English English language Linguistics Pronunciation Usage

Why do we con-VICT a CON-vict?

Q: Why do words such as “refuse” and “project” have one pronunciation as a verb and another as a noun?

A: The usual pattern with these pairs is that the noun is accented on the first syllable while the verb is accented on the second, as with CON-vict (n.) and con-VICT (v.), REC-ord (n.) and re-CORD (v.).

[Note: A later post, on the pronunciation of “concept” as a verb (con-SEPT), appeared in June 2019.]

This is a long-established convention of English pronunciation, one that 18th-century lexicographers commented on.

Samuel Johnson, in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), had this to say about such two-syllable pairs:

“Of disyllables, which are at once nouns and verbs, the verb has commonly the accent on the latter, and the noun on the former syllable.”

He gave several examples, including con-TRACT (v.) and CON-tract (n.).

“This rule has many exceptions,” Johnson added. “Though verbs seldom have their accent on the former, yet nouns often have it on the latter syllable,” he said, as with de-LIGHT and per-FUME.

There are scores (we’ve seen lists with more than 150) of these two-syllable pairs in English. They’re often called heteronyms or heterophones, a subject we wrote about in a 2012 post.

Obviously, there’s an advantage in having different pronunciations. The speaker can distinguish one word from the other and avoid ambiguity, an advantage that we don’t have in written English. (A linguist would say the differing pronunciations serve to “disambiguate” the words.)

Occasionally, as with the noun “record,” the accent varied in early pronouncing dictionaries, and only later did the first-syllable stress become the norm.

Johnson, in the entry for “record” in his 1755 dictionary, was on the fence: “The accent of the noun is indifferently on either syllable; of the verb always on the last.”

Thomas Sheridan, in A General Dictionary of the English Language (1780), stressed only the second syllable of the noun (re-CORD).

And John Walker, in A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), stressed the first syllable of the noun (REC-ord).

Walker noted that “the noun record was anciently, as well as at present, pronounced with the accent either on the first or second syllable,” but he urged speakers to accent the first.

Accenting the second syllable, he said, “is overturning one of the most settled analogies of our language, and … it would be to the advantage of pronunciation to lean to the obvious analogy in disyllable nouns and verbs of the same form.”

The convention of accenting the nouns and verbs differently, Walker said, “seems an instinctive effort in the language … to compensate in some measure for the want of different terminations for these different parts of speech.”

In the case of “record,” Walker’s advice was somewhat slow to take hold. As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Examples of stress on the second syllable can still be found in verse in the 19th cent.”

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