) is that the American stresses follow the French stress pattern of second syllable stress, while it’s the British that have altered the French pattern by pulling the stress to the first syllable. Two reasons why that might be, and this is speculation on my part. But first some context. Pyles and Algeo do go through the history of French words entering English, and it has an interesting history. French words entered English in periodic waves. Prior to 1066, no French words had entered the language, but with the subsequent Norman Conquest a large number of French words not only came in but became prominent, since French became the language of the aristocracy. French loan words that entered into the language during the middle ages over time became synthesized into English. That should not be a surprise given the Great Vowel Shift that dramatically altered English pronunciation during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is noteworthy that those French loan words are accented similarly between Americans and British.
The differences in syllabic stress seem to be in words that came into English during the seventeenth centuries and later. This shouldn’t be a surprise. British Americans had settled the colonies by then and their language was evolving. Actually, to be more precise, both the English language of the old country and the English language of the colonies were evolving, and to some degree evolving separately. The British speech of the eighteenth century, say that of Samuel Johnson, is markedly different than that of the sixteenth century, say of William Shakespeare. Pyles and Algeo make the claim, and I’ve seen the claim elsewhere, that American English is actually closer to Shakespeare’s English than today’s British English.
My two speculations as to why Americans stress these later French loan words as the French while the British changed the stress are as follows. (1) First these words probably came into the language through England, and the Americans probably first came in contact with these new loan words through print. Since there was no audio to spread pronunciation, the Americans observing the etymology assumed French-esk pronunciation. (2) The colonies had more direct contact with French than the British in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What is today our Midwest was part of the Louisiana Purchase, a French colony which the US bought from Napoleon in 1803. In addition, our northern states had a large French settlement, a remnant of the French and Indian War (1754-63), as Quebec does today in Canada. Given this closer contact with French speakers, it perhaps should not be a surprise that American English follows the French stressing of these late French loan words.
So how does this change how to look at the Hopkins poem. Since it’s short enough, let me post it again.
Spring and Fall
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
to a young child
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
In the previous post I said Hopkins’ accents would not have altered my pronunciation of any of the words. My friend Kerry questioned whether my pronunciation would be consistent for all English speakers, especially British speakers. Hopkins obviously would have been a British speaker, so possibly he might have pronounced those words differently without the accents and then felt the need to add them.
Hopkins accents nine syllables over eight words in the poem. Let’s look at each of them.
He accents Margaret on the first and third syllables, “Márgarét.” Here is possibly the one word where Hopkins accenting makes a difference to the poem. The name happens to be a French loan word, but it’s an old French dating back to circa 1300. Dictionary offers two pronunciation alternates, mahr-guh-rit, or mahr-grit and the Collins dictionary offers a British alternative, mɑːɡrət. By Hopkins accenting the first and third syllables, he is making clear he wants all three syllables pronounced, wants the first syllable to be accented as one would, but by accenting the last syllable wants the “ret” sound rather than a weakened “rit” sound. As I mentioned in Part 1, the “ret” sound rhymes nicely with the “and yet” of the ninth line.
Hopkins accents “are” in the first line. The reason I think he accents this little word is to force the reader articulate the line, “ARE you grieving” instead of “are YOU grieving.” Does it matter? The only result that I see is a different pacing to word flow. And what difference does that make?
Hopkins accents the first syllable of grieving in that first line, “gríeving.” Does it matter? How else would you pronounce this? Again I don’t see why it should.
Hopkins accents the first syllable of “leaves” in the third line, “Leáves.” I have no idea why he does. How else would you pronounce this?
Hopkins accents “as” in the fifth line. The only reason I can see for doing so is to prevent the reader from pronouncing “as the heart” as an anapest, two unstressed syllables followed by a stress (uu/). He wants the iambic (/u/) meter in that line. Does it matter? Given he doesn’t hold constant meter anyway, I don’t see why it would.
Hopkins accents the first syllable of sorrow’s in the eleventh line, “Sórrow’s.” Sorrow is an Old English word and both alternative pronunciation already accent that first syllable, sor-oh, sawr-oh. Again, I don’t see why the accent would be needed.
Hopkins accents springs in the eleventh line. Again, I’m at a loss as to what difference it makes. It’s a strong one syllable word that under all conditions would be pronounced with an accent.
Hopkins accents “are” again in the eleventh line. Here again he’s trying to prevent an anapest meter, “are the SAME” (uu/) and forcing a cretic meter, “ARE the SAME (/u/). Does it matter?
After all this analysis, my original position still holds. Other than the accenting on Márgarét, Hopkins could have done away with the accenting. They don’t add anything to the poem.
Here, it’s a joy to listen to the poem well read.