1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Accent

ACCENT. The word “accent” has its origin in the Lat. accentus, which in its turn is a literal translation of the Gr. προσῳδία. The early Greek grammarians used this term for the musical accent which characterized their own language, but later the term became specialized for quantity in metre, whence comes the Eng. prosody. Besides various later developments of usage it is important to observe that “accent” is used in two different and often contrasted senses in connexion with language. In all languages there are two kinds of accent: (1) musical chromatic or pitch accent; (2) emphatic or stress accent. The former indicates differences in musical pitch between one sound and another in speech, the latter the difference between one syllable and another which is occasioned by emitting the breath in the production of one syllable with greater energy than is employed for the other syllables of the same word. These two senses, it is to be noticed, are different from the common usage of the word in the statement that some one talks with a foreign or with a vulgar accent. In these cases, no doubt, both differences of intonation and differences of stress may be included in the statement, but other elements are frequently no less marked, e.g. the pronunciation of t and d as real dentals, whereas the English sounds so described are really produced not against the teeth but against their sockets, the inability to produce the interdental th whether breathed as in thin or voiced as in this and its representation by d or z, the production of o as a uniform sound instead of one ending as in English in a slight u sound, or such dialect changes as lydy (laidy) for lady, or toime for time (taime).

In different languages the relations between pitch and stress differ very greatly. In some the pitch or musical accent predominates. In such languages if signs are employed to mark the position of the chief accent in the word it will be the pitch and not the stress accent which will be thus indicated. Amongst the languages of ancient times Sanskrit and Greek both indicate by signs the position of the chief pitch accent in the word, and the same method has been employed in modern times for languages in which pitch accent is well marked, as it is, for example, in Lithuanian, the language still spoken by some two millions of people on the frontier between Prussia and Russia in the neighbourhood of Königsberg and Vilna. Swedish also has a well-marked musical accent. Modern Greek has changed from pitch to stress, the stress being generally laid upon the same syllable in modern as bore the pitch accent in ancient Greek.

In the majority of European languages, however, stress is more conspicuous than pitch, and there is plenty of evidence to show that the original language from which Greek, Latin, Celtic, Teutonic, Slavonic and other languages of Europe are descended, possessed stress accent also in a marked degree. To the existence of this accent must be attributed a large part of the phenomena known as Ablaut or Gradation (see Indo-European Languages). In modern languages we can see the same principle at work making Acton out of the O. Eng. (Anglo-Saxon) āc-tūn (oak-town), and in more recent times producing the contrast between New Town and Newton. In French, stress is less marked than it is in English, but here also there is evidence to show that in the development from Latin to French a very strong stress accent must have existed. The natural result of producing one syllable of a word with greater energy than the others is that the other syllables have a less proportion of breath assigned to them and therefore tend to become indistinct or altogether inaudible. Thus the strong stress accent existing in the transition period between Latin and French led to the curtailing of long Latin words like latrocínium or hospitále into the words which we have borrowed from French into English as larceny and hotel. It will be observed that the first syllable and that which bears the accent are the two which best withstand change, though the strong tendency in English to stress heavily the first syllable bids fair ultimately to oust the e in the pronunciation of larceny. No such changes arise when a strong pitch accent is accompanied by a weaker stress accent, and hence languages like ancient Sanskrit and ancient Greek, where such conditions existed, preserve fuller forms than their sister languages or than even their own descendants, when stress takes the place of pitch as the more important element in accent.

In both pitch and stress accent different gradations may be observed. In pitch, the accent may be uniform, rising or falling. Or there may be combinations of rising and falling or of falling and rising accents upon the same syllable. In ancient Greek, as is well known, three accents are distinguished—(1) the acute (′), a rising accent; (2) the grave (`), apparently merely the indication that in particular positions in the sentence the acute accent is not used where it would occur in the isolated word; and (3) the circumflex, which, as its form (^) shows, and as the ancient grammarians inform us, is a combination of the rising and the falling accent upon the same syllable, this syllable being always long. Different Greek dialects, however, varied the syllables of the word on which the accent occurred, Aeolic Greek, for example, never putting the acute on the last syllable of a word, while Attic Greek had many words so accented.

