Saturday 29 January 2011


This week, one of my students asked me what the correct pronunciation of the Scottish place name Inverness is, to which I answered that it is ˌɪnvəˈnes (RP), ˌɪnvɚˈnes (GA). He then told me that, when he went to Scotland, he heard people pronounce it with main stress on the first syllable, thus ˈɪnvəɾˌnes.

To be honest, I’m not aware of this kind of pronunciation – maybe some of my Scottish readers out there might be able to shed light on this!

One thing I can say, though, is that my student might have got confused with a phonetic phenomenon very common in English which we call ‘stress shift’. Stress shift, in principle, can apply to any word that has a secondary stress before its main one. In practice, though, it is most likely to apply to those words which are regularly followed in a phrase by a more strongly stressed one. Thus Inverness is ˌɪnvəˈnes or ˌɪnvɚˈnes in citation form, but in the phrase Inverness train it is most likely to be pronounced as ˌɪnvənes (ˈtreɪn), ˌɪnvɚnes (ˈtreɪn).

My readers may recall that I have already discussed the topic of stress shift in one of my past posts. On the 30th October 2010, I talked about the pronunciations of the term Halloween, highlighting the fact that the way we pronounce it in English generally depends on the presence/absence of the word that follows it: Halloween ˌhæləʊˈiːn, but Halloween party ˌhæləʊiːn ˈpɑːti.

Although stress shift is usual in English, it is not categorical. As Professor Wells puts it in his book English Intonation: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2006),

“[s]peakers do sometimes choose not [sic] apply it, downgrading an initial accent instead (...). Nevertheless, EFL learners are recommended to treat stress shift as a rule that should be applied. An accent pattern of the type I underˈstand ˈclearly is rarely heard from core native speakers of English. Rather, it is typical of EFL.” (p.232)

The online resource Forvo offers a very good example of stress shift in the expression Inverness-shire. (By the way, Forvo is a website with sound files demonstrating the pronunciation(s) of roughly 800,000 words in 267 languages. Anyone can upload a sound file showing how they pronounce a particular word.) Of the two speakers that we get, both male and from the UK, mooncow pronounces Inverness-shire by applying the stress-shift rule, whereas FrazJan doesn’t stress-shift. Listen to both of them here.

If we then check how native speakers of English pronounce Inverness on its own, we get 3 speakers (two from the UK and one from the US) who all have a pronunciation with primary stress on the last syllable. Listen here.

1 comment:

  1. When in Glasgow I asked for a bus ticket to Inverness the girl pronounced "ʌnvə'ni:s" or something like that, deffinitely ending with a long "i" it took me some time to get it :)