I WAS startled this morning to have my little granddaughter demand in the most insolent manner possible, ‘Whose book is this?‘ Her way of saying it is better indicated by writing it thus: ‘ Whose bookis-this?’ Now the child is not an impudent little baggage, and I stared at her for a moment in amazement. Then it came to my mind that of late she has been playing with a lot of rather neglected young people who have not been taught the importance of accent in sentences as well as in words. What she really wanted to ask me was, ‘Whose book is this?’ or perhaps, ‘Whose book is this?’ or even, ‘Whose book is this?’ Accented as it was, the question gave me the impression that I was being ‘put on the spot’ and that anything I might be led to confess would be used against me!
This style of asking a question with the accent entirely on the first word of the sentence seems to be growing in usage. To an old-fashioned person like myself it is strangely offensive, smacking of the brutal intimacies of the ‘third degree.’ You picture yourself with handcuffs and leg irons, bound in an iron chair and all but gagged while a sharp-nosed ‘dick’ jabs you with ‘ What isyourname? Where doyoulive? What wereyoudoing? ’ and so on.
Now a question fired point-blank at you is apt to annoy you even when given with the most diplomatic of accents. It is in a way a command to stand and deliver. I have even heard the advice strongly urged never to ask a direct question, but to put it in a hint. I would not go so far as to advise a strict adherence to this rule. It would be a little affected to approach a traffic officer with the insinuation, ‘This road going to the right is likely, I suppose, to lead to the business district,’ accompanying your remark with an inquiring lift of one or more eyebrows. You would be apt to get more instant attention than if you fired at him the usual ‘ Where doesthisroadontherightgoto?’ The officer would likely think you were some ignorant foreigner unacquainted not only with the highways but also with the American language. He might, however, come back at you with ‘ What’s thatyousay?’ and escort you to the police station for impudence to an officer and for obstructing traffic; and the police judge would say, ‘ Who doyouthinkyouare?’
I believe the matter of accent receives far too little attention in American speech. A carelessly accented sentence will go as far toward branding you as illiterate and uncultured as a badly spelled or badly accented word. Only recently I heard a distinguished English lecturer who spoke of the ‘ in-tric-acies ’ of a problem. But he accented his sentences so delightfully that one could forgive the occasional slip on the accent of a word. Besides, it is easier to say ‘intricacies’ with the accent on the second syllable than to accent it on the first. The accents of some of our words are sadly in need of changing, anyhow. I remember a very scholarly German mathematician who was much astonished, not to say scandalized, to hear me pronounce the word ‘accompaniment’ with the accent, on the second syllable. He had supposed that of course it should be accented on the third. After I had accented it on the third myself several times I could see that there was much to be said in favor of his way.
The accenting of words in a sentence is a much more complicated and difficult affair than the accenting of syllables in a word. The treatment of syllables can be standardized in a dictionary; it is seldom that a word is capable of more than one accent, and then as a rule the meaning varies. But this variation is the usual thing in accenting a sentence. How can we know where the accents went a hundred or more years ago? The rhythm of the verse may tell us that ‘Juliet’ was accented on the first syllable, but I shudder to think that leaning on the balcony she may have murmured, ‘ What’s inaname? ’