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Mind your language

Mind your language

Dot Wordsworth on the word 'sonorous'

11 June 2008

12:00 AM

11 June 2008

12:00 AM

Does it matter when we lose battles as language changes? In Oxford the other day, I saw another piece of evidence that in the High Street has changed to on the High Street. A newsagent’s near Teddy Hall has for some time been called Honey’s of the High. It is now usually called Honey’s on the High.

I don’t much like the change, but it seems triumphant. A change of a different kind that triumphed two or three decades ago was in the pronunciation of sonorous. It is now stressed on the first syllable, and that indeed is how I say it. Formerly, it was stressed on the second syllable. I am not conscious of ever hearing it so pronounced now.

My husband, whose medical training had by the 1980s taken as much effect as it ever would, says that sonorous with the second syllable stressed was an established term in auscultation; your rhonchus (a word simply derived from the Greek for ‘snore’) could be sonorous or sibilant. The rot had set in earlier. In 1934 George Bernard Shaw declared in a letter to the Times: ‘An announcer who pronounced decadent and sonorous as dekkadent and sonnerus would provoke Providence to strike him dumb.’ Does Shaw want us to say de-KAY-dent? What, then, would he make of the creeping pronunciation of decade as decayed.


Anyway, the new stress in sonorous would disjoint the metre in lines such as Pope’s in the Dunciad:

But far o’er all, sonorous Blackmore’s strain;/ Walls, steeples, skies, bray back to him again.

Yet we grow used to words being stressed differently in old poets. The more we change our stress patterns, the more old-fashioned verse from former centuries seems. Shakespeare generally stresses commendable, for example, on the first syllable, but even by Samuel Johnson’s day this was noted as obsolete.

Stress patterns trot backwards or forwards as fashion dictates, even in words that are heard frequently. But words used less frequently are susceptible to the acquisition of a spelling-pronunciation from people more familiar with their written form.

How, for example, would you say pestle? The Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation (2006) still specifies pessl as the pronunciation (as with nestle or wrestle). The draft revision of the entry for the word in the OED, carried out this year, gives the choice of pronouncing the ‘t’ or not. So here, as usual, the wind is set in one direction.


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