You are on page 1of 7

Compound word stress David Taylor

Stress in English compound words poses difficult problems for foreign learners. English does not seem to be at all consistent in the way it treats compounds, either from the point of view of writing or from the point of view of pronunciation and especially stress. If we look at how this uncertainty and inconsistency arises we can perhaps understand better the difficulties. And if we look beyond the principles of word stress to the principles of accent placement, and in so doing pay attention to the information structure of compounds, we can obtain valuable guidance about stress placement in these words.

A difficulty

It is notoriously difficult to know how to stress English compound words. This is partly because we cannot easily define what a compound word is, and partly because it is not simply a question of stress but also of accent. The latter involves a significant combination of both stress and tone and serves to highlight what is regarded as new or important information in a particular group of words or tone group. If we look beyond the principles of stress to the principles of accent as well, we are in a better position to try and explain the stress of compound words in English. We shall look at accent in a little more detail later, but first let us deal with the question of what compound words are. In one sense, it is easy to define a compound word. It is simply a word which itself consists of two or more independent words. But this begs the question, How do we know when we are dealing with two or more independent words and when we are dealing with a compound? We cannot always be sure. Our confusion on this point is reflected in the way we write and pronounce so-called compound words. Sometimes we write two words as one and pronounce them as one, for example: doorstep, earthquake, hairbrush. Sometimes we write two words separately but pronounce them as if they were one, for example, bus conductor, engine driver, dining room. At other times, we write two words together as if they were one but pronounce them as if they were two separate words. Examples are loudspeaker, hardworking, homemade. We also find words written separately and pronounced separately, with two stresses, but which from the lexical and semantic point of view, are clearly regarded as one word, for example: prime minister, red herring, town hall. Sometimes we use a hyphen when writing so-called compound words: old-fashioned, heartshaped, make-believe. Occasionally, we find words written in several different ways; sometimes with a hyphen, sometimes without, sometimes
ELT Journal Volume 45/1 January 1991 Oxford University Press 1991 67

What is a compound?

articles

welcome

as one word, sometimes as two, for example, no one or no-one, teapot or tea-pot, trademark or trade mark. We even find words written in all three possible ways, for example: egg cup, eggcup, or egg-cup.
Pronunciation

As we can see, the variability in writing is reflected to some extent in pronunciation, in that some compound words have a single stress while others have so-called double stress, not to mention more elaborate compounds which may have several stresses. This variability both in writing and in pronunciation is the cause of severe problems for the learner or for the non-native speaker generally. The spelling, as we have seen, is of very little help. First, it cannot always indicate whether or not we are dealing with a compound. In the case of two-word compounds where each word is written separately, there is no way of telling whether these form a compound or are simply two words that happen to occur together. As Roach (1983: 83) says: There is no clear dividing line between two-word compounds and pairs of words that simply happen to occur together quite frequently. Second, even if it is clear that a compound is involved, there is no indication of how it should be stressed. It is not surprising that wrong stressing of compounds is one of the commonest errors, even among those who otherwise approach a native-speaker standard of pronunciation. The following are some common examples that I have frequently heard from my students and others. The normal native-speaker pronunciation is given in parentheses.
fountain pen (fountain pen)

fault finding (faultfinding)


make-believe (make-believe)

hosepipe (hosepipe) grandmother (grandmother) English teacher (English teacher)

As far as this last example is concerned, both stress patterns are possible, but there is a difference in meaning. English teacher means a teacher who is English, while English teacher means a teacher of English, who may or may not be English. To go back to previous examples, I find that my students, when asked to mark stress, almost invariably put bus conductor (for bus conductor), engine driver (for engine driver), and dining room (for dining room). One way of explaining the apparent variability in the way we pronounce and write compound words is to look at them as part of a process of word formation in English. Historically, what seems to happen is that when a compound is first used it is felt still to consist of two separate words. Later, as it becomes more firmly incorporated in the language, it comes to be regarded as one word. Several intermediate stages may be passed through, where the status of the compound is ambiguous. Furthermore, this process may take place at different speeds as far as speech and writing are concerned. This would explain some of the examples above, which seem to behave differently in speech and writing. We can say, then, that many compound words seem to occupy an uneasy intermediate status between single words and phrases or groups of words.
David Taylor

articles

welcome

From the point of view of stress, there seems to be an interaction between the principles of lexical stress, that is stress as a lexical property of the single word, and the principles of accent, which apply to phrases and groups of words. To put it a little differently, we could say that compound word stress provides us with a case of lexical stress, that is, stress as a property of a word, whose place in the word is decided on the basis of the principles of accent placement. If it is true, as we have suggested, that compound words occupy an intermediate position between single words and phrases, then it is not surprising that they should be affected by principles that apply to single words and also by principles that apply to phrases.

