Stress patterns on words spelled with final <el> (long posting)

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Fri Aug 25 20:16:11 UTC 2000

Herb Stahlke wrote:
> A strange thing is happening to American English stress on words
> ending orthographically in <el>.
In medicine, there is a position (supine, head down) called the
Trendelenberg position, named after a certain Dr. Trendelenberg (this is
in any medical dictionary). In my experience this is virtually always
pronounced like /trEn'dEl at nbRg/. According to anecdote, Dr. T.
pronounced his name /'trEnd at l@nbRg/. The way the story goes, Dr. T.
attended a seminar. The speaker said "... TrenDELenberg position ..."
and there was a shout from the audience: "It's TRENdelenberg!" A little
later the position was mentioned again, and again the shout was heard:
"It's TRENdelenberg!" The speaker then asked: "Who is that yelling back
there anyway?" Answer: "It's TRENdelenberg!" I don't know whether the
story's exactly true, but certainly the incorrect stress on /El/ occurs
a lot, and not only at the end of the name.

I think it is the unfamiliar names which have this incorrect stress. I
probably do it myself quite often. I don't think you'll hear EnGELS, but
Wiesel is less well known. If a name doesn't seem English, one might try
to pronounce it phonetically as if it were from a familiar language --
Spanish, German, French -- and it is at least the popular impression
that these languages have much less centralization or schwa-formation in
unstressed vowels than does English. Then once the full vowel is chosen,
the stress will tend to follow it: so once I've decided that Wiesel is
/vizEl/ (seems German, and the popular conception is that German is
relatively schwa-free), the stress (AT LEAST secondary stress) will tend
to go to the second syllable to keep it from being /viz at l/. I would
pronounce Daniel /'d&nj at l/ but I wouldn't know how to pronounce, say,
Danyell -- I'd probably guess /d&n'jEl/. Also: perhaps there's influence
from French, which at least seems to have last-syllable stress (and
which has lots of '-el', '-elle' words) and Spanish. Consider 'cartel',
on the TV news all the time. [Here I use & = IPA ash and I don't
distinguish @ from unstressed I usually.]

There are parallels. In Detroit I knew a street named Devonshire,
usually pronounced /'dEv at nSajR/. (There are also Goethe [usually
/'gowTi/ with T = theta IIRC] and Freud [/frud/] streets in Detroit.)
But in Chicago there is a major street named Devon, virtually always
pronounced /d@'vAn/ [A as in Chicago 'pop' /pAp/, 'pa' /pA/]: apparently
the general impression is that this street was named after a Frenchman
named de Von.

-- Doug Wilson

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