6

When I was a student I was taught that the stressed syllable in an abstract noun ending in -ity is always the antepenultimate.

e.g.

reliability

spontaneity

ability

felicity

eternity

rarity

etc. Is this rule foolproof? Can anyone think of an exception?

6

Pity

Unless you accept the loss of an i, the best such word is pity. That’s because in that case Latin pietās, pietātem was whittled away till it had no antepenult left to it, and so you have no chance to stress something that isn’t there. :) The version that didn’t get quite so pared down became piety, which is stressed antepenultimately like most of the rest of them.

Even very short words of this pattern have the stress on the antepenult, like acuity, amity, deity, fatuity, laity, paucity, unity. The most common of these words end in ‑acity, ‑ality, ‑anity, ‑arity, ‑ariety, ‑bility, ‑eity, ‑idity, ‑ility, ‑inity, ‑iety, ‑ivity, ‑ocity, ‑osity, ‑uity. Some are even productive as Modern English suffixes in their own right, like ‑bility. And all are stressed antepenultimately.

These words all come originally from Latin ‑tās, ‑tātem for a state or condition. All the rest either retained enough syllables to retain an earlier stress, or else had the intervening i lost altogether, as in safety and plenty. (But compare royalty).

A few such words had the Latin suffix joined to a consonant stem as in faculty, honesty, puberty, but here again you have no i before the ‑ty — and you still have antepenultimate stress.

To have another syllable stressed than the antepenult, it would need either a “long” i sound (actually a diphthong) in the penult like whitey or almighty, or be stressed at the end, something which doesn’t really fit the English stress pattern but can be found in the common pronunciations of loanwords like actualité and vérité from French.

There is, I suppose, still the possibility of preäntepenultimate stress. The closest match there is difficulty /ˈdɪfɪkəltɪ/ from Latin difficultās, ‑tātem, which may have gone through a French difficulté en route.

The same process that yielded pity also produced city from Latin cīvitās, ‑tātem via French cité, but that is no longer an abstract noun.

Succity

The OED has one other candidate that meets your criteria, but it is obsolete now and was never more than rare (and was, perhaps, catachrestic): succity, about which they say this:

† sucˈcity. Obs. rare-1.

Etymology: f. L. succus juice, sap + -ity. But ? an error for succosity.

Moisture.

  • 1646 Sir T. Browne Pseud. Ep. ɪɪ. i. 42 ― A lapidifical succity, and principle which determins prepared materials unto specificall concretions.

How they inferred that the stress was on the penult, I do not know.

So yes, it’s a pretty foolproof rule.

  • 2
    Pity and city are kind of cheating, since they don't synchronically end in the suffix -ity. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 6 '15 at 5:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.