Sunday 12 December 2010

Christmas in Tarquinia

Christmas is coming up soon and Tarquinia, the town I live in in Italy, is getting ready for the celebration of the coming of Christ. This year on Boxing Day, about 300 performers dressed in period costume will parade through its cobblestone streets, re-enacting the miraculous event. Tarquinia will then be transformed into a first century AD scene of little Bethlehem, with wooden benches, straw, wooden carriages, open-air markets of goods and livestock, antique inns and all the traditional accoutrements of a time past.
On the 6th of January, then, citizens dressed as the Magi accompanied by real camels will walk through the streets leading to the crib where the baby Jesus lays in swaddling clothes.

If you want to know more about the Tarquinia Live Crib, you can visit th
is website. Here you'll find a lot of pictures and a nice video of the past Christmas events organised by my brother in our fascinating Etruscan town.

The arrival of the festive season made me think of the origins and pronunciation of the term Christmas. According to my Oxford Dictionary of English (2005, 2nd edition), Christmas is derived from the Old English
Crīstes mæsse, with mæsse probably coming from ecclesiastical Latin missa, from Latin miss- 'dismissed', from mittere, perhaps from the last words of the service Ite, missa est, 'Go, it is the dismissal'.
From a phonetic point of view, Christmas is obviously pronounced ˈkrɪsməs,ˈk
rɪzməs (sometimes ˈkrɪstməs in very careful speech), with its suffix always reduced to a schwa. So from the Old English strong-vowelled mæsse we get a suffix -mas (meaning 'a holiday, a sacred day') which is characterised by the weak centralised ə. This is a tendency typical of all unstressed vowels in English when they passed from Old English to Modern English. As Cruttenden in his Gimson's Pronunciation of English (2008, p.66) put it,

"OE [=Old English] is sometimes called the period of full endings, e.g. stanas was realized as [ˈstɑːnɑs]; ME [=Middle English], the period of levelled endings (when vowels in endings were all levelled to [ə]), when stones was pronounced [ˈstɔːnəs]; and eModE [=early Modern English] onwards, the period of lost endings, when stones is [ˈstoːnz] or later [ˈstəʊnz]. The general tendency has been for all unaccented vowels to shorten (if long) and to gravitate towards the weak centralized vowels [ɪ] or [ə], or sometimes [ʊ], if not to disappear altogether. This fact accounts for the high frequency of occurrence of [ɪ] and [ə] in PresE [=Present-day English] and for the complete elision of many vowels in unaccented syllables in rapid colloquial speech, e.g. suppose [spəʊz], probably [prɒbblɪ]."

So Christmas is
ˈkrɪsməs today, never *ˈkrɪsmæs (or *ˈkrɪsmas, as many EFL learners wrongly pronounce it). But what about the word Candlemas, the name of the Christian festival held on the 2nd of February to commemorate the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Christ in the Temple? Is it ˈkændlməs, on the pattern of ˈkrɪsməs, or ˈkændlmæs, with a strong-vowelled suffix? Well, LPD3 has both but it prioritises the pronunciation with -mæs. So does the ODP (2003), specifying though that ˈkændlməs is the established variant in General American. The Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation (2006) only acknowledges ˈkændlmæs, whereas the Cambridge EPD (2006) has both pronunciations but prioritises the one with the schwa.
And here's my question: why do we get two pronunciations for Candlemas and only one possible for Christmas when these words can both be analysed as STEM + -mas? I sup
pose one reason could be because Christmas is by far more common than Candlemas and so people have internalized the pronunciation with the weak-vowelled suffix. Candlemas, on the other hand, being less frequent in people's vocabulary or indeed non-existent in some individuals' mental lexicon, tends to be said the way it is spelt. So we (sometimes) get a spelling pronunciation in Candlemas but we keep the more "traditional" (and expected?) one in Christmas.

In English there are another four words (maybe more?) suffixed with -mas: Childermas, Hallowmas (or Hallowmass), Martinmas, and Michaelmas. (For more on the meanings of these terms, click here.) How are they pronounced? Are they like Christmas or like Candlemas? Well, I have to say I fluctuate between -məs and -mæs
in all of them, except in Michaelmas which for me is always ˈmɪkəlməs. Is it the same for you?


  1. Thank you for your comments on Christmas; you were quite right to quote A. Cruttenden. Just one thing : modern English has /z/, not /s/ at the end of 'stones'.

    (cf. when stones is [ˈstoːnZ] or later [ˈstəʊnZ].

  2. You're right! My mistake. Now corrected.