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Emphasis in Spoken English and Its Abuse

Every language has ways of emphasizing all or parts of utterances, either by altering the phonological makeup of words (phonological emphasis) or by inserting or repeating words (lexical emphasis). In English the most common mode of emphasis is (1) lengthening stressed vowels or adding stress where it is otherwise absent (hypermetrical stress); and (2) lengthening stressed or unstressed vowels or both. This can be observed in items like /pəˈliːz/(sometimes written puhleeze) for please, i. e., pronounced with an epenthetic (inserted) semi-stressed schwa vowel between the initial consonants and an extra-long stressed vowel on what is now the second syllable. Any word that denotes the extreme grade of anything, typically an adjective, can be emphasized by pronouncing the stressed vowel with greater length, as in way (meaning ‘very’), huge, enormous, etc. The intonational contour of that part of the utterance that contains the emphasized element will vary accordingly, i. e., with a greater rise and fall than usual.

Lexical emphasis takes place when a word typically meaning the high or ultimate degree of anything so qualified is inserted, e. g., very, huge, utter, terrific, and nowadays the ubiquitous absolute(ly). This latter, particularly in its adverbial form, has come to be practically a verbal tic in some speakers of American English, to the point where it stands as a routine substitute for the plain affirmative yes. This has the unwelcome effect of producing the impression that the utterer has no means of distinguishing assertion from emphasis, which in the final analysis is a failure of thought and thus reflects negatively on the intelligence of the speaker.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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