Tuesday, 19 October 2010

accenting the unstressed

Exceptionally, contrastive intonation can sometimes lead us to accent a syllable that has no lexical (underlying) stress.
It ˈwasn’t exactly \/green, | but it ˈwas green\ish.

Indeed, this particular suffix sometimes gets treated as if it were an independent word.
A: Are you ready?
B: Ish. (= more or less)

There are other suffixes that firmly resist contrastive stressing.
A: You stole it!
B: I didn’t!

Logically, in this second example, you might expect B to accent the n’t part of didn’t. Indeed, it is possible to switch to the unweakened form of not and say I did not, placing the accent on not. This seems to happen regularly in Irish English, but in English English I think we generally prefer just to stick with didn’t, keeping the accent (illogically) on the did part.
B: aɪ ˈdɪdn̩t

What, then, do we do if we read aloud the following, which I came across in Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth? I retain the author’s italicization.
Even though it is not easy for human chemists to predict what change in protein shape will result from a particular genetic mutation, it is still a fact that once a mutation has occurred, the resulting change of protein shape will be in principle predictable.

Would you say that last word as pridɪktˈəbl̩? Or what?

Equally, I don’t see any easy way to accent the nonsyllabic suffix in
It’s not “corn” beef, it’s corned beef.

Perhaps kɔːnˈdə? No, I think you just have to slow down and articulate kɔːnd extremely clearly.


  1. ˈdɪdn̩t - might suggest lexicalisation.

    kɔːnˈdə - not kɔːˈnɪd?

  2. I think I would go with prədɪktəˈbəl, odd though it looks.

    (I have a schwa in the first syllable of "predict", not that it matters here.)

  3. What about the old usage of the accent: cornéd beef? Now that I consider it, I have no real phonetic realisation for this, but when I read it, I mentally place the stress on the second syllable and mentally pronounce it something like [kɔɹnɛd] (I'm not sure about this, being both American and a bit unfamiliar with the IPA at best.) When I try and pronounce it, all I do is insert [ɛ], but the first syllable retains stress. (At least - I think that's what I do...)

  4. Something you might perhaps have mentioned, John, is that we can do what might be called stressing the nt without accenting it by using a complex tone. So we might say what tonetically one cd mark as ˈdid`nt but wd be tonologically marked ́`didnt.
    It’s ́`corned [ˈkɔː`n̩d] beef with extra length of the /n/ is what one might expect — plus an accompanying grimace. I cd imagine /prədikt –[`ʔ]əbl/ with a strong rhythmic break before the suffix or, as if two words, /prədikt `eɪbl/.

  5. I'm afraid my rising-falling tone marks have been turned mysteriously into falling-rising ones!

  6. I forget which wit it was who came up with:

    "In two words...`im `possible"

  7. @Leo: I'd also go with prɪdɪktəˈbəl (transcription adjusted for my accent).

    For "corned", I think I'd exaggerate the release of the [d].

  8. What's particular to Irish English, I think, is the use of "I did" and "I did not" when there is no particular contrast present. This is traditionally attributed to the influence of Irish, where there are no words for "yes" and "no", and it is customary to repeat the main verb with or without negation. It wouldn't astonish me if this were found in Newfoundland too. Irish joke:

    "And were you in the Troubles, Mrs. Donovan?"

    "I was."

    "And did you shoot any Englishmen, Mrs. Donovan?"

    "I did."

    I would say predictable in that case as /prɪˌdikt.ˈʌˈbʌl/ with, as JWL says, a strong rhythmic break between the stem and the suffix and two primary stresses on the suffix.

    As for corned, I would make sure that the /d/ was fully released, which might involve a little bit of post-voicing, but not amounting to a full schwa.

    John Maidment: Samuel Goldwyn, at least by attribution (like many people from Spooner to Twain to Berra, he's often credited or blamed with things he never said). Another Goldwynism:

    "I just bought a great book called The Well of Loneliness. Start on it right away."

    "But Boss, we can't use that, it's about two lesbians!"

    "Nu, change them to Austrians."

  9. Fraid I don't understand the joke.

  10. @John Cowan: a person "often credited or blamed with things he never said" is a "quote magnet", a term that's due I think to Fred Shapiro.

    Unreduced "not" in Irish English is useful as an emphatic, in contexts where a positive statement or question might use "indeed" or "really" or "ever", e.g.:
    -I didn't ask them -'Did you not?
    -Will you 'not have another cup?

  11. Vincent Grousset19 October 2010 at 20:34

    Komplimentojn pro via reelekto en la Akademio!
    (sorry for the esperanto comment ;-) )

  12. Lipman, John Cowan

    Neither do I, sorry. (Or... does it mean that he interpreted "lesbian" as a demonym? But it IS a demonym, of course, properly!)

