I had an English teacher in High School, Mr. Beck, bless his ever patient soul, who used to tell us “You’ve got the emphasis on the wrong syllable.” But he’d pronounce emphasis and syllable with the stress on the middle syllable. Like so: Em-PHA-sis and sy-LA-ble. Repeat after me, “You’ve got the em-PHA-sis on the wrong sy-LLA-ble.”
I loved how this sentence taught the concept by internal example. Very clever and memorable. Can you remember anything at all that YOUR high school English teacher said to you a few decades ago?
Mr. Beck had a few other choice things to share on occasion that I still remember, but I won’t ever repeat them here. He had a very wry sense of humor. Last I’d heard he had quit teaching and gone into the corporate world. What a loss, he was a great teacher.
But I digress.
I mention Mr. Beck’s infamous saying as a preface to a road trip experience I had a few years back.
Two of my daughters were with me at the end of a couple of weeks visiting relatives, attending family reunions, dodging summer construction zones, singing inane songs about the traffic cones and traffic in general. Seems that particular trip had involved more travel than most. We were pretty traveled out on our return trip home.
Part of that return trip involved the winding roads south of Hoover Dam. I think we had hit the twilight zone of road tripping. Meaning we were bored beyond reason, making up songs that made no sense, and telling jokes with no punch lines and still laughing ourselves silly.
Food was often the answer to boredom in the car, so one of the girls broke out some of the snacks. One package followed the cereal box mantra of trying to entertain and educate.
It suggested reading a particular sentence out loud with the emphasis on a different word each time you read the sentence.
The sentence was: Why is the duck lonely?
Okay. Boredom won out, we’d give it a try, out loud.
WHY is the duck lonely? – Kind of makes you wonder what’s been going on in its life.
Why IS the duck lonely? – A sort of questioning if the duck is lonely at all, or maybe doubt about the duck’s loneliness.
Why is THE duck lonely? – This particular duck’s loneliness is in question.
Why is the DUCK lonely? – Is the fish lonely too, or just the duck. Makes you wonder about the rest of the story.
Why is the duck LONELY? – Is there a different emotion the duck could be feeling? Sad? Melancholy? Why lonely?
Five words and a question mark. Five different meanings. Strange and fascinating. And we all thought communication was such a straightforward and direct thing. Who knew that where the emphasis falls could make such an impact.
This little sentence is often a kind of mantra for me. If I’m not understanding a situation, particularly a relationship issue, I try to rearrange the emphasis of a sentence, a thought or an emotion. Sometimes it shines a different color or brightness of light on things that I hadn’t thought of before. Sometimes I am just as confused, or more so, than before.
If nothing else, it’s a fun exercise to try if you’re stuck driving an endlessly long stretch of highway.