Dear Language Nerd,Why do we say stretched, fetched, and retched, but wretchèd?
Because the first three are verbs and the last one’s an adjective. English has a lot of rules (shocking, I know) about pronunciation. We lucky native speakers use them all the time without ever realizing, and the regular-past-tense-ending rule is one of the better ones, because it’s one of two English rules I can think of that have clear-cut categories and no exceptions. Adjectives, which we’ll get to later, are something else again.
So, all those many many words that end with a written <ed> (recall the EFLN? <> for shapes, // for sounds) get pronounced in one of three ways:
fetched, stopped, pushed, baked
grabbed, buzzed, cried, bugged
Usually, <ed> is pronounced /t/ or /d/. /t/ and /d/ make up one of those voiceless/voiced pairs we talked about last time, and they come after voiceless and voiced sounds, respectively. (If you put your hand to your throat and make a voiced sound, like /v/, you can feel your vocal chords vibrate. If you make a voiceless sound, like /f/, you won’t feel anything. Well, your lips might get tingly, I suppose.) We tend to think of <ed> as having an /?d/ sound, but it’s only said that way when the verb stem itself ends with /t/ or /d/, and we need to add a whole syllable to make the past sound clear (because who wants to try pronouncing /land?d/ as /landd/?).
So we have
— ? ? an /id/ sound after /t/ and /d/
— ? ? a /t/ sound after /p/, /s/, /k/, /?/*, /t?/**, /h/, /θ/, and /f/
—? ?? and a /d/ sound after eveything else.***
*This is the symbol for <sh>
** This is the symbol for <ch>, /t/ and /?/ together. Try it — say “t” and “sh” at the same time and you’ll end up with “ch”
***I say “everything else” as opposed to listing because there are waaay more voiced sounds than voiceless. /r/ and /m/, for example, have no goateed voiceless evil twin, and all of our twenty-odd vowels are voiced.
So, okay, past-tense pronunciation is kind of an odd rule, or at least it’s odd to think about it if you’ve never realized the ways you’re dividing up sounds subconsciously, but it’s a reasonable rule. A learnable rule. A rule that is, in fact, a rule, and not just a mess. And now we come to adjectives.
The problem is that so many adjectives are based on the past participle. We start with “I surprised him with a delicious cake!”, move to “He was surprised by its extreme deliciousness!” and end up with “The surprised lad ate the whole cake by himself, much to our chagrin.” So sometimes — often! — we have adjectives based on verbs that follow the regular past-tense verb pronunciation rules.
And it can be very hard to distinguish between participles and straight adjectives. “Wretched,” for example, is currently only an adjective (since its mother verb, wreccan “to drive out, to punish,” ran off to become “wreak”), so “the wretched man” has only an adjective in front of it, same as “the blue mouse.” But what about “the heavy-lidded kitten”? “The well-wrapped present”? “The jumped-upon quarterback”? Where and how do we draw the line? Linguists will argue about this ALL DAY LONG, I promise you.
The real difficulty is that occasionally we will go through a phase of wanting to differentiate between our verbs and our adjectives, and then someone always gets hurt. This is why we have a pile of verbs and adjectives that are spelled the same, but while the verbs follow the usual trifecta of rules, the adjectives are pronounced with /?d/ no matter what sound they follow:
Those socks just wicked the sweat away! / The wickèd witch is dead!
Have you learned nothing? / The learnèd professor peered through her pince-nez.
She cursed her to speak only in limericks. / Let’s get away from this cursèd place!
We legged it for the nearest shelter. / The three-leggèd princess’s song rang across the moor.
There’s no good rule for when these pronunciations will be different and when, like “I surprised him”/”the surprised lad” they will be the same. Like many past participle forms themselves (eat-ate-eaten? really, guys?) they just have to be memorized in lists, by which I mean absorbed naturally over time if you speak English as your first language. USA! USA! USA!
Don’t be too angry with English spelling, really. We sacrifice phonological information for morphological and etymological information — if we spelled all these past tenses with the sound they make, their connection wouldn’t be as obvious on the page. Though this is no excuse for our <ough> trouble.
By the way, the other pronunciation rule with clear-cut categories and no exceptions? Cats, maps, backs, baths, muffs; kisses, wishes, watches, quizzes; dogs, buns, gobs, waves.
The Language Nerd
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A lot of intro to phonology textbooks use the past tense as the first exercise, to get students thinking about sounds instead of spelling. What I had handy was the excellent reference book Practical English Usage by Michael Swan. And, of course, found out about wreccan through etymonline.
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