Society for Pure English Tract 4 by John Sargeaunt


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Page 2

* * * * *

It seems not to be generally known that there is a real principle
in the English pronunciation of words borrowed from Latin and Greek,
whether directly or through French. In this matter the very knowledge
of classical Latin, of its stresses and its quantities, still more
perhaps an acquaintance with Greek, is apt to mislead. Some speakers
seem to think that their scholarship will be doubted unless they say

to show by setting forth the principles consciously or unconsciously
followed by our ancestors that such pronunciations are as erroneous
as in the case of the ordinary man they are unnatural and pedantic.
An exception for which there is a reason must of course be accepted,
but an exception for which reason is unsound is on every ground to
be deprecated. Among other motives for preserving the traditional
pronunciation must be reckoned the claim of poetry. Mark Pattison
notes how a passage of Pope which deals with the Barrier Treaty loses
much of its effect because we no longer stress the second syllable of
'barrier'. Pope's word is gone beyond recovery, but others which are
threatened by false theories may yet be preserved.

The _New English Dictionary_, whose business it is to record facts,
shows that in not a few common words there is at present much
confusion and uncertainty concerning the right pronunciation. This
applies mostly to the position of the stress or, as some prefer to
call it, the accent, but in many cases it is true also of the quantity
of the vowels. It is desirable to show that there is a principle in
this matter, rules which have been naturally and unconsciously obeyed,
because they harmonize with the genius of the English tongue.

For nearly three centuries from the Reformation to the Victorian era
there was in this country a uniform pronunciation of Latin. It had its
own definite principles, involving in some cases a disregard of the
classical quantities though not of the classical stress or accent. It
survives in borrowed words such as _[=a]li[)a]s_ and _st[)a]mina_,
in naturalized legal phrases, such as _N[=i]s[=i] Prius_ and _[=o]nus
probandi_, and with some few changes in the Westminster Play. This
pronunciation is now out of fashion, but, since its supersession does
not justify a change in the pronunciation of words which have become
part of our language, it will be well to begin with a formulation of
its rules.

The rule of Latin stress was observed as it obtained in the time
of Quintilian. In the earliest Latin the usage had been other, the
stress coming as early in the word as was possible. Down to the days
of Terence and probably somewhat later the old rule still held good
of quadrisyllables with the scansion of _m[)u]l[)i][)e]r[)i]s_ or
_m[)u]l[)i][)e]r[=e]s_, but in other words had given way to the later
Quintilian rule, that all words with a long unit as penultimate
had the stress on the vowel in that unit, while words of more
than two syllables with a short penultimate had the stress on the
antepenultimate. I say 'unit' because here, as in scansion, what
counts is not the syllable, but the vowel plus all the consonants


has the stress on the penultima. In _volucris_, where the penultimate
unit was short, as it was in prose and could be in verse, the stress
was on the _o_, but when _ucr_ made a long unit the stress comes on
the _u_, though of course the vowel remains short. In polysyllables
there was a secondary stress on the alternate vowels. Ignorance of
this usage has made a present-day critic falsely accuse Shakespeare
of a false quantity in the line



It may be safely said that from the Reformation to the nineteenth
century no Englishman pronounced the last word otherwise than I have
written it. The author of the Pronouncing Dictionary attached to
the 'Dictionary of Gardening' unfortunately instructs us to say

though true, is irrelevant, and, although Terence would have





We need not here discuss the dubious exceptions to this rule, such
as words with an enclitic attached, e.g. _prim[)a]que_ in which some
authorities put the stress on the vowel which precedes the enclitic,
or such clipt words as 'illuc', where the stress may at one time have
fallen on the last vowel. In any case no English word is concerned.

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