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The distinction between the words blessèd (/ˈblɛsəd/) and blessed (/blɛst/) (see Grammarbook) appears to be wearing thin in modern language, possibly due to reduced accent usage and its resultant lack of different pronunciation between the two terms.

Wiktionary refers to the word as

poetic, dated

And most damningly of all as an

Alternative form of blessed (verb)

While I understand that little usage of terms such as blessèd and cursèd cause them to get blurred with their verb counterparts, some adjectives like naked, talented, sacred are still used, always written without the accent. In some legal and political circles†, learnèd is still used for specific traditional purposes but it is now starting to fade.

The reason some of these words are pronounced with /əd/ is explained by the answers to this question: "Why pronunciation of “Crooked” is “Crook-ked”?"

David G said:

If the normal form of the word (crook, twist) ends in t or d, the -ed is enunciated (such as wanted or bedded).

This explains the pronunciation of talented, but not that of naked, sacred, or blessed. The pronunciation of naked is however explained by coleopterist's answer to this question: Where does “wicked” get its /ɪd/ from?

According to A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, 1839,

The adjectives naked, wicked, picked (pointed), booked, crooked, forked, tusked, tressed, and wretched, are not derived from verbs, and are therefore pronounced in two syllables. The same may be observed of scabbed, crabbed, chubbed, stubbed, shagged, snagged, ragged, scrubbed, dogged, rugged, scragged, hawked, jagged; to which we may add, the solemn pronunciation of stiff-necked; and these when formed into nouns with the addition of ness, preserved the ed in a distinct syllable, as wickedness, scabbedness, raggedness, &c.


What is the history behind writing these words with accents?

With this explanation out of the way, what I'd like to know is whether it was common, in the past, to write these words with grave accents, and in which contexts people did this.
An answer to a question of mine (Are -èd adjectives still usèd words?)  explains that:

[Shakespeare] was somewhat inconsistent. But he never used an accent, and he generally used belov'd for the two-syllable pronunciation and beloved for the three-syllable pronunciation.

Was it ever common for people to add accents to or ommit the 'e' (as in belov'd) from their writing to show this pronunciation?

†Interestingly, Hansard don't include accents at all, even when one looks back into the 18th and 19th century records. This may, however, be a result of typewriting and modernising of the records.


Note: Bits of this question have been copied from this question because, looking back on that, it is rather broad and it would be better to split the question up.

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  • I'm no expert, but the accented syllables (and contractions) were used to force poetic meter, especially the iambic pentameters so beloved of Shakespeare, Donne, and other poets. These devices are also used in the metrical psalms in the 1650 Scottish Psalter.
    – Mick
    Nov 28, 2016 at 21:30
  • So when we're the accents first employed? 19th century reproductions? Nov 28, 2016 at 22:34
  • The comparison with talented, etc doesn't really hold up. For example blessed (however you choose to pronounce it) comes from the verb to bless. But naked doesn't come from the verb to nake.
    – user184130
    May 23, 2018 at 13:07
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    From the "Historical Development" section of this paper, it appears that in the 17th century, the spellings were 'd and ed to reflect the pronunciation. After that, the ed spelling became more common for all cases. But I haven't been able find anything about when people started using èd to indicate a historical (or, possibly, faux-historical) pronunciation.
    – user184130
    May 23, 2018 at 13:37
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    There was never any general wave of re-spelling or punctuation. It doesn't work like that. Before about 30 years ago, if you wanted something printed with an accent, you had to deal with a printer and an editor -- often separately -- who would either do what you wanted them to do, or more likely do something else, whether you wanted it or not. There was no consistency, as there is not any today. You pays your money and you takes your choice and maybe you gets what you wants. Mar 1, 2020 at 0:18

2 Answers 2

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First, for some historical context - accent grave (è) comes from Ancient Greek, and was part of a system developed for marking intonation. When the language moved to a stress-based system, the diacritics were adapted to that use:

"Ancient Greek had three accentual signs: (1) the acute (indicating a rising tone . . . , (2) the circumflex . . . , and (3) the grave (indicating a falling tone) ..." The acute accent could be written on any of the last three syllables, the circumflex on the last and next to last, and the grave only on the final syllable. "After pitch had given way to stress, the ancient accents were returned in writing to mark the stressed syllable" (Thomson 1972:17). (Source: Douglass, R. Thomas. “Written Accents in Spanish to 1726.” Hispania, vol. 71, no. 4, 1988, pp. 927–932. JSTOR.)

