Monday, 28 September 2009

interpreting stress

There are two English words beginning inter- which have an unexpected stressing: interpret and interstice. Looking at the spelling you might expect *ˈɪntəpret and *ˈɪntəstɪs. What we actually have is ɪnˈtɜːprɪt and ɪnˈtɜːstɪs.

I am not clear what the historical reason for these oddities is. Consider first interpret: nearly all other trisyllabic verbs in inter- have final stress: interact, interbreed, intercede, intercept, interdict, interfere, interject, interlace, interleave, interlink, interlock, intermix, interpose, interrupt, intersperse, intertwine, intervene, interweave. The only other exceptions seem to be the initial-stressed interest and interview: both are presumably to be explained as denominative.
The best explanation that I can come up with for interpret is that the word may originally have been borrowed as a noun, from Latin interprēs, interprĕt-. Then, if we apply the SPE main stress rule for nouns, we disregard the final vowel because it is short (in the Latin oblique stem) and place the main stress on the preceding vowel, followed as it is by a strong cluster (-rpr-). This stressing is unaffected when we convert it to a verb.
Unfortunately the OED shows the verb interpret as first attested in English in 1382, two hundred years before the noun interpret ‘interpreter’, now obsolete, which has only a single citation, from 1585.

Turning to interstice: the OED gives an alternative stressing (initial), but eveyone else shows it only with penultimate stress. All other trisyllabic nouns in inter- have initial stress: interchange, intercourse, interface, interlude, internet, interplay, Interpol, interval, interview.
My first thought on interstice was that it is what we get if we apply the SPE main stress rule for nouns (and this one really is a noun). Again, we disregard the final short vowel and place the main stress on the preceding vowel with its following strong cluster (-rst-).
The only problem with this solution is that it doesn’t explain why the same rule doesn’t apply to internet and interval, which by this logic ought to be ɪnˈtɜːnɪt and ɪnˈtɜːvəl. (They are the only nouns in our list with a short vowel in the final syllable.)
As so often with Chomsky and Halle, you find that the rules work beautifully some of the time, but you have to tie yourself in knots to explain why they don’t apply to all cases that apparently meet the structural description.

I’m not going to mention interment, in which there is an etymologically different inter, not the prefix but a different prefix (in-) plus stem (-ter-).


  1. I have always said ɪnˈtɜɹpɹɪt and ˈɪntəɹstɪs, pl ˌɪntəɹˈstɪsəz, adj ˈɪntəɹstɪʃəl.

    Evidently wrongly. But then what's the plural meant to be? ɪnˈtɜːstɪsiːz or ɪnˈtɜːstɪsɪz?

  2. Adj ˌɪntəɹˈstɪʃəl, I meant.

  3. As a chemist I must have seen "interstice", but I only recall using "intersticial", which I stress as Michael Everson's second attempt.

  4. Dear friends, what about the rhythm in each of the two versions of "interstices" given by Mr Everson?
    Would they both share the same pattern?

  5. Sorry, I mean each of the two correct versions of "interstices" (I'm afraid I can't use phonetic symbols).

  6. Network, anything reticulated or decussated at regular intervals, with interstices between the intersections. (Johnson's Dictionary)

  7. As for ''interpret'', its stress is that of both ''intérpret-'' (the stem of ''interpres'', ''intérpretis'') and of ''intérpretor'' (the present tense of the verb ''interpretari''): might that mean anything?

    Maybe the verb was borrowed into English with the stress of the Latin noun, or (less probably) of the Latin present tense.

  8. "interpolate" is odd, too.

  9. And "intercalate", which is supposed to be ɪnˈtɜːkəleɪt, although medics at UCL say ˌɪntəkəˈleɪt.

  10. I am not surprised that internet is stressed the way it is, as it is a very recent coinage, and obviously most people would be baffled if it had been given a different stress than the current one.

  11. My first thought was that the stress in interpret was helped by the fact that there is no verb pret, so that the inter- part would be less felt to be a mere prefix. But that is probably true as well for some other words in the list.

    So it mght come down to when and where it was taken from which language. I like the idea that it was first a noun.

  12. Does the fact that it's -pret and not -prete speak in favour of the noun idea?

  13. ´ɪntənet as a kind of a net retains its pronunciation of the "net" part of the word internet. The reason is that the users of the language decided so when the word came into existence. (I suppose for the same reason we read the year 2001..., 2002, 2003...the way we do, not twenty oh one as would be logical...since we say nineteen something for 19xx.)
    Anyway, shouldn´t we shift from the logic and rules in linguistics more to the people and their everyday use of the language?

  14. The fun part is finding out the rules as well as the reasons - or causes - for exceptions.

    It's an illusion that all language is arbitrary, or that dialects don't have rules and people talk according to their whim of the day.

  15. There was a young lady from Yap
    Who had acne all over her map.
    In her interstices
    Lurked a far worse disease
    That is commonly known as the clap.

    This limerick suggests [i:z] rather than [ɪz] for interstices.