Since I first read it, I always pronounced the word "sepulcher" as /səˈpal.tʃə/, but recently I learned that the correct pronunciation is /ˈsɛ.pəl.kə/, or slight variations thereof. Now, according to Wiktionary, the word comes from Middle English/Old French "sepulcre", ultimately from Latin sepulcrum, which is indeed pronounced /seˈpul.krum/. So, I'm wondering, at what point did the stress go from the second to the first syllable, and are there words where this happened analogously?

The Modern French cognate seems to be sépulcre, which is also stressed on the second syllable, so I'd guess the change happened after the word got borrowed into Middle English.

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    Shakespeare wrote "'On his bow-back he hath a battle set // Of bristly pikes, that ever threat his foes; // His eyes, like glow-worms, shine when he doth fret; // His snout digs sepulchres where'er he goes;" showing that he (at least sometimes) pronounced it with the accent on the first syllable. Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 20:23
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    Are you asking why Latin stress is a poor predictor of English stress? French lost all lexemic stress, so it’s incorrect to say that French stresses the second syllable of any word, let alone of sépulcre. By the way, your sepulcher is a rare spelling; it’s usually sepulchre like acre, euchre, ochre, massacre, mediocre, nacre.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 20:39
  • And @tchrist has just mentioned another word where the stress migrated from the second syllable in French to the first in English: massacre (probably from Latin macellum, which also has stress on the second syllable). Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 21:02
  • @tchrist and centre, metre, litre :) Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 22:50
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    Looking in Chaucer, it looks like he also accented it on the first syllable: "But whan ye comen by my sepulture,' AND "Right in the haven of Athenes fletinge, // With-outen sepulture and buryinge;" So the first-syllable pronunciation was established by 1350 or so. Chaucer and his contemporary Gowers pretty much invented iambic meter in English, so poetry isn't going to give us any accentuations before that. Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 4:10

1 Answer 1


Your conclusion is quite right! In general, stress shifts in words like these happened in English after they were borrowed from French into Middle English.

An old resource that discusses some examples is Otto Jespersen's Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, part 1 (1909).

Jespersen mentions many disyllabic words taken from French that show a shift of the stress to the first syllable, such as ballad, salad, closet, pocket, madam, dozen (section 4.61).

Jespersen mentions sepulchre in section 5.73, but he doesn't say much about it. He cites one example that he thinks shows stress on the second syllable for the verb (contrary to what is now heard):

Sh. Lr. II. 4.127 se'pulchring

which refers it seems to this line in Shakespeare's King Lear

[...] If thou shouldst not be glad,
I would divorce me from thy mother's tomb,
Sepulchring an adultress. [To Kent] O, are you free?

That does seem to read more smoothly if the accent is on the second syllable, although I am not sure how certain we can be about that. In any case, Shakespeare clearly did not predate the general shift of the accent to the first syllable in this word when it was used as a noun. The only question would be whether it was still usual to accent sepulchre on the second syllable when used as a verb in Shakespeare's time. I'm not sure how much this anomalous example tells us about anything.

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