  13. Lipman, I'm not sure either but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that since the first response wasn't simply "Yes", we conclude that Mrs. Donovan is Irish. And so when asked directly whether she shot any Englishmen, she quickly confessed the obvious because all us Irish people hate the English and often go on big Irish shooting sprees! Hahaha. ;o)

    But I may have interpreted it wrong...

  14. By the way, for the record, predictable seems natural to me in an emphatic context like this while predictable is simply unacceptable because I don't parse this word as a compound predict-able even though it makes semantic sense.

    My mind doesn't seem to treat the suffix -able in quite the same way as an independent word able for some reason.

  15. Sorry, my italics might not be visible enough to be legible, I just noticed. It should read "while predict*a*ble is simply unacceptable".

  16. Mr and Mrs Dawkins have recorded a taking book of The Greatest Show on Earth. Even though it's abridged, there's a chance that we can hear how Richard D. thinks the salient reationship might be conveyed that he intended between predict and predictable.

    I don't think that we need to take the italicising as any reflection on this intent. The italicised able may be no more than a visual signal that he is echoing and contrasting the simple verb predict.

    I can think of various ways that people reading to an audience might deliver the sentence. My preference would be to 'frame' the two words with tiny pauses before and after each, and to utter each with perhaps a touch of extra volume and certainly with a wider pitch range for the intonation. A slight drawing out of the first two syllables of predictable might also contribute.

    The two media have different resources. In print, the repetition can be seen in the spelling and the contrast can be seen in the italicised prefix. In speech, any thing that detracts from the echo spoils half of the effect. The only delivery of predictable with a stressed suffix that might fit the bill is, I suggest, to echo Sam Goldwyn's im —possible and pronounce it as the two words prɪ'dɪkt — 'eibḷ.

  17. I'm having trouble with the "I didn't!" In my AmE accent, contrastive stress requires making that phrase "I did not!" or "No I didn't!" "I didn't" is the normal, non-contrastive version.

    For predictable, I'd stress the final syllable, not the schwa. For "corned" I'd just be careful to break that final d, like John Cowan's version.

  18. Mollymooly: Quote magnet is a great expression: thanks.

    Anonymous on the second joke: Yes, exactly. To interpret lesbian out of context as a demonym, one must be either very ignorant or fairly knowledgeable: I fear the former was meant. The joke also refers to Hollywood's habit of making profound and often arbitrary changes in the written works it adapts to film.

    Glen Gordon on the first joke: You nailed it. Except I'm not sure it's a confession, more like an expression of pride, or at any rate determination.

    Glen Gordon on -able: Semantically, this suffix passivizes what comes before it: predictable does not mean 'able to predict', but 'able to be predicted'. Likewise, Humpty Dumpty's word impenetrability means 'inability to be penetrated (by the understanding, normally)'. In this way it differs from the words able, ability which do not passivize a verb associated with them. I think this may account for your unwillingness to say predict able, which (insofar as it means anything) would indeed mean 'able to predict'.

  19. The passive interpretation of verbs with the suffix -able does not make people unwilling to say words like 'perishable', which suggest that it can be seen as functioning in an ergative sort of way, but it is compulsorily a suffix in these uses. It happens not even to be etymologically the same as 'able', and I can't imagine anyone trying to give it a separate identity in a form like 'predictable', resuscitate the Latinate stressed a of long-extinct early usage, or even cop out with a 'rhythmic break'.

    I would bet my few remaining marbles on Dawkins having intended a spoken contrast corresponding to the visual one, and the simplest and most obvious spoken contrast at that, which is to keep the rhythm and allophony of the unmarked stress pattern and reverse the primary and (potential) subsidiary stress. So I'm with the commentators who have proposed some version or other of prɪˌdɪktəˈbl̩.

    On the other hand, with the lovely lesbian anecdote, one can't imagine any spoken contrast corresponding to the visual contrast between 'lesbian' and 'Lesbian', which as Anon says IS a demonym, of course, properly, but needs to show its properness with the capital proper to proper names! But no improperness or impropriety can attach to 'lesbian', as it can also be capitalized in its Sapphic sense.

  20. I'd say that Lesbian 'lesbian' is no longer current: the word is no longer even vaguely metaphorical.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. It seems most online dictionaries have separate entries for Lesbian and lesbian/Lesbian, or at least still recognize the free allography of the latter.

  23. John Cowan, your explanation of -able makes a lot of sense. I never realized consciously that it had a passive nuance before but you're right. Thanks!

  24. Perhaps it's along the lines of the "un-sing-ABLE" rhymes in Monty Python's song about Camelot.

  25. I'm not a native speaker at all. I'll say "corn[ɪ]d" and "predict[ei]ble". But that's just plain old foreigners-not-reducing-vowels-properly-ness.