Sunday, February 11, 2007

Half-Syllables and Barrow-Wights

Update: We may have guests from the Worcester area, likely because I used the word "Worcester" in this post. The closest I lived to Worcester was Sudbury, but we may have others among the regulars. This blog usually focuses on language history, book reviews, and cultural/political commentary. Recently I have been railing against the perfidy of the Arts & Humanities Tribe in America. Thank you for dropping by.

Readers from northern New England will appreciate that I once found someone's place of birth entered in the computer as Wusta, MA. It took me a moment. Obviously, the person entering it wahnt from around heah.

We think of syllables as being a quantum phenomenon, coming in discrete packets. It's either one syllable or it's not, there's no such thing as a half-syllable, we think. Consider the word "barrels." All of us tend to swallow that second syllable a bit. Even someone such as I, who has an overprecise pronunciation even in everyday speech, would say "barruls," but very nearly "barr'ls." At the other end people in some regions come perilously close to saying "bairls;" yet not quite. There is a whisper of a second syllable even then. If the two extremes of pronunciation are 1.2 syllables to 1.8 syllables (there's nothing official about that. I just made it up), then calling it a one-and-a-half syllable word makes sense.

In fact, an enormous proportion of our words are like that. The gradual elision of unaccented syllables is how we get from "God Be With Ye" to goodbye, or to the pronunciation Wuster from the original spelling "Worcester." Learning phonetic reading and having dictionaries fools us into thinking that a syllable is an either/or thing. Jeet? for "Did you eat?" is one of those things that people learning live English learn, as opposed to those learning it in school somewhere. This is true of every language, which is why you thought you knew French but could barely understand anyone in Nice.

Writing slows language change. Otherwise, jeet would become the normal word in a generation.

Many children say "wheelbarrel" instead of "wheelbarrow." Not until people see it in print do they start to change this. Unless you had especially persnickity parents who corrected you on such minor solecisms, you probably did not even hear the difference until you saw it in print. And why would you? The item in question looks as if it could be related to barrels somehow. Half a barrel on a wheel: wheelbarrel. If your ear happened to catch the slight bear-o difference, your young brain would find nothing to fasten it on. There's certainly nothing about bears or bare things about it.

If it weren't in print, we would have switched to wheelbarrel long ago. "Barrow," if we have heard the word at all, means a mound or hill. It pretty much went out of use centuries ago, but archaeologists brought it back for technical purposes. It had pretty much lost any other meaning until Tolkien, always searching for archaic words to embed a sense of long history into his naming and narrative, brought it back for barrow-wights (wight is person or creature) and barrow-downs.

We leap to the conclusion "ohh, wheel-barrow! to wheel something up a hill!" but we would be wrong. Okay, I leaped to that conclusion years ago and I was wrong. This is a completely different kind of barrow, from a completely different root. That second kind of barrow comes from a root meaning "to carry," and is related to bear, bier, borne, born, bairns, and those sorts of carrying and children things.

The first kind of barrow comes from a root meaning a high and/or fortified place. Thus German Berg and Burg, and our iceberg. Tacking b-rg on to the end of names is common in Germany and Scandinavia. By the time the root was brought over by Angles and Danes to England, it was already -bury (Avebury, Shrewsbury) or even -by (Granby, Derby). And here we come full-circle again on the partial syllables. Danbury has two-and-a-half syllables. If it weren't written down it would have become "Danbry" centuries ago.


Anonymous said...


Every week Worcester Magazine scours the web for the best of locally meaningful blogs, and reprints excerpts from these entries in our Blog Log column. It’s sort of a blog in reverse, if you will.

We wanted to let you know that one of your entries has been chosen to run in the coming week’s issue and will appear with full credit given to the author and blog we got it from.

Be sure to check out this week’s issue, and feel free to contact us at


The staff

a guy in pajamas said...

Hey, cool! Mainstream attention!

My comment is half-related, as befits a post on half-syllables, I suppose.

Haiku is often described as having 17 syllables. However, while that may be linguistically correct, it's not the same as 17 English syllables. The Japanese actually count characters, and most of their characters do indeed count as syllables. E.g., ka, ki, ku, sa, ta, etc. However, there are a number of characters that would not count as English syllables. For example, 'n,' as in, 'joudan.' In English, 'joudan' has two syllables, but in Japanese counting, it has four - jo-u-da-n. Another such is a stop: 'matte' is a good example, with the second 't' representing a stop. In English it would be something like 'ma' (pause) 'te'. Two English syllables, three Japanese characters.

Because of this, Japanese haiku tend to have half the meaningful words (forget articles) of English haiku, and the genre in Japan has a very different feel than in the US. And because of that, there are some haikuists who write in English who count accented syllables, using a 2-3-2 count. This much more closely approximates the length and feel of Japanese haiku.

To use the most famous haiku as an example:

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

transliterates to:

old pond, a frog leaps in water's sound

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I love stuff like that. When I find something that people think they know, but I know the deeper story, I'm a happy boy.

Anonymous said...

AVI, the scope and depth of your erudition is amazing. What a great post. As a fan of Tolkien I've wondered where the barrow-wight came from, even though I knew what it was from the context of the story.

Please, for my own delight if for no other reason, keep it up!

sarah said...

Neat post!

I'm always amazed at how people who live in Louisville manage to pronounce that in one syllable.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Two of my sons and my daughter-in-law went to school in Wilmore, KY. I'll have to ask them how that's pronounced.

Der Hahn said...

About half of our IT department is located in 'Luvl'. The pronunciation of that city's name is problematic. (See the photo of the sign in the wiki entry).