Q: We were reading Shakespeare, and wondered about the pronunciation of the final “-ed” in words like “beloved” and “blessed.” I just assumed that people in Elizabethan England spoke that way, but my partner thought it was merely a poetical device to fill out a metrical line. What do you say?
A: When the “-ed” suffix first appeared in Old English writing, according to scholars, it sounded much like the modern pronunciation of the last syllable in adjectives like “crooked,” “dogged,” and “wicked.”
In Old English, spoken from the mid-5th to the late 11th centuries, the “-ed” suffix was one of several endings used to form the past participle of verbs and to form adjectives from nouns. For example, the past participle of the verb hieran (to hear) was gehiered (heard). And the adjectival form of the noun hring (ring) was hringed.
The “-ed” syllable was still usually pronounced in Middle English, which was spoken from around 1150 to 1450, but writers occasionally dropped the “e” or replaced it with an apostrophe, an indication that the syllable was sometimes lost in speech. The Old English gehiered (heard), for instance, was variously hered, herrd, herd, etc., in Middle English writing.
It’s clear from the meter that Chaucer intended the “-ed” of “perced” (pierced) to be pronounced at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales (1387): “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote [its showers sweet] / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”
As far as we can tell, the word “pierced” was two syllables in common speech as well as poetry when Chaucer was writing, but a one-syllable version showed up in writing (and probably speaking) by the mid-1500s.
Here’s an example, with the past participle written as “perst,” from “The Lover Describeth His Being Stricken With Sight of His Love,” a sonnet by Thomas Wyatt:
“The liuely sparkes, that issue from those eyes, / Against the which there vaileth [avails] no defence, / Haue perst my hart, and done it none offence” (Songes and Sonettes, 1557, a collection of works by Wyatt, Henry Howard, Nicholas Grimald, and various anonymous poets).
In the early Modern English period, when Shakespeare was writing, the “-ed” ending was often contracted in writing to “-d” or “-t,” indicating that this was the usual pronunciation. Here are a few examples from Shakespeare:
“O, never will I trust to speeches penn’d, / Nor to the motion of a schoolboy’s tongue” (Love’s Labour’s Lost, believed written in the mid-1590s).
“I remember the kissing of her batlet [butter paddle] and the cow’s dugs [uddders] that her pretty chopt hands had milked” (As You Like It, circa 1599). The adjective “chopped” here meant cracked or chapped.
“This would have seem’d a period / To such as love not sorrow” (King Lear, early 1600s).
However, writers in the early Modern English period tended to keep the full “-ed” ending in many words where the syllable is still heard now, as in these examples from Shakespeare:
“To cipher what is writ in learned books, / Will quote my loathsome trespass in my looks” (The Rape of Lucrece, 1594).
“And the stony-hearted villains know it well enough” (King Henry IV, Part I, late 1500s).
“O heaven, the vanity of wretched fools!” (Measure for Measure, early 1600s).
“Something wicked this way comes” (Macbeth, early 1600s).
Although people began dropping the “e” of “-ed” in writing and apparently pronunciation in early Modern English, the full syllable was still being written and pronounced in the 18th and 19th centuries in some words where it’s now lost.
In A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), John Walker says the adjectives “crabbed,” “forked,” “flagged,” “flubbed,” “hooked,” “scabbed,” “snagged,” “tusked,” and others are “pronounced in two syllables.” An 1859 update of the dictionary, edited by Townsend Young, adds “hawked,” “scrubbed,” “tressed,” and a few more.
However, writers continued to drop the final syllable of “-ed” words despite the objections of lexicographers and pronunciation guides. In the early 18th century, one of the sticklers, Jonathan Swift, condemned the loss of the final syllable in verbs written as “drudg’d,” “disturb’d,” “rebuk’d,” and “a thousand others, everywhere to be met with in Prose as well as Verse.”
In a 1712 letter to Robert, Earl of Oxford, Swift argued that “by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable, we form so jarring a Sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.” Yes, “wondred” used to be a past tense of the verb “wonder,” which was originally wondrian in Old English and wondri or woundre in Middle English. Thus language changes.
Today, the “-ed” suffix is used in writing for the past tense and past participle of regular (or weak) verbs, for participial adjectives, and for adjectives derived from nouns. It’s usually not pronounced as a syllable, but there are some notable exceptions.
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “this -ed is in most cases still retained in writing, although the pronunciation is now normally vowelless.” The dictionary says “-ed” is usually pronounced as either “d” (as in “robed”) or “t” (“reaped”). The “t” sound follows a voiceless consonant, one produced without the vocal cords.
The OED says the “full pronunciation” of “-ed” as a syllable (pronounced id) “regularly occurs in ordinary speech only in the endings -ted, -ded” (that is, after the letters “t” and “d” as in “hated” and “faded”).
“A few words, such as blessed, cursed, beloved, which are familiar chiefly in religious use, have escaped the general tendency to contraction when used as adjectives,” the OED says, adding that “the adjectival use of learned is distinguished by its pronunciation” as two syllables. Additional exceptions include the adjectives “aged,” “jagged,” “naked,” “ragged,” “wretched,” and others mentioned in this post.
As we said at the beginning, the suffix “-ed” was used in Old English to form the past participle of verbs and to turn nouns into adjectives.
The past participle of a weak verb was formed by adding “-ed,” “-ad,” “-od,” or “-ud” to the stem. The past participle of a strong verb (now commonly called an irregular verb) was formed by changing the stressed vowel or by adding the suffix “-en.”
And as we said earlier, the use of “-ed” to turn nouns into adjectives has also been around since Anglo-Saxon times. Nevertheless, some language commentators objected to the usage in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Samuel Johnson, for example, apparently considered the usage new and was surprised to see it in these lines from “Ode on Spring” by Thomas Gray: “The insect youth are on the wing, / Eager to taste the honied spring.” Here’s Johnson’s comment:
“There has of late arisen a practice of giving to adjectives derived from substantives, the termination of participles; such as the cultured plain, the daisied bank, but I was sorry to see, in the lines of a scholar like Gray, the honied spring” (from Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, 1779-81).
We’ll end with a grumpy comment about the adjective “talented,” written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge on July 8, 1832. This is from Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1836), edited by Henry Nelson Coleridge, a frequent visitor to his uncle’s home:
“I regret to see that vile and barbarous vocable talented, stealing out of the newspapers into the leading reviews and most respectable publications of the day. … The formation of a participle passive from a noun is a licence that nothing but a very peculiar felicity can excuse. If mere convenience is to justify such attempts upon the idiom, you cannot stop till the language becomes, in the proper sense of the word, corrupt. Most of these pieces of slang come from America.” (The OED’s earliest examples for the adjective “talented” used to mean “possessing talent” come from British sources.)