Archive for October, 2011

Mysteries of the English Stress System

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, Maud Newton linked to a short list of English words Nabokov reportedly found difficult to pronounce. The diacritical marks were meant to help him remember which syllable was to receive stress:

prívet
clématis
bígoted
pólypany
múltiple
cátechism
sólace
péctoral
Botocúdos
málleable
nastúrtium

In high school, I learned English from other non-native speakers (two of them Moroccans, one a Belgian). In college, I had three British professors, but the rest were Moroccan: some spoke with a British accent, others with an American one, depending on where they had done their graduate studies. All this made for a thoroughly confusing mix of regional dialects and foreign accents. So when I moved to London to attend UCL, I was never entirely sure how to pronounce certain words, words I had come across before mostly in print, like incredulous and mandatory, or words with Greek and Latin roots, like anthropomorphic and debilitating. Then there were the baffling exceptions, like Gloucester and Leicester, which didn’t sound at all the way they were written. But eventually, my ear grew accustomed to British English. Then I arrived in Los Angeles. And, oh, the words that gave me trouble! Like delicatessen and Mississippi and coroner and a dozen others. But I always relied on mental diacritics. I never had a list like the one above—a little snapshot of personal history.

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