My lawful wedded wife

On Friday I attended a register office wedding. At civil marriages in England and Wales, the spoken vows must include words of this type: ‘I [name] do take thee [name] to be my lawful wedded wife/husband’.

The wording may be specified, but the intonation isn’t. One of the norms of English intonation is to put the last accent of a phrase on its final noun/verb/adjective/adverb. So, in the wedding vow, we normally get ‘…my lawful wedded wife‘:

But on this occasion the speaker said (with a smile) ‘my lawful wedded wife’, rather like:

which got a good-natured laugh from the many friends and family who were present.

English speakers often break the accentuation norm, in order to show which words refer to already-known things and which words introduce brand new information. They de-accent the final part of a phrase to show that it’s already known, and highlight an earlier word to show that it’s new information. So the pronunciation ‘my lawful wedded wife’ tells us that the person in question was already a wedded wife, and it was only the lawfulness that was new. Hence the laughter.

Not long ago such an implication would have been rather scandalous. But then, so would the fact that it was a same-sex marriage.

Best wishes to the happy couple.

Further notes

The other use of this kind of accent pattern is to point out a contrast. The second pattern above might be used to contrast a lawful wedded wife with one or more non-lawful wedded wives. No polygamy is involved in the present case.

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