Double stress and single stress

This recognition that accent is involved may help us in deciding how to stress compounds. But before exploring this possibility, let us first look at another principle which has been proposed to explain stress placement in compounds. Consider the following examples:
steel container plastic bag metal box fish pie

(cf. (cf. (cf. (cf.

steel container) plastic factory) metal company) fish shop)

In these examples, there seems to be a difference in the relationship between the two elements making up the compound, and this results in a different stress pattern, so that, for instance when steel container means container made of steel, it has double stress (steel container); but when it means container for keeping steel it has single stress (steelcontainer). We also have examples like the following:
woman doctor player manager child actor

(cf. woman hater) (cf. player power) (cf. child minder)

Here also there seems to be a different relationship between the two elements of the compound, so that we get double stress when the two elements refer to different aspects of the same person, and single stress in other cases (a woman doctor is both a woman and a doctor, but a woman hater is presumably not normally a woman). Further similar examples are:
family size city wall

(cf. family size) (cf. city people)

where in the double-stressed examples there seems to be an of or genitive relationship, as can be seen in the following contrasting sentences: Poverty seems to be related to family size (family size). When buying washing powder I always buy the family size (family
size).

In the first case, we are talking about the size of a family, and in the second case, about the size for a family.
Compound word stress 69

articles

welcome

Grammar as a

clue

We seem, then, to be dealing in some way with the grammatical relationship between the elements making up the compound. Different writers treat this in different ways. The relationship is sometimes looked at in syntactic terms and sometimes more in semantic terms. Consequently, the descriptions of these relationships and the implications for stress drawn from them can be very complicated, as the following quotations show: Double stress is used: 1. In compounds of two nouns if the first indicates the material of which the second is made. 2. In compounds consisting of two nouns each indicating a different characteristic of the same person or animal. 3. In many compounds where the relationship between the two elements is one of belonging such as might, in a sense, have been (Christophersen, 1956: 165-6) expressed by a genitive.

It will be seen that when the first component names a material or an article that can be used in manufacture, the compound is doublestressed if it names something made out of or containing the first component; otherwise it is single stressed. . . . It will also be noticed that in most other cases of double stress the first component is fully attributive to the second, stating what kind of a thing of its class it is; for this reason the second component takes the kinetic stress. In cases of single stress, on the other hand, the first component (which takes the kinetic stress) is felt to be more substantive and less attributive; it has greater importance in the compound. (Kingdon, 1958: 150) These observations are undoubtedly correct, as far as they go, and contain important insights. Indeed, Christophersens three points and Kingdons first point are fairly clearly illustrated by the examples given above. In addition, Kingdon, whom I have quoted extensively for this very purpose, makes two significant points on which we can build to provide guide-lines for stressing compounds. The problem is that, in this particular form, these statements are extremely obscure and of very little practical pedagogical help for either the learner or the teacher. As far as purely syntactic statements are concerned, the best remains that of Roach: (i) If the first part of the compound is (in a broad sense) adjectival, the stress goes on the second element, with a secondary stress on the first. For example:
loudspeaker bad-tempered second-class three-wheeler
70 David Taylor

articles

welcome

(ii) If, however, the first element is (in a broad sense) a noun, the stress goes on the first element. For example:
typewriter car-ferry

sunrise
suitcase tea-cup

(Roach, 1983: 83-4) Roach is fairly cautious about these rules, but stated in this way they are genuinely helpful to teachers and learners alike.
Accent

It was mentioned above that the idea of accent was crucially involved in compound stress. In any tone group, there is one stressed syllable which stands out by virtue of having the only moving tone. This syllable is sometimes called the nucleus, and corresponds to the tonic syllable commonly referred to, particularly in discussions of sentence stress. However, as was noted at the beginning, this combination of significant stress and tone is conveniently referred to as accent. The accent draws our attention to what the speaker wishes to highlight or place in the foreground or simply to what the speaker assumes to be new information as far as the listener is concerned. This idea of accent is, in fact, present in Kingdon, as his kinetic stress corresponds to the term accent. Similarly, Roachs primary stress also corresponds here to accent. The important thing is to recognize what accent does. As we have just seen, accent marks the important element in an utterance, indicating the information focus, whether this consists of new information or information which for some reason is foregrounded. Kingdon implicitly recognizes this in the quotation above, when he talks about one component having more importance in the compound. In fact, it seems that we can avoid the obscure details of the syntactic and semantic relations between the elements of compounds and simply concentrate on the principles of accent. If we think in terms of which element is more important or is relatively more important, then we have a reasonably straightforward guide to help us decide how to stress compounds in English in cases of doubt. Accent, then, has to do with information, and the important or relatively more important element is the one which is more informative. An element may be more informative because it contains more specific information than the other element or elements, as for example in sitting room or bus driver, where the general term is de-accented in favour of the particular term. It may be that one of the terms is more common or familiar, and hence more predictable, thus conveying less information. This would explain why we get Park Street, as opposed to Park Avenue, Park Road, or Park Place. Street is the more common and predictable term in these cases, and is thus de-accented as opposed to the less common terms such as place, square, terrace, grove, lane, avenue, and many others which are all accented. In other cases, one element may have less semantic content than another. For example, matter in the expression reading mutter has relatively little precise meaning and so is de-accented.
Compound word stress

