Sunday, 13 February 2011

On pronouncing Purcell

A correspondent writes to ask about the pronunciation of two 17th-century names: Henry Purcell and Andrew Marvell. He says: 'In preparatory school I was taught to place the stress on the first syllable of Purcell and the second syllable of Marvell, always assuming that to be correct. However, I frequently hear the former pronounced with the stress on the second syllable and the latter with the stress placed on the first. Was my English instructor correct? And do American and British usage conform or differ? Has the stress shifted historically?'

When establishing an earlier pronunciation, as seen in earlier posts in this blog on the Shakespearean sound system, there are several kinds of evidence to look for - rhymes, puns, metre, spelling, and explicit comments by contemporaries. In the case of Purcell, we find clear evidence of the stress falling on the first syllable from contemporary spellings. Before spelling standardized, the vowel in an unstressed syllable would be spelled in different ways. So when we find such spellings as Pursal, Purcel, Persill, and Pursall in the 17th century, an initial syllable stress is clearly suggested. It is reinforced by the ode John Dryden wrote on the death of his friend, in which the metre requires the stress to be on the first syllable:

Now live secure and linger out your days,
The Gods are pleas'd alone with Purcell's Lays,

The same stress pattern is found in a rhyme in a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who rhymes Purcell and reversal. That was 1918. So there doesn't seem to have been any historical change.

Nor is this just a British pronunciation, as American dictionaries say the same thing. W Cabell Greet's World Words, compiled in association with the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1948, gives initial-syllable stress for both Purcell and Marvell, but adds, after Purcell, 'As an American family name the last syllable is often accented'. The Random House Dictionary confirms this. It lists three Purcells: Edward Mills (the US physicist), Henry (the composer), and a town in Oklahoma. The first and third, it says, have the stress on the second syllable; for Henry, the stress is on the first. And the very next entry is for the Purcell Mountains in British Columbia and Montana, with, once again, the stress on the second syllable. American intuitions are thus split down the middle, with Henry apparently in the minority, so it's hardly surprising that people assume he is like everyone else.

However, intuitions in Britain are split too. It's never possible to anticipate the crazy ways in which the English like to pronounce their surnames or placenames, as famous cases such as Cholmondley ('chumley') and Happisburgh ('haysbruh') illustrate. So, when we encounter a surname ending in -ell, there's no way of predicting the stress pattern. There are several examples of surnames ending in -ell which have the stress on the second syllable, such as the Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell. This end-stress is a typical feature of polysyllabic words in Irish English. But even here there are problems, because in Parnell Square the stress usually reverts to the first syllable (a similar alternation to what we find with he's sixteen and sixteen people). And Parnell himself preferred to say his name with the stress on the first syllable.

So we get the result we see in, for example, the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary, where we find both pronunciations given, in both British and American English. And because linguistic uncertainty is always contagious, it's not surprising to find other surnames vacillating. No dictionary I've looked at gives any other pronunciation for Marvell than one with the stress on the first syllable, and similarly for the members of the famous Durrell family, but we do hear the alternatives, especially from American speakers, from time to time.


Peripatetic Scribe said...

Fascinating article. May I make one comment - the US company 'Verizon'. I have heard it pronounced both as 'Verizon' and 'Ver-izon', so it would seem that nothing is constant within language pronunciation?
Peripatetic Scribe

Barrie England said...

Does anyone, I wonder, ever speak of ‘David CrysTAL’?

DC said...

Actually, yes, in a syllable-timed language (such as French), that seems to be the norm!

Martyn Cornell said...

My surname - Cornell - is always pronounced by the family (in England) today with the stress on the last syllable, and as it seems to have been spelled "Cornewell" in the 16th and 17th centuries, I'm guessing the emphasis has been on the last syllable for several hundred years. People do try to pronounce it "CORN'll", however, with the emphasis falling on the first syllable. AFAIK the American university of the same name (founded by a man whose ancestors came from the same part of south-east Cambridgeshire/north-west Essex as mine did) is also pronounced "cornELL".

Anonymous said...

Also, John Blow's very emphatic musical setting of the words 'when Purcell came' in the Dryden ode leaves one in no doubt - and as Blow was Purcell's teacher and colleague for many years he's likely to have known!

John said...

For what its worth, on this, the western fringe of the Atlantic, I've always heard the name pronoinced purCELL; same with similarly-spelled words and names.

Verizon is almost always verIZON, including in their own ads.

Great blog. Thanks

JWL said...

Those who, like myself, enjoyed David's comments on Purcell etc may care to look at what Graham Pointon said on the topic at
and at my Blog 188 at
on Euphonic Pronunciations

mollymooly said...

"in Parnell Square the stress usually reverts to the first syllable"

Indeed; though the second vowel usually remains an unreduced DRESS.

Anonymous said...

Don't forge the political Powell brothers: Carles and Jonathan. They can't agree on the pronunciation of their surname.Charles prefers to rhyme with bowl while Jonathan prefers bowel. Neither goes with Paul though.

Susan Purcell said...

Thank you, Professor Crystal. Very interesting, especially as my surname is Purcell. That's my married name, acquired from an Irish husband. Over nearly 30 years I have got used to pronouncing my name with the stress on the second syllable in the UK (otherwise people think I'm talking about the washing powder, Persil) and with the stress on the first syllable when I'm in Ireland.

Angie Purcell said...

I am a Purcell of Irish-American descent. We pronounce our name with stress on the first syllable , sounds very much like PURSE-ill. Most people who do not share the family name pronounce it pur-CELL with stress on the second syllable, it drives me nuts.