What a Beautiful Language #5: The Importance of Emphasis in Pronunciation

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By now, I think it’s become clear that I am in love with the intricacies of the English language. However, I must admit that I struggle to explain some of the oddities our beautiful language presents us with. Take, for example, the special relationship emphasis and pronunciation have with one another in English.

Rather than choosing to assign a different word (a signifier) or even a different spelling to words which have entirely different meanings (signifieds), the English language uses a system which uses shifts in emphasis in the pronunciation of certain words, allowing arrangements of letters to be reused for a variety of purposes. This can either occur through a variation in phonemes, or just be actioned through a change in the emphasised syllable. Sometimes, there is little or no relationship between the two meanings that are assigned to what is, in written form at least, the same word.

Confusing, right? Interestingly, our brain doesn’t seem to think so. English speakers actually find it very easy to contextualise and effectively differentiate between different uses of the same letter arrangements, ensuring that the meaning (and the required pronunciation) for each word is usually clear to us immediately.

Test the theory for yourself, by reading aloud the following sentences:

A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.

A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.

After a number of injections my jaw got number.

He could lead if he would get the lead out.

How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

I did not object to the object.

I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.

The bandage was wound around the wound.

The buck does funny things when the does are present.

The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

The farm was used to produce produce.

The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

The wind was too strong to wind the sail.

There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.

They were too close to the door to close it.

To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.

Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.

We must polish the Polish furniture.

When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

Instinctively, most (if not all) of you will have known the difference between sets of identically spelled words, and been able to make sense of these sentences without any real difficulty. Isn’t that incredible? Due to changes in emphasis during pronunciation, and the use of different phonemes, the same rearrangement of letters can be used and reused again, without any confusion between speakers. When you’re limited to 26 characters in the language, having linguistic tools like this in our arsenal clearly gives English an advantage over other languages which are not able to do the same.

Does anyone know of any examples of this, either in English or in another language? Let me know in the comments box below! 🙂

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13 thoughts on “What a Beautiful Language #5: The Importance of Emphasis in Pronunciation

  1. Jon

    There is this famous example in Finnish: “Kokko, kokoo kokoon koko kokko.” “Koko kokkoko?” “Koko kokko.” Which means “Kokko (surname), gather together the whole bonfire.” “The whole bonfire?” “The whole bonfire.”

    Liked by 2 people

      • For sure, lots of languages – perhaps all – use homonyms and homophones extensively. What I thought you were talking about was the subtle tones and inflections and ways to use the exact same word or expression in different ways – which, I suspect, is even more common outside of English. Some languages work with fewer words than English. They just use each word more.

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  2. Jon

    Also, while we may be limited to 26 text characters, we are not limited to 26 phonemes, and some of the examples above aren’t really examples of the same word being used, but homonyms, e.g. sewer/sewer, which uses a different vowel and has completely different derivations. Sower/sewer would be a legit example. The present one is a classic, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I never realized how confusing the English language could be until my ex was in college learning English as a second language. He would ask me often why do I say this and spell it the same way as that? I could not explain except respond an infuriating: “because”. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Slightly different but, it’s also interesting how much emphasis can change the meaning of a sentence/phrase/etc. For example, if you say the following sentence and each time emphasize a different word you end up with seven different meanings.

    “I never said she stole my money.”

    Liked by 1 person

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