Thursday, 26 January 2012

a lunch box on Times Square

A writer of pronunciation textbooks recently asked for help with a "simple rule" that explains the different stress patterns in Times 'Square or New 'York and 'lunch box or 'drugstore.

There is no simple rule, I'm afraid. Let's look at the General British English canonical pronunciation of some compounds combinations and concentrate on noun+noun compounds combinations first (stress patterns are based on checked against LPD3, if listed there; I do not indicate secondary stress).

'lunch box, 'lawn mower, 'book-case, 'lawn party, 'garden party, a'larm bell, 'smoke alarm, 'shoebox, 'coat hanger, 'mountain bike, 'Oxford Street, etc. There are a lot of noun compounds with primary stress on the first constituent. This looks promising, but alas ...

... despite 'Oxford Street it's Oxford 'Road, Oxford 'Circus, Oxford 'Court, Oxford 'Drive, Oxford 'Gardens, Oxford 'Lane, Oxford 'Avenue, x 'Mews, x 'Close, x 'Square, x 'Station, etc., and we can add other place names such as Epping 'Forest, Wandsworth 'Plain, Ladram 'Bay, Cumbria 'Fells, Derbyshire 'Dales, Maze 'Hill, Leckwith 'Moors, Buckingham 'Palace, Albert 'Hall, Westminster 'Abbey, Stone'henge, Hyde 'Park, St. Paul's Ca'thedral. Widening our geographical perspective we note Niagara 'Falls, North 'Sea, Atacama 'Desert, Eagle 'Plains, Yukon 'Territory, etc.

Needless to say noun-noun combinations are not restricted to geographical names. And it's here where it's getting really complicated!
olive 'oil or 'olive oil but 'olive branch yet olive 'drab,
peanut 'butter, butter 'icing but 'butter bean,
'milk tooth but milk 'shake, milk 'chocolate, milk 'pudding,
'coach station, 'coach driver, 
neighbourhood 'watch, but 'watchmaker, 'watchcase, 'watchdog,
'soap dispenser, 'soap opera, 'soapbox,
back'bencher but 'backbreaker, 'backbone,
government 'crisis,
crown 'colony, crown 'court, crown 'jewels,
pound 'note, pound 'sterling, but 'pound cake,
apple 'pie, apple 'green, apple 'sauce but 'applecart, 'apple blossom, 'apple tree,
head 'start, head 'waiter, head'quarter (or 'headquarter) but 'headroom, 'headset, 'headlight, 'headline.

On the 24th of December 2010 I wrote (the text is completely looney):
Before Christmas 'holidays start I do my Christmas 'shopping: I get some 'Christmas cards and buy some 'Christmas presents: On Christmas 'Eve I put them into Christmas 'stockings, so my beloved ones will find them on Christmas 'Day before we all have Christmas 'dinner, which includes some Christmas 'pudding. We might watch or listen to the Queen’s Christmas 'speech and sing some Christmas 'carols round the 'Christmas tree. Later we eat 'Christmas cake or might pull Christmas 'crackers. I no longer give out 'Christmas boxes. On the whole 'Christmas time means a lot of stress.

Have I whetted your appetite?
More to come in a future blog entry. Bon appétit!

P.S.: See also Jack Windsor Lewis's remarks on stress irregularities.


  1. "Have I whetted your appetite?"

    You have, indeed!

  2. One of my favourite inexplicable pairs is ˈtownhouse vs ˌcountry ˈhouse.

    1. →John M
      I agree that the reference books all repeat country`house but I feel that the custom is not merely inexplicable but literally unbelievable. Anyone today who doesnt belong to the landed gentry will certainly not be likely to stress it so. Ergo it is more or less obsolescent and cert·nly not a predominant usage as the dictionaries are surely to be taken to be claiming. I dou·t very much that the speakers referred to in the dicts have the incomes to afford one in any notable numbers. Those who do have them I bet mostly call 'em "cottages" anyway. The ref books are confusing the discoursal/contrastive with the lexical.

    2. I'd think the landed gentry know the difference between cottages and country houses, and keep the terms apart, too, whatever their own house is. Among those who didn't grow up like that but have a country house now, I suppose the tendency is to call it thus rather than "downgrade" it.

      Maybe there is actually a difference in meaning, with country 'house = country house (anything from a "mansion" to a palace or a castle), and 'country house = any residential house in the country.

  3. One could argue that back in backbencher is an attributive adjective, not a noun. If you share this view, disregard backbencher.