Tuesday 21 August 2012

numbers and letters

Kensuke Nanjo writes to ask about how we accent strings of numbers.
I've been wondering where the nucleus is located in a sequence of numbers like “0404”, where the last two digits are repeated items. Given the fact that the nucleus is not placed on the last two in “7252”, is the proper place for the nucleus on the first "four"?

It is true that in strings of four numbers (or letters) where the last item is identical to the second we accent them as if contrastive focus were involved, with accents placed on the first and third.

  • 7252       ˈseven (ˈ)two ˈfive two
  • 8303       ˈeight (ˈ)three ˈoh three
  • 2686       ˈ two (ˈ)six ˈeight six

But if the first and third items are also identical, this doesn’t apply: we revert to the usual final nucleus placement.

  • 7272       seven (ˈ)two (ˈ)seven two
  • 1515      ˈone (ˈ)five (ˈ)one ˈfive
  • 0404       ˈoh (ˈ)four (ˈ)oh ˈfour

And similarly with initials.

  • AC/DC       ˈay (ˈ)see ˈdee see


  • FAFA       ˈ eff (ˈ)ay (ˈ)eff ˈay


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I don't know why but I immediately thought of 0898 (oh eight NINE eight) when I saw this post.

    There's a lot of variation in how people say strings of numbers between and within the different varieties of English.

    1. I don't know why but I immediately thought of 0898 (oh eight NINE eight) when I saw this post.

      In the UK, 0898 was notoriously the phone prefix for dodgy sex lines. Maybe their infamy spread as far as NZ.

  3. Posting on behalf of Jack Windsor Lewis:

    I set my iMac to tell me the time at evry quarter and to my deep satisfaction when 'she' comes to 5.45 'she' a'ways sez: five`forty -five

  4. U.S. phone numbers are always pronounced to a fixed template: TWO one TWO, TWO three FOUR, SIX two SIX three, independent of whether there are repetitions. Indeed, it is very difficult for me to even comprehend a telephone number pronounced with a different stress pattern (modulo omitting the first three).

    A U.S. social security number (de facto national identification number) is pronounced ONE three FIVE, SIX FOUR, NINE two three EIGHT. The sixteen digits of a credit card number (other than American Express) follow the same pattern as the last four of a SSN: FIVE two two NINE, EIGHT two eight TWO, SIX four six FOUR, TWO one one TWO. These two reflect my idiolect; YMMV.

    1. Phone numbers ending in 000 are the exception: they may be FIVE THOUsand or FIVE oh OH oh (with either "oh" or "ZEro").

    2. In the UK, they would be grouped according to how the numbers would be written, which varies with location, as there are generally 11 digits in total but larger places have shorter area codes and longer local numbers. Examples (all fictitious): London 020 7946 0912, smaller city 0117 496 0912, town 01632 960123. In the last case, the final 6 digits would normally be read out as two groups of 3.

      Within each group, however, there is no fixed format, and it would depend (as per the original post) on the content of the numbers, e.g. "oh one one FOUR" for Sheffield, but "oh one FOUR one" for Glasgow. Or at least, that's what I'd do.

    3. Actually, I'll modify that a bit. If the last group of six had an obvious pattern that lent itself to reading it out in pairs rather than two groups of three, you'd do so. There was some advert on the radio for insurers who had obtained the number 0800 282820 (incidentally, as a non-geographical number, this breaks what I said about a total of 11 digits). This lent itself to being read out as "(oh eight hundred) two-EIGHT two-EIGHT two-OH", which in the radio advert was done to a background of owl calls (too-wit too-wit too-woo). Groan... but it worked.

    4. No, I'm in the U.S., and I wouldn't follow that template for the last four digits of the phone number. Rather, it would be six TWO six THREE. Perhaps it's regional variation.

  5. I don't see what this has to do with numbers specifically. It's exactly the same stress/intonation with:

    Win some, lose some

    and with one way of saying

    Give way. Give way.

  6. Alan: I moved to NZ from the UK in 2003, hence why I was aware of 0898 numbers.

    Like the States, France has a fixed pattern for its phone numbers - you say them as a series of two-digit numbers. It's a lot easier to think of 02 24 46 61 23 as "zéro vingt-deux quarante-quatre soixante-six un deux trois" but if I you say that you'll be met with blank stares.

  7. A radio programme by Stephen Fry on intonation this morning reminded me of the football score phenomenon.

    7252 is spoken with the same intonation as Chelsea two Arsenal two.

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