KODIAK — I feel like I need to settle the discussion on the pronunciation of a certain word that has been roiling on the tongues of those concerned with funding for the University of Alaska.
That word: exigency.
As has been widely reported, the UA Board of Regents, at the recommendation of UA President Johnsen, had been considering declaring financial exigency in the wake of the governor’s draconian cut to the state’s appropriation. President Johnsen estimates that the effects of the cuts will make a $200 million impact on UA this year alone. So this week, the Regents voted to declare financial exigency, which allows the university to make quick changes to the institution’s structure, including faculty and staff layoffs, and program and campus closures.
Yes, that could include closing Kodiak College or any number of programs in Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau as soon as December 31. (Which means, dear editor, that Jared might be asking for a modest raise soon.)
In these discussions of financial exigency, though, two pronunciations of the word exigency have wandered about: EX-igency, which is how I pronounce it, and ex-I-gency, which is how weirdos pronounce it. Just kidding—they’re not weirdos, just a little more classically trained, perhaps. You can see that some speakers stress the first syllable; others, the second. Let’s take a look back to see how these markedly different pronunciations developed.
The word exigency came to English in the 16th century from the Middle French exigence. Now, in French, generally speaking, the stress lands on the final syllable of the word: exi-GENCE.
Things get a little more complicated, though, when we look at its Latin root exigentia, which meant urgency. It’s comprised of the prefix ex-, meaning out, and the base word agere, meaning to set in motion. So, quite literally, the word means to drive or force out, or to finish.
Latin, though, had a much more complicated stress rule than French; their rules were based on the weight of the syllable. For instance, if a syllable ends with a consonant, it is a closed syllable; if not, then it is an open syllable. If a closed syllable contains a long vowel, it is called a heavy syllable; a short vowel, light, as are open syllables.
So the rule was—again, generally speaking because there are always exceptions and Latin was a whole lot more fluid than we may think—if the penultimate syllable (that is, the second-to-last) was heavy, then you stress that one. If the penultimate syllable was light, then you stress the syllable right before that one (what we call the antepenultimate syllable). If there is no antepenultimate syllable, then you stress the penultimate one. Still with me?
For example: Our word liberty comes from the Latin libertatis. The penultimate syllable, ta, contains a long vowel followed by a consonant, making it heavy, so we would stress that one: liber-TA-tus. The Latin word for danger was periculum. The penultimate syllable, cu, contains a short vowel, meaning that it’s light, so we stress the syllable before it: pe-RI-culum. So, for our word this week—exigentia—the penultimate syllable, ti, is light because it is an open syllable with no consonant after it, so we would stress the antepenultimate syllable: exi-GEN-tia. (Geez, I hope that’s right. Had to really brush up on my Latin this week.)
Notice, though, that even though the placement of the syllable is different, the French and Latin still stress the same one: -gen.
But English speakers, well, we don’t really care about vowels and the number of syllables. As a Germanic language, English generally stresses the base, or stem, syllable; and if the base syllable is comprised of more than one syllable, we’ll stress the first one. For example, in the word mistake, we stress “take” because it’s the stem; mis- is the prefix/add-on, so we don’t stress it. In the word heaven, there’s only the base word, so we stress the first syllable.
So, when I pronounce exigency, stressing the first syllable, I’m breaking the Germanic stress rule. That’s okay. I like to think of myself as anti-authoritarian anyway.
Those, like UA President Johnsen, who stress the second syllable, which is the first syllable of the stem “igen”, from the Latin agere, are historically correct.
So I just proved myself the weirdo. I owe a lot of
apologies to people on social media.
Looking back over this column, I think I use the word stress about twenty times. Financial exigency is really getting to me.