I was just watching a show where someone said “awry“. I have noted this numerous times before and wondered, but now I just have to understand: Why is it pronounced as “aww-rye” [low tone on the aww] instead of “aww-ree” [high tone on the aww]?
PLEASE NOTE: English is not a tonal language like Cantonese, so I’m going to assume you are simply talking about stress, a phonemic property of English words which speakers of tonal languages may hear in terms of tones.
Exactly why awry sounds like the beginning of “a rye sandwich” with the stress on the second syllable is a longer story than just that observation alone can explain on its own. English awry has its origin in two separate words that have since fused together: from a + wry, with a meaning the preposition “on” combined with the adjective wry meaning “twisted”. OED, Wiktionary
The first OED citation is from 1380, back in Middle English when it was still used as a prepositional phrase:
John Barbour The Bruce (St. John’s Cambr.) iv. 705
As thair bemys strekit air Owthir all evin, or on wry.
By 1490, we began to see the current one-word version appear, first in Caxton.
So here the w is not part of the vowel before it. It is not an /aw/ diphthong; rather, it’s part of the consonant after. You should train your eye to spot wr- as a two-letter consonant cluster in English that represents phonemic /r/, sometimes written [ ɹʷ ] or [ ɻ ] phonetically. If you had realized it was a consonant cluster, you would not have thought it was aw + ry but rather as the a + wry that it is. Plus if it were aw + ry it would be pronounced with a different vowel because aw ends up being the /ɔ/ of awkward and awesome.
English has a huge number of words starting with wr-
that are all of them about something that’s been “twisted” in some way: wraggle, wrangle, wrangler,
wrap, wrapper, wrath, wraw, wreath, wreathe, wrench, wrest, wrestle, wrick,
wrig, wriggle, wring, wrinkle, wrist, writhe, writhen, wrong, wroth, wrung,
wry, wrythening. This is one of those words.
(Curious conjecture: When he worked on and for the Oxford English
Dictionary, JRR Tolkien posited that wraith was also one of those sorts
of words, probably coming from a Scottish past-tense inflection of a word
like our writhe and wreathe. See The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, pp 223–224.)
English has a whole bunch of modifier words (adjectives and adverbs) beginning with the letter “a” which started out as prepositional phrases: aback, abed, ablaze, abroad, abuzz, across, afield, afloat, afoot, afresh, again, aglitter, ahead, akimbo, alive, aloft, anew, ashore, asleep, awry and really many, many more.
All of these started out life with an unstressed “function word” such as of, in, and, or as in our current case, the preposition on (formerly spelled an) which got worn down into just a simple a.OED The OED says that this represents a
Variant of on prep. with loss of the final consonant –n, reflecting an unstressed pronunciation of the word in proclitic use
Because prepositions are “function words” not “lexical words”, they are “never” stressed, so the stress cannot be on the start of the new, fused word. It still acts like a prepositional phrase in that regard, with the stress still falling on the former prepositional-object portion. For example, on FOOT > aFOOT.
These curious words retain one other property of their former lives as prepositional phrases: they cannot be used attributively before the lexical word they’re modifying, only predicatively after it (or occasionally as a rare postpositive attribute).
The versions marked with a ✻ are therefore ungrammatical:
- I saw that the boy was asleep.
- I saw the ✻asleep boy.
- I saw the boy asleep in bed.
- He landed so hard, his legs were all akimbo.
- He landed hard with ✻akimbo legs.
- He landed hard with legs akimbo.
- The crew went ashore for a few hours.
- The crew ✻ashore went for a few hours.
- The plan had gone awry.
- The plan ✻awry had gone.