Saturday, August 04, 2007

Stress management

In a recent post (Problems with lexical stress--27 July 2007) John Wells suggests that compound adjectives such as "long-term" and "sabre-toothed" are probably double stressed and should be marked in isolated occurrence with primary end-stress: ˌlong-ˈterm, ˌsabre-ˈtoothed.

These adjectives usually occur in a phrase before a noun (long-term plans; sabre-toothed tiger) and as Mr Wells hears them the stress in this environment would shift, creating a contour: long-term plans; a sabre-toothed tiger.

Because lexical stress is usually determined by the contour of the word in isolation Wells identifies a problem of contrastive implication. As he sees it, if the stress in predicative position remains initial "we would implicitly be contrasting sabre- with some other kind of toothedness."

Since stress is lexical it's also prone to dialectal variation. While reading his post I kept repeating "sabre-toothed" and realized that primary stress on the initial syllable sounded most natural in almost all contexts. The contrastive exception would be if someone misunderstood me and thought I had said "sabre-hoofed" the correction would be: "No. I said 'sabre-toothed'.

Buffy used the same initial stress when I asked her to answer using the isolated compound adjective. And the same result with "Was the tiger Siberian?" "No. It was sabre-toothed."

Of course there are some phrases that are frozen in their stress pattern. Wells identifies "pear-shaped" as one such fixed contour in which the primary stress is the only option. In his dialect 'sabre-toothed' is not such a phrase though it is in mine.

A while ago (19 June 2007) he wrote about the emerging spelling pronunciation of 'wort' in St John's Wort. He grew up hearing it pronounced [sənt ˈdʒɒnz wɜːt] with the same vowel as word and worse. Now he hears many people pronouncing the 'wort' as 'wart' a spelling pronunciation influenced by the short snort report pattern.

This makes some sense considering that the traditional contour did not put stress on 'wort' but the emerging contour does. Wells notes that the traditional pronunciation "is still generally the botanists’ pronunciation." While the new pronunciation is common among "British aficionados of herbal remedies." American ones too.


  1. We can use the same trick, constructing a conversational situation in which "shaped" must be emphasized.

    Wishydig: And after that it just went pear-shaped.

    Vance: Pearscaped? Pearshaved?

    W: No, pearshaped.

    (After which you would have to explain the idiom too.)

    I don't think there's any phrase or even polysyllabic word that's truly resistant to such deformation. And such semantic stress is not the only way to deform words. Reading out loud from a text with a heavy-handed poetic meter (rigid anapestic tetrameter, for example, such as one finds in children's books), one can find oneself distorting words and phrases into conformity with the grid.

  2. You're right to note that my statement that it's "the only option" is too strong.

    My point (and Mr Wells' too I imagine) is not that the stress is fixed and cannot be shifted under any possible circumstance. Contrastive stress makes any shift possible. Consider a situation in which someone learning to speak English mispronounces a common word like 'funny' and you choose to correct them.

    Wishydig: that's very 'funnoo'
    You: funn-Y. it's pronounced funn-Y.

    But this isn't a trick as you call it. I would still say that as a rule any phrasal stress pattern that might affect other compound words (such as 'long-term' or 'deep-sea') will not affect pear-shaped or sabre-toothed (the latter in my dialect but not in Wells'). The only possibility is initial.

    This is of course barring contrastive stress. For just the reasons you identify, contrastive forms are a commonly assumed exception.


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