Friday 8 June 2012

contrastive accent on zero

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…
But Cameron gave us
  • … conformed | … transformed
with kən- and trɑːns-.

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?
(Unfortunately, I can’t find a video clip of this.) He duly put the first nuclear accent on un-, but was then faced with the problem of how to accent the antonym. And what he did was to shift the last nuclear accent not onto zero (the absence of un-), where it logically belonged, but onto the nearest available syllable.
  • … about unemployment, | … increase in employment?
And, interestingly, he didn’t strengthen the vowel but kept it as weak ɪ.
  • … əbaʊt ʌnɪmplɔɪmənt, | … ɪŋkriːs ɪn ɪmplɔɪmənt

(Because underlining is not supported in Comments, to indicate tonicity you may wish to use CAPS instead.)


  1. The problem with stressing con is that conformed carries no semantic association with other words in con-, at least not for me.

    To bring out the contrast, I'd consider reading conformed with two full stresses, as if it were two words.

    I think UNemployment | EMployment actually worked, though in theory it shouldn't have. It works for me because EMployment unambiguously communicates the contrast, and because of what I've just heard, I'm fully aware what the contrast is with.

  2. "And, interestingly, he didn’t strengthen the vowel but kept it as weak ɪ." - Would this mean that he has lexicalized the weak ɪ?

  3. I'm not surprised by the treatment of the bible reading. I suppose there are two schools - drone it out without any thought to the meaning, or read it with the meaning in mind and lots of emphasis. Both could be objected to depending on what you're used to.

    This extract seems particularly opaque and encourages a mechanical reading.

    1. I rather disagree about it being opaque, to be honest. Still, it may not really be worth changing the intonation in order to emphase the contrast when it appears to be an artefact of the English translation without an obvious such play on words in the original Greek.

      As regards the two schools: I remember once Tony Blair, while PM, doing a Bible reading with lots of emphasis, and being criticised for it (I felt unfairly, but I forget who by) for having read it "as if it was a party-political broadcast".

    2. Here's a link for the individual verse

      (also typo above: should be "emphasise" obviously)

  4. The most recent Prime Minister’s Questions I can find on-line is the one from 23 May (, but scanning through it I can't find the passage contrasting employment and unemployment (though it seems the Questions contain a wealth of studying material on focus).

  5. Sometimes contrastive focus can show up even when there are no actual morphemes to contrast. U.S. tire manufacturer B. F. Goodrich, finding that there was customer confusion between their products and those of their larger competitor, ran ads with the tagline "Not GoodYEAR, GoodRICH." (They also ran ads referring to the famous Goodyear blimp: "See that blimp up in the sky? We're the other guys!")

  6. Bolinger in his paper "Contrastive accent and contrastive stress" deals with this issue a bit more systematically. Here is the pdf version:

  7. I'd stress like this:

    "SHE wasn't attacking,| she was BEing attacked."

  8. i don't have clear intuitions about many of these; for instance with conformed/transformed, i would probably find either/any of the stress possibilities fine, and i'm not sure which i'd use.

    interestingly, though, to your question about clean/cleaner, i had an immediate gut reaction that yes, i could and probably would say "not CLEAN, just cleanER." (i'm a 20-something American.) on a hunch, a few Google searches easily yielded the following:

    "clean coal" is not clean, just cleanER.

    not BIG just bigGER than your top half

    being run by a smaller company (not small, just smallER) would be a huge benefit to the brand

    it's not thin... Just thinnER

    1. And "I'm not a JEW, I'm just Jew-ISH" (Brad Greenberg).

    2. A version of this I saw (at a Jewish Society stall in a student societies fair) was "Be Jewish. Not just Jew-ish". Clearly to be read out with the same basic intonation.

  9. What about -ed, phonetically just [t]?

    I once had to say “I didn't say aCE, I said eighT”. (And that was in Ireland, where syllable-coda /t/ is often a fricative.) I just pronounced the syllables normally while holding up eight fingers, but I don't know what I could have done if they couldn't see me (e.g. if I had been on the telephone).

    And I once wanted to reply to “Good luck for your assignment” with “Good luck to YOU for YOUR assignmentS” -- I just prolonged the /s/ extra long.

  10. "And, interestingly, he didn’t strengthen the vowel but kept it as weak ɪ."
    So how could you perceive it as an accented item?

    1. Sorry, I mean "How WERE YOU ABLE TO perceive it...?"

  11. By the falling intonation nucleus on that syllable. Perhaps I should have said he converted weak ɪ into strong ɪ. The point is, he retained ɪ, he didn't switch to e as in empathy, embolism.

    1. As I asked above, does this mean he has a lexicalized ɪ?

    2. Why wouldn't he have a lexicalised ɪ? I think the only reason why an RP speaker would have anything else would be the spelling.

    3. Well, maybe I'm misunderstanding, but I was under the impression that the weak form of vowels only appear when unstressed, so that a stressed vowel could only have a non-weak form. But apparently (cf. John's comment) there's also a strong ɪ.

    4. JHJ

      The spelling is not arbitrary. More to the point, for many of us it is not felt to be arbitrary.

      We feel that employment belongs in the same class as emphasis, embolism, embark and the wider class which also includes enforce, entail, engage, entrance (ˈɛntrn̩s), entrance (ɪnˈtræns), enzyme.

      Of course this feeling is maintained by — perhaps even dependant on— the spelling. But it is for us a psychological reality and applicable to a general class, not to just one isolated word.

      That's why I personally find the American spelling inquiry rather unsettling. It feels as if a different prefix has been substituted.

    5. Not sure about AmE inquiry: given that BrE enquiry and inquiry have closely related meanings, it doesn't seem so very unsettling that they might use the same spelling for both.

    6. Alan

      I suppose it ceases to be unsettling if you think of it as two words. Personally, I don't.

    7. I would set contrastive stress on employment (which absent such stress has schwa, as usual for me) as "IM-ployment, not DEE-ployment". EM-ployment would be quite unnatural for me.

  12. Haloo pak^^

    Kami dari SENTANAPOKER ingin menawarkan pak^^

    Untuk saat ini kami menerima Deposit Melalui Pulsa ya pak.

    *untuk minimal deposit 10ribu
    *untuk minimal Withdraw 25ribu

    *untuk deposit pulsa kami menerima provider

    untuk bonus yang kami miliki kami memiliki
    *bonus cashback 0,5%
    *bunus refferal 20%
    *bonus gebiar bulanan (N-max,samsung Note 10+,Iphone xr 64G,camera go pro 7hero,Apple airpods 2 ,dan freechips)

    Daftar Langsung Di:


    Kontak Kami;

    WA : +855 9647 76509
    Line : SentanaPoker
    Wechat : SentanaPokerLivechat Sentanapoker

    Proses deposit dan withdraw tercepat bisa anda rasakan jika bermain di Sentanapoker. So… ? tunggu apa lagi ? Mari bergabung dengan kami. Pelayanan CS yang ramah dan Proffesional dan pastinya sangat aman juga bisa anda dapatkan di Sentanapoker.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.