cannot: OED pronunciation

Dennis R. Preston preston at MSU.EDU
Mon Jan 17 17:02:01 UTC 2005


If you shift the stress to the first syllable (as
I have heard some posh RP types do), the
pronunciation [kaen at t] works.

There are also British Isles [kaen@] dialect forms (less posh).

dInIs, who is known for hanging around posh types in general

>At 9:33 AM -0500 1/17/05, Dale Coye wrote:
>>Quite a discussion arose on the History of Eng. Lang. list over the
>>pronunciation of cannot.  A non-native speaker, a teacher, had been
>>teaching the
>>pronunciation of the second syllable as schwa--because that's what
>>the OED has.  UK
>>and US speakers responding agreed that that is incorrect--it's the same vowel
>>as "not."    That seems right to me. So where did the OED get schwa?
>>       On a related note, I'm wondering if the spelling "cannot" may be
>>fighting a losing battle against "can not" in the youngest
>>generation, based on the
>>number of my students who seem never to have absorbed the single-word
>>convention in high school--maybe because their teachers didn't teach
>>it.   I don't
>>know if "can not" has slipped past any editors yet, or made its way into
>>dictionaries, but maybe it won't be long.
>One point worth making is that despite the standard gloss of "cannot"
>as "can not" in a number of dictionaries, the two expressions are not
>interchangeable.  "Cannot", like "can't", is a lexical item, and as
>such it has a partially opaque meaning.  In this case, "can not" can
>be used when the modal takes wide scope with respect to the negation,
>while "cannot"/"can't" are always understood with wide-scope negation
>An Episcopalian priest can not marry (if he doesn't want to).
>[CAN [NOT]] (*cannot)
>A Catholic priest can not marry (whether he wants to or not).   [NOT
>[CAN]] (cannot is OK)
>You can not finish your dissertation (can't you?)
>[CAN [NOT]]
>You {cannot/can't} finish your dissertation (*can't you?)
>[only NOT [CAN]]
>You can not go to the party.               (it's up to you)
>You {cannot/can't} go to the party.   (sorry about that)
>and so on.  (I have a little story on why such lexical items tend to
>be interpretable with only the not-possible or not-permitted scope,
>while non-lexicalized phrases like "can not" may be freer in their
>interpretive possibilities, but that's another story.)
>Once we accept that "cannot" is a lexical item, it would not be too
>surprising to find variation in how it's pronounced, but I confess
>I'm equally ignorant about the detection of a [kaen at t] pronunciation.
>Maybe upper-crust RPish?
>Also perhaps worth noting:  "couldn't" exhibits the same restriction
>(wide scope negation) vis-à-vis "could not", but there's no
>corresponding "orthographic lexicalization" of the form _couldnot_.
>So at least the semantic restriction on "can't" should survive even
>if, God forfend, _cannot_ disappears.

Dennis R. Preston
University Distinguished Professor
Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic,
        Asian and African Languages
Wells Hall A-740
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1027 USA
Office: (517) 353-0740
Fax: (517) 432-2736

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