The pitch accent of the Indo-European languages was originally free, i.e. might occur on any syllable of a word, and this condition of things is still found in the earliest Sanskrit literature. But in Greek before historical times the accent had become limited to the last three syllables of a word, so that a long word like the Homeric genitive φερομένοιο could in no circumstances be accented on either of its first two syllables, while if the final syllable was long, as in the accusative plural φερομένους, the accent could go back only to the second syllable from the end. As every vowel has its own natural pitch, and a frequent interchange between e (a high vowel) and o (a low vowel) occurs in the Indo-European languages, it has been suggested that e originally went with the highest pitch accent, while o appeared in syllables of a lower pitch. But if there is any foundation for the theory, which is by no means certain, its effects have been distorted and modified by all manner of analogical processes. Thus ποιμήν with acute accent and δαίμων with the acute accent on the preceding syllable would correspond to the rule, so would aletes and ἔπος, but there are many exceptions like ὁδός where the acute accent accompanies an o vowel. Somewhat similar distinctions characterize syllables which are stressed. The strength of the expiration may be greatest either at the beginning, the end or the middle of the syllable, and, according as it is so, the accent is a falling, a rising, or a rising and falling one. Syllables in which the stress is produced continuously whether increasing or decreasing are called single-pointed syllables, those in which a variation in the stress occurs without being strong enough to break the syllable into two are called double-pointed syllables. These last occur in some English dialects, but are commonest in languages like Swedish and Lithuanian, which have a “sing-song” pronunciation. It is often not easy to decide whether a syllable is double-pointed or whether what we hear is really two-single-pointed syllables. There is no separate notation for stress accent, but the acute (′) is used for the increasing, the grave (`) for the decreasing stress, and the circumflex (^) for the rising and falling (increasing and decreasing) and (ˇ) for the opposite. A separate notation is much to be desired, as the nature of the two accents is so different, and could easily be devised by using S for the falling, (′) for the rising stress, and § for the combination of the two in one syllable. This would be clearer than the upright stroke (|) preceding the stressed syllable, which is used in some phonetic works.

The relation between the two accents in the same language at the same time is a subject which requires further investigation. It is generally assumed that the chief stress and the chief pitch in a word coincide, but this is by no means certain for all cases, though the incidence of the chief stress accent in modern Greek upon the same syllable as had the chief pitch accent in ancient times suggests that the two did frequently fall upon the same syllable. On the other hand, in words like the Sanskrit saptá, the Gr. ἑπτά, the pitch accent which those languages indicate is upon a syllable which certainly, in the earliest times at least, did not possess the principal stress. For forms in other languages, like the Lat. septem or the Gothic sibun, show that the a of the final syllables in Sanskrit and Greek is the representative of a reduced syllable in which, even in the earliest times, the nasal alone existed (see under N for the history of these so-called sonant nasals). It is possible that sporadic changes of accent, as in the Gr. μήτηρ compared with the Sanskrit matā́, is owing to the shifting of the pitch accent to the same syllable as the stress occupied.

There is no lack of evidence to show that the stress accent also may shift its position in the history of a language from one syllable to another. In prehistoric times the stress in Latin must have rested upon the first syllable in all cases. Only on this hypothesis can be explained forms like peperci (perfect of parco) and collīdo (a compound of laedo). In historical times, when the stress in Latin was on the second syllable from the end of the word if that syllable was long, or on the third syllable from the end if the second from the end was short, we should have expected to find *peparci and *collaedo, for throughout the historical period the stress rested in these words upon the second syllable from the end. The causes for the change of position are not always easy to ascertain. In words of four syllables with a long penult and words of five syllables with a short penult there probably developed a secondary accent which in course of time replaced the earlier accent upon the first syllable. But the number of such long words in Latin is comparatively small. It is no less possible that relations between the stress and pitch accents were concerned. For unless we are to regard the testimony of the ancient Latin grammarians as altogether untrustworthy there was at least in classical Latin a well-marked pitch as well as a stress accent. This question, which had long slumbered, has been revived by Dr J. Vendryes in his treatise entitled Recherches sur l’histoire et les effets de l’intensité initiale en latin (Paris, 1902).

