Wednesday, 16 November 2011


At the EPSJ conference Takahiro Ioroi presented some statistics about the relative frequency of lexical stress patterns in English words. The pedagogical point was to investigate how far L2 English learners are “exposed to attested patterns in the inputs available”.

Ioroi did this by combining data on stress placement from the Carnegie Mellon University Pronouncing Dictionary with word frequency data from the British National Corpus and a word list from a collection of EFL textbooks for Japanese schools.

In this way he demonstrated that the most frequent exemplar of an initial-stressed disyllable in the school textbooks was people (at 3606 per million), followed by very, other, many and our (sic), while in the BNC it was other (1336 per million) followed by only, also, people and any.

The methodology was irreproachable. But some of Ioroi’s findings demonstrate the truth of the old adage “garbage in, garbage out”.

Let’s not quibble about our (which NSs usually pronounce as a monosyllable).

What about disyllables with final stress? The most frequent one in the textbook corpus was about, which is fair enough. But the most frequent one in the BNC, and second most frequent in the textbooks, comes out as into.

Into? But into is stressed on the first syllable, ˈɪntu, ˈɪntə. It does not have final stress. CMUPD says it does: IH0 N T UW1, which is how they represent ɪnˈtuː. CMUPD is wrong, wrong, wrong.

(In running speech, which is not under consideration here, into may of course lose all stress.)

A useful generalization about English words is that all polysyllables have a primary or secondary lexical stress on either the first or the second syllable. So revolution, for example, has the main stress on the penultimate but on the initial syllable a secondary stress: ˌrevəˈluːʃən. Having supplied stress patterns for several complete dictionary headword lists, I can say that the only exceptions I am aware of are (for some speakers) the two unusual words peradventure and forasmuch. Although they are written as single words, some speakers pronounce them pərədˈventʃə, fərəzˈmʌtʃ, as if they were prepositional phrases, like for a change fərəˈtʃeɪndʒ. (Alternatively, they can be ˌpɜːrədˈventʃə, ˌfɔːrəzˈmʌtʃ, which fit the rule.)

What do Ioroi’s stats tell us about such polysyllables? The most frequent BNC words with lexical stress on neither of the first two syllables are purportedly insufficient and valuation. Again, I am afraid, CMUPD is to blame for supplying wrong information, having forgotten to show secondary stress on the initial syllable of each. (But CMUPD does get the stress pattern of revolution correct.)

For the textbook corpus the results are even odder, since the most frequent such words come out as various proper names, mostly Japanese: Sugihara, Nakamura, Yamagata, Morimoto, Antonelli, which CMUPD shows as having stress only on the penultimate. The fact is that these, too, have initial secondary stress. The incontrovertible evidence for this is the ‘stress shift’ effect when followed by another accented word: ˌSugihara’s ˈwidow (found in this passage).

Again, CMUPD is wrong. GIGO.


  1. While Americans, depending on their accent, often seem to have even equal stress in longer words such as ˈreɪvəˈluːʃən, my impression is that often enough there's no secondary stress when speakers of RP say such a word, even when it's isolated. How's that in graphs? Could well be that the phenomenon is visible but I don't hear it subjectively, or that it's not there and one hears it into it because the vowel isn't reduced to schwa.

    'Into' - do accents or situations exist where this is actually stressed on the last syllable? I can't think of any in my accent, but ɪnˈtu somehow doesn't sound as wrong as, for instance, the ˈʌpɒn one sometimes hears from EFL learners.

  2. Lipman, we're talking about lexical stress here, not what might happen in running speech, where all lexical stresses are subject to possible adjustment. Secondary stresses are AVAILABLE (but not necessarily used) as potentially stressable/accentable syllables. And words like revolution have one for all NSs.

  3. Thinking again, I'm not quite sure what that means, but I'd better read about it before I bother you with possibly trivial questions. :-)

  4. pərədˈventʃə

    Indeed, even though I had never heard or read this word before, that pronunciation sounds very unnatural to me. I'd go with ˌpɜːrəd-, and if I force myself to reduce the first vowel, I end up eliding it altogether (prəd-).

  5. The Carnegie Mellon dictionary tends to be the preferred source in this kind of research because it's big and freely available in a machine-readable form. As such, it's a hugely valuable research tool. I, for one, wouldn't call it garbage for that reason alone. There's no escaping from it, at least until someone else provides another large machine-readable dictionary for free.

    I'm going to point the developers to this post (as is suggested on the CMUPD wepage) so that they can correct the errors.

  6. Peradventure isn't a word I foresee using in conversation any time soon. But I can envisage reading it aloud. Knowing that it may not be at all familiar to a hearer, I would use full values for the first two vowel sounds — albeit unstressed: pɛræd'vɛntʃə.

  7. Well, pɛræd'vɛntʃəwas my second thought. On third thoughts, I go back to my first thought: an unstressed but spelling-related diphthong sound at the end: not my usual ʊə as in dour but as sort of starting with what John calls the thankYOU vowel.

    Am I just an oddball or is it common to drift towards a spelling pronunciation when delivering an obscure word to an audience?

  8. NED gave (perădve·ntiŭɹ), indicating pɛ- in the first syllable. The current OED recognizes the other possibilities.

  9. Lipman: /ˈreɪvəˈluːʃən/? I don't know any Americans who talk of rave-olution, except perhaps when punning on rave. /ˈrɛvəˈluʃən/, surely.

  10. ˈrejəvə ˈlʉːʃən with "Southern Drawl" and "Southern Shift"?

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