How do we accent the absence of something? a zero morpheme, if you will?
When we use contrastive focus, we do it by nuclear-accenting the contrasted item(s).
- It wasn’t blue, | it was green.
- They weren’t wicked, | they were just badly behaved.
- I don’t want to interrogate you, | I’d just like to have a brief word or two with you.
- Was it your arm that got bitten?
—No, it was my leg!
This may involve deaccenting a repeated item.
- It wasn’t any old shade of green, | it was pea-green.
- Not only did I injure my hand, | it was my right hand.
Sometimes the contrastive element is not a complete word. We can place the nuclear accent on a contrastive morpheme.
- It wasn’t lunchtime, | it was teatime.
But what if that morpheme is not lexically stressed? Can we still place a nuclear accent on it? Yes, we can.
- I didn't ask for a teapot, | I asked for a teacup.
- It wasn’t really blue, | just bluish.
How do we treat cases like these?
- It’s not 100% clean, | just cleaner than it was, (Can we accent -er?)
- I didn’t say “approach”, | I said “reproach”. (Can we accent ap- and re-?)
- They didn’t accede, | they seceded. (Can we accent ac- and se-?)
- She wasn’t attacking, | she was being attacked. (Can we accent -ing? What about -ed, phonetically just [t]?)
I don’t think we really have any hard and fast rules about this. The speaker has to weigh up, as he goes along, the pressure to avoid accenting a repeated item and the contrary pressure not to accent a normally unstressed syllable.
These musings were provoked (not invoked!) by hearing David Cameron reading from the Bible during the Jubilee service in St Paul’s. The relevant verse (Romans 12:2) ran
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
I think I would have been tempted to pronounce
- And be not conformed | to this world: | but be ye transformed…
- … conformed | … transformed…
Worse still, how can we accent the absence of a morpheme?
A few days earlier, during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, David Cameron wanted to contrast unemployment and employment. Replying to Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Opposition, he said something like
- Instead of harping on about unemployment, why doesn’t he congratulate the Government on the increase in employment?
- … about unemployment, | … increase in employment?
- … əbaʊt ʌnɪmplɔɪmənt, | … ɪŋkriːs ɪn ɪmplɔɪmənt
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