Long, long ago, back before the Deseret Alphabet was even a gleam in Brigham Young’s eye, before the United States was born, before the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod—even before Canada was discovered—the English language was a very different animal that went by the name of “Middle English” and spent most of its time contemplating what Aprill with its shoures soote had done to the droghte of March. The rules were different in those days. Æ, Ð, Þ, and Ƿ were still part of the alphabet. Vowels were real vowels, and consonants were real consonants. Nobody had time for any of this sissy silent letter crap. If a word was spelled “knight,” then it started with a k-sound and had a guttural gurgling in the middle, by Wōdan. If a word looked like it had two syllables, then it had two syllables, like the sturdy yeoman that it was.
Case in point—
English verbs, then and now, fall into two categories: strong verbs, and weak verbs. Like Indo-European languages generally, English is a synthetic language and retains bits and pieces of its older, conjugation-heavy heritage. Verbs still change to indicate tense. If they change by altering their vowels, they are strong verbs. If they change by adding a suffix, they are weak verbs. Sing and bite are strong verbs. Love and hate are weak verbs.
English weak verbs form their past tense by adding -ed. Back in the Middle English days, this was, in fact, pronounced as a separate syllable. As Middle English morphed into modern English, the tendency was to elide the vowel as much as possible, so that today, loved is pronounced with only one syllable; however, because pronouncing two successive dentals without an intervening vowel is difficult in English, hated remains disyllabic.
Naturally, there was a transition period. Even as late as Shakespeare, a weak verb’s -ed might or might not be pronounced as an extra syllable, with (for the Bard) the meter often the determining factor. In modern editions of Shakespeare, you’ll frequently see this indicated by putting a grave accent over the e if the syllable is to be pronounced, and by replacing the e with an apostrophe if it is not. (This is a useful convention which I will be adhering to below.) Thus, in The Merchant of Venice, Act iv scene 1, Portia tells Shylock, “The quality of mercy is not strain’d," whereas in King John iv.2, the Earl of Salisbury warns the titular monarch, “To gild refinèd gold, to paint the lily,…is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” Note that in each case, you get a perfect line of iambic pentameter by pronouncing the “-ed” endings as explicitly marked.
(Whether or not a particular edition of Shakespeare adheres to this convention depends on a number of factors. In particular, Project Gutenberg tends not to use -èd, because in its early days it was restricted to plain ASCII and had no reliable way to add the accent.)
In the 21st century, though, the rule is that the “-ed” is pronounced only when it is phonetically necessary to do so. But what would a rule be without exceptions? (A good rule, that’s what.)
First, a bit more grammar. Indo-European languages generally make clear distinctions between the various parts of speech. A verb, therefore, can’t just behave like an adjective; it has to be turned into one. A verb-turned-into-an-adjective is called a participle. English has two kinds forms for the participle: the present participle (as in “the flying nun”) and the past participle (“the frozen pond”). For weak verbs, the simple past verb conjugation and the past participle are both formed by adding -ed to the verb stem. (“I salted the meat myself.” “The salted meat is too salty.”)
The English language adores participles, because we use them in the compound forms of verbs, and we use compound forms a lot. With compound verbs, we use a helper verb (to be or to have) with a participle. We have the simple present (“I read Dante’s Divine Comedy every few years.”), the present progressive (“Right now I am reading Kirkpatrick’s translation.”), the present perfect (“I have read Ciardi’s translation several times.”), and the simple past (“I read three cantos yesterday.”), among others. One of our more spectacular constructions is the present perfect progressive (“It has been snowing all morning.”) Of these, only the simple present and simple past are not compound forms, and this is hardly an exhaustive list.
Now comes the kicker. Some past participles, a long time ago, basically became fixed expressions and turned into adjectives in their own right, and these adjectives preserved their pronunciation when the past participle proper changed its. That is, their -ed ending continued to be pronounced as a distinct syllable.
As an example, consider “learned.” If I am using it as a standard past participle, I pronounce it with one syllable: “I have learn’d my verb conjugations well.” As an actual adjective, however, it is now a separate word meaning “having much knowledge acquired by learning,” and as such is pronounced learnèd. You would have to be an unlearnèd man like Homer Simpson to pronounce the adjective “learn’d."
Other adjectives have followed a similar trajectory. Another common one is “aged” (“The president has aged decades since he took office.” “I saw an agèd, agèd man, /A-sitting on a gate.” Note, however, “middle-ag’d," which we never pronounce “middle-agèd.”) I’ve seen “cursèd” used as a distinct adjective on occasion. There are more.
None of these adjectives, however—none—has caused me as much grief as “blessed,” because it has to do with God-ish things, and so tends to occur a lot in religious texts. Like the Bible. Like the King James Bible. Like the one Bible translation of which I have converted everything except about the last third of the Old Testament into the Deseret Alphabet.
Precisely because of its association with the King James Bible, and particularly with the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, “blessed” is not only the past participle and simple past of “bless,” but an adjective in its own right meaning “having a sacred nature, associated with God.” As an adjective—and especially in conjunction with the archaic, exalted style we associate with the Authorised Version—there is a strong tendency to pronounce it as “blessèd.” The various dictionaries I’ve consulted, by the way, are not consistent here. Some say the preferred pronunciation of the adjective is “blessèd,” and some say that it’s “bless’d.” (Everybody allows both pronunciations.)
What makes this more difficult than other verbs is that it is a transitive verb that can take thing with volition as both subject and object, and commonly does. Thus, Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” The sentence makes sense whether you parse it as meaning “God blesses peacemakers” or “Peacemakers are holy.” (And if anybody starts talking about manufacturers of dairy products, I will have no idea to what they are referring.) If I say, “Aged indeed are my parents’ surviving siblings,” I’m very clearly not implying that some cheesemaker has come by and stuffed them in storage while they ripen; so it’s “agèd.” “Anyone who is genuinely learned will understand that anthropogenic climate change is a real problem” does not imply that people have gone around learning other people; so it’s “learnèd.”
For the New Testament, there is something that can help, and that is I know sufficient Greek to tell what the original sense is. In the case of Matthew 5:9, the original word is μακάριοι which is an adjective and means “happy, fortunate.” It’s not a conjugated verb. On the other hand, in Matthew 14:19, we have “He…took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and break, and gave the loaves to his disciples.” Outside of the fact that the English sense is pretty clear, the Greek here is εὐλόγησεν, the third person singular aorist active indicative of the verb εὐλογέω, which means, well, “to bless.” (Literally, it means “to speak well of.”)
That’s actually a workable solution to distinguish blessed-qua-verb and blessed-qua-adjective, and I adhered to it sporadically through the New Testament. Unfortunately, I don’t know Hebrew well enough to do the same in the Old Testament.
Now, the whole rigamarole is actually unnecessary, because there is a simple, sensible solution to the dilemma. As I say, all the dictionaries I’ve consulted say that “bless’d” is an acceptable pronunciation for blessed-qua-adjective and some of them give “bless’d” as the preferred pronunciation. So just use “bless’d” all the time.
Unfortunately, simple though I may be, I am not sensible. I just could not get myself to put “Bless’d are the merciful” into Jesus’ mouth. Instead, I’m doing what is probably the worst possible thing under the circumstances and simply going by euphony if semantics will not guide me. If the English sense is very clear, I go by that. Otherwise, if “blessèd” sounds better than “bless’d,” I use “blessèd.” If “bless’d” sounds better, use it instead. The result is a linguistic abomination and wrecks havoc with my principle of “one word-one spelling,” but at least it lets me sleep at night in blessèd, blessèd slumber.