71
articles welcome

Fusion

The relative informativeness, predictability, or familiarity of the elements of a compound can therefore act as a useful guide to stress. It is not, however, a completely reliable guide, as there are many puzzling apparent exceptions to the principle. Why, for instance, do we say apple pie, but apple cake? Is cake similar to street, being more predictable and familiar than pie? Perhaps, but apple pie would seem to be more common than apple cake. The probable reason for these puzzling cases is the fact, already referred to, that many compounds seem to be in transition between compound word status and single word status. Bolinger (1986: 121) talks about the degree of fusion. The more fusion there is in the eyes of speakers, the more likely it is that a compound will behave phonologically like a single word and have a single stress. Different compounds may well acquire different degrees of fusion over time. Indeed, if we look at pronunciations recorded in dictionaries and other works over the years we can see this happening. It is interesting to note, for instance, that many compounds marked by Kingdon (1958) as having double stress now normally have single stress. For example, Kingdon marks the following words, among others, with double stress. For most speakers they probably now have single stress, as given in brackets:
farmhouse (farmhouse) box office (box office) sea level (sea level) tissue paper (tissue paper) boa constrictor (boa constrictor) vacuum cleaner (vacuum cleaner) coldcream (coldcream) sixshooter (sixshooter) sleeping partner (sleeping partner) flying fish (flying fish) smallholder (smallholder) public school (public school) travellers 'cheque (travellers

cheque)
stage manager (stage manager) week'end (weekend) warrant officer (warrant officer) sugar beet (sugar beet) maiden name (maiden name)

In these examples, the accent has moved from the second element to the first. Presumably, as these compounds have become more familiar they have acquired a greater degree of fusion and thus behave more like single phonological words.

Some pedagogical implications

If we now think back to our original examples of common errors in the stressing of compound words, we can perhaps begin to see the pedagogical implications of what has been said. The examples are repeated here for ease of reference:
fountain pen (fountain pen) fault finding (fault finding) make-believe (make-believe) bus conductor (bus conductor) dining room (dining room) hosepipe (hosepipe) grandmother (grandmother) English teacher (English teacher) engine driver (engine driver)

What seems to be happening is that sometimes speakers seem to have


David Taylor

articles

welcome

some difficulty in recognizing a compound in the first place. One could say that they are treating the compounds as two separate words and stressing them accordingly. In this they are perhaps often led (or misled) by the spelling, but not always (see make-believe, hosepipe, and grandmother). This may be a factor, but it cannot be the complete explanation, as speakers are clearly aware of the unitary status of the words from the semantic point of view, as is evident in the way they use the words. A more basic problem is that there is apparently a lack of understanding of the relationship between the two parts of the compound. Or rather, to be more accurate, the faulty stressing of the compound does not make clear what the relationship is between the two parts. As we saw above, it is the function of accent to mark the relationship of different parts of the utterance to one another. In terms of their relative informativeness, importance, predictability, and familiarity. We can conclude, therefore, that paying more attention to the principles of accent placement could lead to fewer difficulties with the stressing of compound words. One can imagine sessions, for example, where the contrasts between such pairs as the following are explored:
a dancing teacher a young French teacher an English student an English teacher a dancing teacher a young French teacher an English student an English teacher

Work of this nature, looking at the different relationships of the elements of compounds to one another, as marked by different placings of the accent, perhaps by getting learners to identify which elements carry the new information or are the most informative, should increase learners awareness of and sensitivity to this phenomenon, and should lead to a greater ability to predict the correct stressing of compound words. To sum all this up very briefly, we can say that, in cases of doubt, if we look at which element of a compound carries most information, or is the most unpredictable, and place the accent on that element, we have a good chance of producing correct compound stress.
Received March 1990
References Bolinger, D. W. 1986. Intonation and its parts. The author David Taylor has taught for many years in the Over-

London: Edward Arnold.


Christophersen, Kingdon,

P. 1956. An English Phonetics.

R. 1958. The Groundwork of English Intonation.London: Longman. Roach, P. 1983. English phonetics and phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

London: Longman.

seas Education Unit at Leeds University, where he is concerned with teacher-education courses for English teachers. He has had many overseas visits and has been involved in consultancies, running courses, workshops, and seminars on behalf of the University, The British Council, and the Overseas Development Administration, in most parts of Africa and also parts of South East Asia and East Asia, as well as Europe and the Middle East. He has published on aspects of English pronunciation and phonology, on teacher-education for language teachers, and on communicative competence and its relation to language teaching.
73

Compound word stress


articles

welcome