Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Sleepy Hollow" and a quick note on "lieutenant"

I watched the premiere of "Sleepy Hollow" (LOOSELY based on Washington Irving's story) on Monday and found it entertaining enough to keep watching for at least a few more weeks. My officemates also liked it, which will help keep the momentum going, along with the fact that it's being filmed near my hometown.

One thing I thought the show didn't explore enough was how disorienting it must have been for Ichabod Crane to find himself in modern times. (I did like that they gave him a moment to be puzzled by the paved road before he almost got run over.) To be fair, the pilot was just an hour long, and they had a lot of plot to cram in there, and it would have dragged the show down for him to be asking about how they can light up a room without candles, etc. He adapted awfully quickly, but I hope they keep using little points like his fascination with power windows to point out that he is a fish out of time. I expect they will, for comic relief if nothing else.

One of the ways they'll keep reminding us about his origin, without actually spending any time on it, is his accent. Ichabod was born back before America and England became "two countries divided by a common language," so although he's American, he has what sounds like a slight English accent (No, there isn't one English accent any more than there's one American accent, but you know what I mean.). The actor, Tom Mison, is English, so we shouldn't have to worry about his dropping it.

At one point during the pilot, Ichabod pronounces the policewoman's title as "lef-tenant" instead of "lew-tenant." Being a longtime fan of Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery and period dramas, I was not surprised by this British usage. But it did occur to me to wonder just why it's pronounced differently.

According to Google, many people have asked this question before me. I stopped looking after visiting about a dozen links. Ken Greenwald at Wordwizard seemed to have the most comprehensive explanation:
In any case, the pronunciations with "f" and "v" are reflected in various 14th-century English spellings of ‘lieutenant,’ which included ‘leef-,’ ‘leve-,’ ‘lyff-‘ and later ‘lief-,’ ‘live-,’ ‘liev-,’ and ‘uff-.’
Other early forms reflected a "w" pronunciation, among them ‘lu-,’ ‘lieu-,’ ‘lyue-,’ and ‘lew-.’ 
So people disagreed on the pronunciation of lieutenant long before the United States were born or thought of (yes, the U.S. took a plural back then, before becoming an it).

Greenwald went on to say that the U.S. settled on the "lew-tenant" pronunciation largely due to  Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, who "almost single-handedly promulgated American pronunciations as well as American spellings."

But before Webster, even with various people disagreeing for centuries on how to pronounce it, was there any preferential rift in pronunciation between the two sides of the ocean? I wonder if the English-American split may have arisen or broadened during the American Revolution when non-British Europeans came to help drill, advise, and lead the Continental soldiers. Baron von Steuben probably would have used the Deutsch "leutnant" (loit-nant), but the Marquis de Lafayette would have assuredly used the French pronunciation (as "in lieu of"). Lafayette was popular, so that could have helped his way of saying it to become preferred.

If anyone has better explanations or links, do let me know!

UPDATE 11/20/13: We found out several episodes ago that Ichabod was actually a British soldier who decided to fight on the American/anti-apocalypse side, not someone born in North America. So that explains the accent. And yes, the show has continued to give us merry-making moments of Ichabod agog and/or aghast at modern life, such as a 10% tax on breakfast pastries, whereas the 2% Stamp Act tax was enough to foment rebellion in his day -- oh, but it turns out that the Tea Party was actually just a fortuitous diversion for secret anti-apocalypse operations. I love the combination of action, emotion, humor, and crazy in this show.

2 comments:

  1. I've wondered about the lieutenant pronunciation difference for a long time. Now, it makes a bit more sense, as does Ichabod Crane's instant understanding of the US pronunciation while using the British. Somehow, that bothered me more than his instant acceptance of electric lights, cars, etc.!

    Thank you!

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  2. Thanks for the fine explanation. So we will give credit to Webster.

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