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It's well known (and several past questions on this SE have covered) that to convert a two-syllable Latin-derived English verb into a noun, you shift the stress to the first syllable. This is apparently called "initial stress derivation". Some examples:

  • permít (v.) ~ pérmit (n.)
  • addréss (v.) ~ áddress (n.)
  • recórd (v.) ~ récord (n.)
  • expórt (v.) ~ éxport (n.)

However, I've just realized there's a class of verbs that obey a different rule: verbs ending in -use. When these verbs change into nouns, they keep the final-syllable stress, but devoice the final consonant: so the verb ends in /uz/, and its derivative ends in /us/.

  • abuse: abú[z]e (v.) ~ abú[s]e (n.)
  • diffuse: diffú[z]e (v.) ~ diffú[s]e (adj.)
  • reuse: reú[z]e (v.) ~ reú[s]e (n.)
  • excuse: excú[z]e (v.) ~ excú[s]e (n.)

My question: Why do verbs that end in "-use" follow this pattern rather than initial stress derivation?

(Or perhaps not strictly "rather than" - I can also think of one example that both shifts the stress and devoices the /z/:)

  • refuse: refú[z]e (v.) ~ réfu[s]e (n.)
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I suspect, although I don't know for sure, that it's simply because the "use" sound is, by it's nature, a fairly soft sound. The first syllable in each of the words mentioned is a fairly hard sound - try saying "diff" without emphasis - and so they have naturally just acquired the stress on the first syllable. –  Jon Story Feb 27 '13 at 15:46
    
that is the exact opposite of what I said happens - all of the "use" verbs have stress on the second syllable all of the time. –  alcas Feb 27 '13 at 16:51
    
Sounds like this might be a question for Linguistics SE, this difference probably does have phonological origins. –  Ben Lee Mar 1 '13 at 20:41
    
Hmm - it seems more likely to be etymological to me, since we don't see the same thing with "produce", and -uce = -use phonologically. But could be either way, I suppose. –  alcas Mar 1 '13 at 22:41
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2 Answers 2

This is what Sir Ernest Gowers has to say in "Fowler's Modern English Usage" (Oxford 1965) under the heading noun and verb accent:

When there is both noun and verb work to be done by a word, and the plan of forming a noun from the verb, or a verb from the noun, by adding a formative suffix (as in stealth from steal) is not followed, then one word may be called on to double the parts. In that case there is a strong tendency to differentiate by pronunciation, as in use (n. us, v. uz); such a distinction is sometimes, as in use, unrecorded in spelling, but sometimes recorded, as in calf and calve. Is is not possible to draw up a complete list of the words affected, because the impulse is still active, and the list would need constant additions, especially of words whose pronunciation can be modified without change of spelling.

He goes on to give partial lists of the two main forms that the question identifies; the largest class being words "whose accent is shifted from the first syllable in the noun to the last syllable in the verb"; the other group are words, especially monosyllables, which "are differentiated not by accent but by a modification in the noun or verb of the consonantal sound at the end, which is hard in the noun and soft in the verb."

He adds that very often this change of voice is recorded in spelling (eg cloth, clothe; bath, bathe; etc) and that this confirms "the fact that the distinguishing of the parts of speech by change of sound is very common".

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This is just like house (v.) with a voiced final consonant becoming house (n.) with an unvoiced one.

Normally we reflect this change in spelling:

  • advise (v.) vs. advice (n.)
  • wolve (v.) vs. wolf (n.)

But with the -se verbs, it doesn’t always work out that way.

It’s because the “silent e” for the verb used to be pronounced, and an -s- between two vowels was automatically voiced, just as in clothe, breathe, or mouthe as verbs. We retained the voicing, which is now phonemic, even once the final -e became completely silent.

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