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Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Nuts and Bolts: serious accents.

English doesn't use many diacritical marks (by which I mean the lines and wiggles placed around letters that we usually call accents). We see them in words like naïve and Noël, and in very obviously borrowed words like soupçon and fiancée, and that's about it.

And then there's poetry.

Very early English poetry will sometimes be printed with a dot over some of the e s, like this: ė, to show that they are to be pronounced as separate syllables. In Praise of Mary, by that stalwart of verse Anthologies Anonymous, begins:

Of one that is so fair and bright
Velut maris stella,
Brighter than the dayės
 light,
Parens et puella,
I cry to thee; thou see to me!
Lady, pray thy son for me,
Tam pia,
That I motė come to thee,
Maria.

In later stuff, the mechanism changes from a dot to the sort of mark called a grave. It looks like this: è, and even in prose it's occasionally used to show that the difference between a man who's agèd (age-ed) and something merely aged, like wine.

The song from Shakespeare's play Cymbeline that begins 

Fear no more the heat o' the sun 

ends 

Quiet consummation have,
And renownèd be thy grave!

Which makes us wonder, of course, what's so grave about a grave accent?

Well, this:

Nuts and Bolts: grave (as in accent). This word is nothing to do with the burying kind of grave, but it is to do with the solemn kind. This grave comes from Old French, from the Latin gravis, related to Greek barus, which means heavy. 

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