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The Prowess of Systemzwang

German linguistic terminology includes a handy compound word that English lacks, viz. Systemzwang, which combines System ‘system’ with Zwang ‘compulsion, force, drive’ to yield a sense amounting to ‘the force of the system’. For language this translates to the concept of the linguistic system as a whole exerting a force on an individual fact in order to bring about a change in form and/or meaning. This force is akin to that of simple analogy but is more specific.

Here is a recent example. The BBC World Service reporter Lucy Williamson, a native speaker of British English (RP = Received Pronunciation) mispronounced the Anglo-Norman word prowess by putting the stress on the second syllable instead of the first, a mistake registered secondarily by the Oxford English Dictionary Online as extant in current British speech, thus making it clear that it is the result of a change in the history of  English wherein prówess has been replaced for some speakers by prowéss. The source of this mistake is analogy with derived words ending in –ess (like princess), which in a standard variety of British English can take suffixal (final) stress.

Of course, analogizing prowess to princess is a misconstrual of the word, since it is not a derived substantive in contemporary English (pace its provenience). In this case, the explanation is that Systemzwang has had its sway.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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