Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Yesterday, my girlfriend and I got to talking about the word “beloved”, and it’s been on my mind ever since. For those unfamilar, “beloved” has the strange property of having two different acceptable pronunciations: /bi’lʌvd/ (two syllables, pronounced like “bi-loved”) and /bi’lʌvɨd/ (three syllables, pronounced like “bi-love-id”).

This is rather interesting in and of itself, because there are relatively few words with multiple acceptable (to the grammarians) pronunciations. Notable examples are words like “caramel” (/’kɛɹəmɛl/ or /kɑɹml̩/), “Either” (/’iðə˞/ or /’ajðə˞/), “Tomato” (/tə’mejtow/ or /tə’mɑtow/), and of course, the rest of the song. These words, in most dialects, can be freely exchanged without giving the impression of leaving one’s dialect.

However, “beloved” is stranger still, because the variation is not free at all. Let’s do a little experiment. Say the below sentences:

The mayor was much beloved by his people

I wrote a letter to my beloved

It turns out that, among the American English speakers I’ve asked about this, people were most comfortable using the two-syllable /bi’lʌvd/ in the first case, and the three-syllable /bi’lʌvɨd/ in the second. In fact, this pattern held more generally: every speaker I’ve talked with prefers using the two-syllable /bi’lʌvd/ form as an adjective (technically a participle), and the three-syllable /bi’lʌvɨd/ form as a noun (again, technically a participle used as a noun).

Turns out, that parts of the internet agree with the noun/adjective breakdown. However, in the same thread, “yankee” also points out an odd (yet very common) case:

I would only use pronunciation #2 [/bə’lʌvɨd/] here, for example: “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today…”. The use of pronunciation #1 would sound distinctly odd to me in the quote above. So, yes, I would consider pronunciation #1 wrong there.

In the set phrase “Dearly beloved”, there’s some ambiguity about the part of speech of “beloved”. You could read it as shorthand for “dearly beloved people”, in which case the “beloved” is acting as an adjective. However, if we wanted to let the pronunciation label the part of speech, you could also read it as “dearly beloved” where “dearly” is an intensifier enhancing the noun “beloved”, which is, admittedly, a bit strange (think “He was incredibly plumber”).

Syntax aside, the pronunciation is clear: in “dearly beloved”, the two-syllable version sounds as wrong as wrong gets in pronunciation.

The “beloved” pronunciation difference here is, as far as I can find, unique. There’s no ambiguity along these lines with any other English verb which I can think of. “Loved” is always /’lʌvd/, “laughed” is never /’læfɨd/, and “relived” (which should be similar in terms of structure) will always be /ɹi’lɪvd/, even in different contexts (“Traumatic events are often relived in dreams, and the relived are often as disturbing as the original”).

That said, even after a few hours of research, I still have no idea why these dual pronunciations exist here and nowhere else. Any reader suggestions are more than welcome, and if I happen to find out, I’ll update this post. But this one may be one of those great mysteries of language change that are infinitely easier to see than to explain.

Giving thanks

But that’s not what I came to tell you about. I came to talk about Thanksgiving.

This year, I’m particularly grateful that my friends and family are willing to not only tolerate my linguistic obsessions, but are willing to egg me on (by mentioning the word “beloved” in my presence), and that most of them will actually stick around until I’m done thinking about whatever they brought up. I’m grateful that I get to spend my days off writing posts like this, and I get to spend my work week sharing my passion for language with students. And I’m grateful, incredibly so, for the support, feedback, and compliments that I get back from my students.

I’m grateful that language is complex, confusing, fascinating, and always unexpected. I’m grateful that “Dearly beloved” is ambiguous, and that trying to parse those two words in a sentence was 5 minutes of interesting contemplation. I’m grateful that, as I stare into a future career in Linguistics, I see too many good options at the grand buffet of interesting phenomena, not too few.

Most of all, though, I’m grateful that, as I approach a decade of intense linguistic study, langauge keeps getting more complex and interesting, rather than less, and that no matter how deep into language I go, I never seem to hit bottom.

If that’s not worth some gratitude, what is?

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