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What exactly does the grave accent mean in English?

An example from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30:

The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan

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Wikipedia says it at least as well as I could have:

The grave accent, although not standardly applied to any English words, is sometimes used in poetry and song lyrics to indicate that a vowel usually silent is to be pronounced, in order to fit the rhythm or meter. Most often, it is applied to a word ending with -ed. For instance, the word looked is usually pronounced /ˈlʊkt/ as a single syllable, with the e silent; when written as lookèd, the e is pronounced: /ˈlʊk.ɨd/ look-ed). It can also be used in this capacity to distinguish certain pairs of identically spelled words like the past tense of learn, learned /ˈlɜrnd/, from the adjective learnèd /ˈlɜrn.ɨd/ (for example, "a very learnèd man").

  • +1 because this points out that it's not standardly applied to any English words (I was just reading that same Wikipedia page before seeing that you posted a copy of it here). – Randolf Richardson Jul 23 '11 at 5:43
  • Is /ɨ/ always the way the e ought to be pronounced? – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Jul 23 '11 at 5:58
  • @Mariano: Since by definition the "-èd" form is only used where no vowel is normally enunciated, it's a bit moot to argue about exactly how the "non-existent" sound should be pronounced. I think the "i" ("sit") form is transitional to being lost altogether, so you'll get that for learned because it still "sort of" exists in speech (though not in learnt). For many other words where a voiced vowel is unknown today, people will just vocalise it as "e" ("bed") because all they have to go on is the written form right in front of them. – FumbleFingers Jul 23 '11 at 13:00
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    @FumbleFingers: I think most people would use the model of words where they normally pronounce '-ed', such as "wanted". The vowel would then be /ɨ/, /ə/ or /ɛ/ according to dialect. – Colin Fine Jul 24 '11 at 0:27
  • @Colin Fine: I don't follow that. I normally say "wantid", but if I read a [poetic?] "wantèd" – which I'm not sure I ever have – I'd probably hear it in my "mind's ear" as "-ed" rather than "-id". I don't know if my being familiar with the accent in its native French habitat makes any difference to how I read/imagine hearing it. – FumbleFingers Jul 24 '11 at 2:02
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This line is from Shakespeare's Sonnet 30. Shakespearean sonnets are 14 lines of iambic pentameter, so each line needs ten syllables. If the -èd was not pronounced separately then there would only be nine in this line, which would break the metre. The grave accent is a help to the reader.

Incidentally, it is not stressed here.

A line earlier in the same sonnet is

And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight

where the apostrophe is a help to the reader not to pronounce the -ed separately.

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Guess: it means you place more emphasis here than usual. As in, "beh-MOAN'd" vs "beh-MOAN-ED".

(Thanks to commenter for keeping me honest).

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