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Word Stress in Middle English and Early New English

§ 363. The system of word accentuation in OE was described in § 115. In OE stress usually fell on the first syllable of the word, rarely on its second syllable: the prefix or the root of the word were stressed while the suffixes and endings were unaccented. Word stress in OE was fixed: it never moved in inflection and seldom in derivation.

This way of word accentuation, characteristic of OE, was considerably altered in the succeeding periods. The word accent acquired greater positional freedom and began to play a more important role in word derivation. These changes were connected with the phonetic assimila­tion of thousands of loan-words adopted during the ME period.

In Late ME poetry we find a variety of differently stressed words. Though poetry permits certain fluctuation of word accent, this variety testifies to greater freedom in the position of word stress.

New accentual patterns are found in numerous ME loan-words from French. Probably, when they first entered the English language they retained their original stress — on the ultimate or pen-ultimate syl­lable. This kind of stress could not be preserved for long. Gradually, as the loan-words were assimilated, the word stress was moved closer to the beginning of the word in line with the English (Germanic) system. This shift is accounted for by what is known as the "recessive" tendency. In disyllabic words the accent moved to the first syllable, so that the resulting pattern conformed to the pattern of native words, e.g. ME vertu [ver'tju:] became NE virtue ['və:tjə], cf. native English shortly, childish. The shift can be shown as follows: s's > 'ss (s stands for "syl­lable").

In words of three or more syllables the shift of the stress could be caused by the recessive tendency and also by the "rythmic" tendency, which required a regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables. Under the rhythmic tendency, a secondary stress would arise at a dis­tance of one syllable from the original stress. This new stress was either preserved as a secondary stress or else became the only or the principal stress of the word, e.g.

ME recommenden [reko'mendən] > NE recommend [,rekə'mend] — ss'ss > ,ss's;

ME disobeien [diso'beiən] > NE disobey ['diso'bei] — ss'ss > 'ss's;

ME comfortable [komfor'tablə] > NE comfortable ['kʌmfətəbl] — ss'ss>'sss;

ME consecraten [konse'kra:tən] > NE consecrate ['kɔnsikreit] — ss'ss >'sss

(Accentual patterns of the type 'sss or s'sss are common in Mod E, cf. ability, evident, necessity.

In many polysyllabic words both tendencies, the recessive and the rhythmic, operated together and brought about several changes. For instance in NE consolation [,kɔnsə'leiʃn] we find the results of the shift from the final to the preceding syllable [lei] due to the recessive tendency and a secondary stress on the first syllable. In NE possibility the rhythmic factor accounts both for the primary and secondary stresses (the original position of the accent was on the last syllable).

§ 364. Sometimes the shifting of the word stress should be attrib­uted not only to the phonetic tendencies but also to certain morphological factors. Thus stress was not shifted to the prefixes of many verbs borrowed or built in Late ME and in Early NE, which accords with the OE rule: to keep verb prefixes unstressed, e.g. ME accepten, engendren, presenten, NE accept, engender, present. Cf. NE verbs befall, mistake forget. Corresponding nouns sometimes, though not always, received the stress on the first syllable: NE 'present n — pre'sent v; 'discord n — dis'cord v. The latter pairs of words show that the role of word accen­tuation has grown: word stress performs a phonological function as it distinguishes a verb from a noun. (For the role of word stress in word building see § 595.) Thus it appears that as a result of specifically Eng­lish (or rather Germanic) tendencies, continuously applied to numer­ous polysyllabic loan-words, the entire system of word accentuation has altered. The position of word stress has become relatively free and its phonological application has widened: it can be shifted in word deri­vation, though it is never moved in building grammatical forms.


Unstressed Vowels

§ 365. Extensive changes of vowels are one of the most remarkable features of English linguistic history. A variety of changes affected vowels in stressed syllables; the modification of unaccented vowels was more uniform and simple. It is convenient to begin the description of vowel changes with unstressed vowels, for they will be found in many examples given for other purposes and should therefore be made clear in advance. It should be borne in mind, however, that the boundaries between stressed and unstressed vowels were not static: in the course of time a vowel could lose or acquire stress, as in many words stress was shifted; consequently, the vowel would pass into the other group and would be subjected to other kind of changes.

§ 366. In ME and NE the main direction of the evolution of unstressed vowels was the same as before; even in the pre-written period un­stressed vowels had lost many of their former distinctions, namely their differences in quantity as well as some of their differences in quality (§ 131). The tendency towards phonetic reduction operated in all the subsequent periods of history and was particularly strong in unstressed final syllables in ME.

In Early ME the pronunciation of unstressed syllables became in­creasingly indistinct. As compared to OE, which distinguished five short vowels in unstressed position (representing three opposed phonemes [e/i], [a] and [o/u]). Late ME had only two vowels in unaccented syl­lables: [ə] and [i], which are never directly contrasted; this means that phonemic contrasts in unstressed vowels had been practically lost.

Cf. some OE words with their descendants in Late ME and NE:

OE fiscas ME fishes ['fiʃəs] or [fiʃis] NE fishes pl
fisces fishes fish's Gen. sg
OE rison ME risen ['rizən] NE rose (OE Past pl)
risen risen NE risen (Part. II)
OE talu ME tale ['ta:lə] NE tale (OE Nom. and other cases sg, Dat. pl)
talum talen
OE bodiʒ ME body ['bɔdi] NE body

(The last two examples, OE talum and bodiʒ show also the fate of consonants in final syllables: -um > -en; - > -i.)

The occurrence of only two vowels, [ə] and [i], in unstressed final syllables is regarded as an important mark of ME, distinguishing it on the one hand from OE with its greater variety of unstressed vowels, and on the other hand from NE, when the ME final [ə] was dropped.

This final [ə] disappeared in Late ME though it continued to be spelt as -e. The loss of [ə] started in the North, spread to the Midlands, and reached the Southern areas by the 15th c. In the London dialect of Chaucer's time it was very unstable and could be easily missed out be­fore a following initial vowel or when required by rhythm (see the pas­sage from Chaucer in § 361). When the ending -e survived only in spell­ing, it was understood as a means of showing the length of the vowel in the preceding syllable and was added to words which did not have this ending before: cf. OE stān, rād and ME stoon, stone, rode (NE stone, rode). (Sometimes it was added even to words where length was already indicated by another device, e.g. OE hūs, ME house.)

§ 367. It should be remembered though that while the OE unstressed vowels were thus reduced and lost, new unstressed vowels appeared in borrowed words or developed from stressed ones, as a result of various changes, e.g. (he shifting of word stress in ME and NE, vocalisation of [r] in such endings as writer, actor, where [er] and [or] became [ə]. Some of the new unstressed vowels were reduced to the neutral |ə] or dropped, while others have retained certain qualitative and quantita­tive differences, e.g. [ɔ] and [ei] in consecrate, disobey after the shift of stress. (Note also diverse unaccented vowels in the following modern words: ad'versely [æ]; al'ternant [ɔ:]or [ɔ]; direct; fidelity [ai] or [i]).

These developments show that the gap between the stressed and unstressed vowels has narrowed, so that in ME and NE we can no longer subdivide the vowels into two distinct sub-systems — that of stressed and unstressed vowels (as was done for OE — see § 134).

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