According to this article, after an inconsistent history of usage in Latin, the accent system reappears in Italian writing in the early 16th century, soon spreading to French and Spanish writing. The accent grave in French came to be used to mark vowels pronounced /ɛ/ (Lawless French).

The trouble with your question is that this mark was never used consistently in English. Its use would have varied from printer to printer, and from context to context. Indeed these marks weren't even native to English. Instead, they would have been imported via contact with Ancient Greek, Classical Latin, and (especially) romance languages like French. For example, it appears frequently in An Alveary or Triple Dictionary, in English, Latin, and French (1574) by John Baret, in Latin excerpts like this:

Cic. Go forth softly & see the dore make no noyse nor creaking. Placidè egredere, & sonitum prohibe forium & crepitus cardinum.

To be clear, this accent is not used with English words in this transcription, and I haven't found an early lexicon (in Lexicons of Early Modern English) that would print words in English with accents. English writers would have been familiar with the accent mark from being educated in other languages; it never became regularized in English.

So instead we have spotty examples that vary from text to text. To use blessèd as an example search, I found it with accent acute (not grave!) in A Collection of Hymns of the Children of God in All Ages (1754).

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Would this accent appear in the same way if we go to another text? No. Here's Matthew 25:34 in a 1795 edition of the Bible.

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Would the diacritic be reserved for use among oral speech? No. Here's a 1799 sermon by John Foster.

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Finally I tracked down an accent grave in an 1865 edition of The Monthly Packet of Evening Readings for Members of the English Church, volume 29:

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So there is no pattern of usage here beyond the whims of the printer or the writer.

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    Accent graves are where accents go to die, somewhere in France. Grave accents are what we use in English. :)
    – tchrist
    Mar 5, 2020 at 20:48
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    Considering that there is one blesséd in your 1754 book, and over 100 blessed, I think it's more likely to be a very aptly placed stray marking than an acute accent. Mar 5, 2020 at 21:41
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Let's take moved for our example. When Shakespeare wrote, both the two-syllable pronunciation, /muvəd/, and the one-syllable pronunciation /muvd/ were in use. He used whichever would make his verse scan, and he indicated the two-syllable pronunciation as moved and the one-syllable pronunciation as mov'd.

Sonnet XXXI:

But things remou'd that hidden in there lie.
(But things remov'd that hidden in there lie.)

Sonnet XCIV:

Vnmooued, could, and to temptation ſlow:
(Unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow:)

Later, the two-syllable pronunciation dropped out of the language completely except after /t/ and /d/, and for a handful of other words like blessed, naked, crooked, wicked. Some printers realized that poetry wouldn't scan if people pronounced it /muvd/. So they started using moved for the one-syllable pronunciation and movèd for the two-syllable pronunciation. This was only done by certain printers when printing poetry and songs, where it matters whether you use a one- or two-syllable pronunciation; as far as I know, there was never a period where it was common in prose.

Some words, like marked, blessed, aged, learned are losing their two-syllable pronunciation. This isn't because printers have stopped spelling them with -èd, because printers never did this commonly; it's just a natural change in the language. On the other hand, other words don't seem to be losing this two-syllable pronunciation. The distinction in meaning between doggèd and dogg'd was present in Shakespeare, and it persists to this day.

When did people start adding the accent marks? The earliest I could find in Google books was 1845, in The Holocaust, Or, The Witch of Monzie: A Poem, by the Rev. George Blair. They do not seem to have become common until later in the 19th century.

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