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We're sounding more like Americans by Mark Abley

Oct 27, 2007

Source : Montreal Gazette

Those of us who cherish language are sometimes distressed by what we hear on radio and TV. But few of us take up the cudgel in the style of Thomas Reisner, a retired professor of English at Laval University in Quebec City.

Last month, Reisner sent an email to CBC headquarters in Toronto, complaining about the mispronunciation of "electoral" and "municipal." The corporation's newscasters, he noticed, have begun to stress the third syllable of these words, rather than the second.

"I recognize that there are many words where alternative accentuations are permissible," he wrote. "These are not of that order. Please may I emphatically suggest that this totally superfluous piece of semi-literate vulgarism be expunged from our national broadcaster's transmissions?"

The CBC has not replied. Reisner (the author of A Dictionary of Superseded Accentuations in 18th-Century English) is not pleased. He believes that "the CBC has, in addition to its more immediate mandate of informing and entertaining Canadians, also the duty to offer a model of proper usage to listeners."

I, too, prefer to hear "electoral" and "municipal" pronounced in the traditional way, with the accent on the second syllable. But I suspect the offending (and, no doubt, oblivious) newscasters are following a powerful American trend: removing the accent from the second syllable of words.

Words like "relay" and "relapse" once began with a short, unaccented syllable. Now, especially in the United States, the vowel sound is drawn out and the prefix bears most of the weight. Similarly, it used to be easy to distinguish protest (the noun) from protest (the verb); the noun was accented on the first syllable, the verb on the second. Now the verb, too, generally begins with a stressed syllable.

As Reisner knows better than the rest of us, accent shift is nothing new. Spoken languages, like written ones, refuse to stay still. But accent shift is worth regretting when it means a loss of semantic precision - as happens if verbs like "protest" and "address" are pronounced in exactly the same way as the corresponding nouns.

The result, Reisner suggests, is a "pointless simplification." It's also a sign that Canadians are increasingly falling in line with U.S. norms.

© Montreal Gazette