Monday 24 May 2010


In LPD one of the innovations I introduced (as compared with the then EPD) was a set of entries devoted to affixes and combining forms. This was actually one of the most difficult parts of the book to write: I had to try to distil the contents of works such as Erik Fudge’s English Word Stress (HarperCollins, 1984) into something snappy and clear at each entry.

So my entry for -ic, for example, reads as follows:
-ic stress-imposing ɪk —periodic ˌpɪər i ˈɒd ɪk || ˌpɪr i ˈɑːd ɪk

The example(s) were meant to be carefully chosen to show the stress effect (if any) of the affix. Here, -ic causes stress (and therefore a strong vowel) on the preceding syllable -od-, which in the base form period is unstressed and weak.

I didn’t attempt to provide lists of exceptions (if any). In the case of -ic there are hundreds and hundreds of regular cases, alongside a handful of exceptions such as Arabic, catholic, heretic, rhetoric.

Last week I was brought up short by the word infantilism. This word is stressed on the -fant-: ɪnˈfæntɪlɪzəm. Why?

Comparison with the base forms infant, infantile, both with main stress on the initial syllable ˈɪn-, shows that this change of word stress placement must be attributed to the suffix -ism. (I shall ignore the question of whether or not we wish to recognize a secondary stress on the suffix itself.)

Yet -ism is one of the suffixes usually regarded as having no effect on stress. Think of radicalism, clericalism, feudalism, parochialism, imperialism, capitalism, territorialism, nationalism, liberalism, journalism, naturalism, fundamentalism, creationism, magnetism, relativism, negativism and large numbers of other cases.

Are there any other words like infantilism, in which the suffix appears to impose stress on a syllable different from that stressed in the base form?

In mechanism ˈmekənɪzəm and evangelism ɪˈvændʒəlɪzəm the stress goes on the second syllable back from the suffix: compare mechanic(al) mɪˈkænɪk(əl) and evangelic(al) ˌiːvænˈdʒelɪk(əl), in which -ic has its usual effect. There’s no base form *mechan, though there is a combining form mechano- ˌmekənəʊ-. There’s a rare word evangel ɪˈvændʒəl (OED: “now arch. or rhetorical”). There’s no obvious base form for monotheism, polytheism, synergism or syncretism.
In the case of catholicism kəˈθɒlɪsɪzəm the suffix -ic regains its usual ability to impose stress on the preceding syllable, despite its failure in catholic.
There’s some uncertainty or variability about word stress placement in opportunism, obscurantism, mercantilism and Adventism.

So perhaps the best pedagogical rule would be:
-ism has no effect on word stress. There are two important exceptions: catholicism and infantilism.


  1. Russophilism.

    Speaking for myself, I would read russophile as'rʊsəʊˌfaɪl but I wouldn't read russophilism as 'rʊsəʊˌfaɪlˌɪzm.

    The OED gives some pronunciation information in the form Ru'ssophilism, which I take to signal rʊ'sɔfɪlˌɪzm.

    This suggests a subsidiary rule for the class of English adjectives ending in a 'long vowel' and 'silent e' -- very few of which form nouns with suffix -ism.

  2. The OED also lists

    xenophilism -- to which it assigns the pronuniciation zen'ɔfilizm, despite it being a nonce-word found in writing

    anglophilism -- with stress 'Anglophilism, contrary to the pattern of russophilsm and xenophilism.

    Even so, this doesn't necessarily mean that the stress pattern of anglophile is preserved. This would involve retaining the 'long i' in -phil-, to give 'faɪlɪzm -- quite contrary to the general trend in English.

  3. Could the heavy second syllable be relevant? That seems to be the only major difference between other five-syllable words like relativism, negativism, etc.

  4. I have always said infantilism with initial stress, though I grant that "always" probably doesn't cover very many tokens.

  5. I agree (more or less) with the OED in that it gives ˈfɪləstənɪzm for "philistinism".

  6. Dear Dr. Wells,
    Your blog is like music to my ears. I teach English Phonetics and Phonology at Facultad de Lenguas, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina. At the moment, I'm dealing with simple word stress and your post today comes in handy. I'd simply add capitalism, which at least in the CPD, is shown to be pronounced also like ca'pitalism / cap'italism.
    Thank you,
    Martín S. Capell

  7. Martin - that's true, and I give it as a variant in LPD. But I think initial-stressed 'capitalism is very much more usual.

  8. Ryan, John Maidment

    I think between us we have identified three key variables.

    1. the alternation of stressed aɪl ~ unstressed ɪl

    2. the influence of cognates with heavy second syllable infanticide, infantilise

    3. a greater preference for unstressed ɪl when it's part of the morpheme phil

  9. Speaking for myself and my peculiar central Canadian dialect, the reason for the shift in accent in Catholicism and infantilism would appear simple to explain.

    Were I to place the accent on the initial syllable, the word would seem rushed and awkward since there are just too many unstressed syllables all in a row. By shifting accent to the second syllable, it reduces this awkwardness. This then also explains the shift in evangelism. I really find a stress accent on the initial followed by four unstressed syllables very jarring to hear and to utter.

    So in this respect, I have to question whether there is any suffix in the English language that can't be capable of shifting the placement of stress in certain conditions like this.


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