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When I first read Romeo and Juliet in high school, I remember being intrigued by pairs of words such as,




where there's an accent grave on the 'e' of the last syllable of one of each pair of word.

One thing I've always thought is that, strictly interpreted, beloved can really only be used as an adjective; if one wants to refer to the noun, as in my beloved, it should properly spelt as belovèd. Similarly, I've always thought that learned is, strictly speaking, only acceptable as the past tense of the verb to learn, and that if one wanted to refer to the adjective form meaning "educated", as in learned scholar, it would properly be spelt as learnèd. I don't remember where exactly I got these impressions from, and I don't know if they are correct.

So my question is: Were there or is there any semantic difference between such pairs of words, or is it just a spelling idiosyncrasy? If there were such differences, do any persist to the present day?

Addendum: These aren't the only such pairs; there are others, I distinctly remember seeing many in lots of Shakespeare's plays...

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I'd add blessed / blessèd as another common example of this. – JSBձոգչ Apr 14 '11 at 13:13
As noted in the comments to Pete Wilson's answer, thee is indeed a usage difference between the two pronunciations. There is no need to spell the words with an accent (according to common practice and the dictionary), though this is occasionally done to guide the reader as to which variant was intended - especially, in my experience, in song lyrics, where it's important to be able to find the rhythm of the words quickly in order to make it fit the tune :) – psmears May 6 '11 at 8:59
Simpsons quote: Boy: "Oh Papa Homer, you are so learnèd." Homer:"'Learned', son. It's pronounced 'learned'." – Urbycoz Aug 24 '12 at 10:51

Shakespeare was also known to omit words or provide superfluous wording in order to achieve iambic pentameter. The accent was merely a means to achieve iambic pentameter as well, providing accents to correct pronunciation.

I wouldn't look much beyond that.

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There is definitely a difference in the meaning of dogged (verb past tense, one syllable) and doggèd (adjective, two syllables), even though they're both generally spelled without the accent.

Shakespeare used both forms, and seems to have pronounced dogged with one syllable, and doggèd with two.

Whose reputation will be dogg'd with curses; —Coriolanus.
And dogged York that reaches at the moon, —Henry VI.

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There is no semantic difference between word pairs like “beloved”/“belovèd”, “learned”/“learnèd”. One of the few rules of English usage that has no exceptions, special cases, or irregular forms :-)

The grave accent tells a speaker to sound the accented syllable rather than to swallow it.

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I don't think that is correct. "Learned" (one syllable) means "which has been learned by somebody", and is fairly rare: the phrase "learned response" comes to my mind. "Learned" (two syllables, and normally written the same way), means "full of, or characterised by, learning". Semantically very different. – Colin Fine Apr 14 '11 at 12:03
@Colin: The distinction you are pointing out seems to be disappearing in the US. "Learn-ed" is really only used as a joke and the one syllable variation has taken all meanings of the spelling. I don't have any sources to back that up; just experience. – MrHen Apr 14 '11 at 13:21
@MrHen, I disagree. Although not as common as the single syllable version is more common, the two syllable version is not what I would call rare in US English. – Kevin Apr 14 '11 at 17:45
@Kevin: Sure. Like I said, I can only describe my experiences on the subject. Those point to the two syllable pronunciation diminishing and becoming increasingly rare. I really only hear it used tongue-in-cheek as a "haha, people used to speak funny" sort of thing. Obviously, your mileage may vary. – MrHen Apr 14 '11 at 17:49
@MrHen: So you would pronounce "He is learned" monosyllabically? That must be a regional thing: I would certainly pronounce it bisyllabically, and expect to hear it that way. – Colin Fine Apr 15 '11 at 14:45

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