In English there is a tendency to throw the stress on to the first syllable, which leads in time to the modification of borrowed words. Thus throughout the 18th century there was a struggle going on over the word balcony, which earlier was pronounced balcóny. Swift is the first author quoted for the pronunciation bálcony, and Cowper’s balcóny in “John Gilpin” is among the latest instances of the old pronunciation. Disregarding the Latin quantity of orātor and senātor, English by throwing the stress on the first syllable has converted them into órător and sénător, while Scots lawyers speak also of a cúrător. How far French influence plays a part here is not easy to say.

Besides the accent of the syllable and of the word, which have been already discussed, there remains the accent of the sentence. Here the problem is much more complicated. The accent of a word, whether pitch or stress, may be considerably modified in the sentence. From earliest times some words have become parasitic or enclitic upon other words. Pronouns more than most words are modified from this cause, but conjunctions like the Gr. τε (“and”), the Lat. que, have throughout their whole history been enclitic upon the preceding word. A very important word may be enclitic, as in English don’t, shan’t. It is to be remembered that the unit of language is rather the sentence than the word, and that the form which is given to the word in the dictionary is very often not the form which it takes in actual speech. The divisions of words in speech are quite different from the divisions on the printed page. Sanskrit alone amongst languages has consistently recognized this, and preserves in writing the exact combinations that are spoken.

Accent, whether pitch or stress, can be utilized in the sentence to express a great variety of meanings. Thus in English a sentence like You rode to Newmarket yesterday, which contains five words, may be made to express five different statements by putting the stress upon each of the words in turn. By putting the stress on you the person addressed is marked out as distinct from certain others, by putting it upon rode other means of locomotion to Newmarket are excluded, and so on. With the same order of words five interrogative sentences may also be expressed, and a third series of exclamatory sentences expressing anger, incredulity, &c., may be obtained from the same words. It is to be noticed that for these two series a different intonation, a different musical (pitch) accent appears from that which is found in the same words when employed to make a matter-of-fact statement.

In languages like Chinese, which have neither compound words nor inflection, accent plays a very important part. As the words are all monosyllabic, stress could obviously not be so important as pitch as a help to distinguish different senses attached to the same vocable, and in no other language is variety of pitch so well developed as in Chinese. In languages which, like English, show comparatively little pitch accent it is to be noticed that the sentence tends to develop a more musical character under the influence of emotion. The voice is raised and at the same time greater stress is generally employed when the speaker is carried away by emotion, though the connexion is not essential and strong emotion may be expressed by a lowering as well as by a raising of the voice. In either case, however, the stress will be greater than the normal.

Bibliography.—H. Sweet, Primer of Phonetics (1890, now in 3rd edition), § 96 ff., History of English Sounds (1888), § 110 ff., and other works; E. Sievers, Grundzüge der Phonetik (1893), § 532 ff.; O. Jespersen, Lehrbuch der Phonetik (1904), an abbreviated German translation of the author’s larger work in Danish, § 216 ff. The books of Sievers and Jespersen give (especially Sievers) full references to the literature of the subject. For the accent system of the Indo-European languages see “Betonung” in Brugmann’s Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen, vol. i. (1897), or, with considerable modifications, his Kurze vergleichende Grammatik der idg. Sprachen (1902), §§ 32-65 and 343-350.  (P. Gi.)