We Need an English Áccent

August 21, 2013

Asian languages are famed for intonation which we are told is unlike languages like English.  For example, in Cantonese the word “Ma” can be pronounced in different ways to create different meanings that are unrelated – like horse or wife.

But wait a minute.

In English we have words that also change meaning when we change the intonation or stress.  Really?  Really!  (Here the punctuation provides the pronunciation guide.)

Like pérmit instead of permít.  One applies for and buys a pérmit to do something that the authorities will then permít one to do.  The accent distinguishes the noun from the verb.

There are quite a few examples of this in English where the accent (or more correctly, the diacritical mark) changes words use and meaning.

But there is no signal to the reader in the form of an accent as to how to pronounce the word.  You just have to know and you need the context to tell you, if it is written.

This must be hell for non-native speakers of English, the same way understanding “ma” is for non-Cantonese speakers.

If we did have accents in English, we would have to agree on how we pronounce words – like vitt-amin or med-sin or glass-ier.  That would take an international panel.  And probably will never happen.

And deciding on which accents to include – that would be a big challenge.  Just for the record, there are a few accents in English, but mostly in borrowed words like exposé, café, and Montréal. And lots of little girls named Zoë and Noëlle.

And we did have a few other letters that fell by the wayside, thorn (þ), eth (ð), wynn (þ), yogh (3), ash (æ), and ethel (œ) are obsolete.  You can see their remnants around in words like encyclopædia (the æ is ash), or Ye Olde (where the Y is actually a thorn and pronounced The).

One of English’s appeals is that it is a dumbed down language, easy to speak poorly with few to speak it well.  It is the number two language for many and keeping it simple is part of its charm.  One shudders at the thought of English spelling getting any more complicated.

Accents could be good indicators of regional dialect, in addition to phonetic spelling.  But without accents, meaning in English does require context.  We may just not realize it.

So English not only has intonation, but contextual meaning as well.  Dang, we are Chinese!

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