Saturday 25 February 2012

A shocking revelation from one of my students

John Wells, on Friday 17 February 2012, had an article on Daniel Jones’s Cardinal Vowels accompanied by a very nice picture of an eagle owl. This got me thinking about English stress patterns again. How do you pronounce the expression eagle owl? Where does the stress fall here: on eagle or on owl

This may sound like a ridiculous question to most of you but it wasn’t so for one of my students, who noticed that in the Hazon Garzanti Dictionary of English this compound is given late stress: ˌiːɡlˈaʊl (p.381). Is this a misprint or another howler on the part of the authors? Are there native speakers of English who have main stress on owl here? 

I have to admit that I have only ever heard eagle owl pronounced front-stressed, thus ˈiːɡl̩ aʊl, and this is also confirmed by the entry we find in CEPD 18 (see p.155) and by the OALD online (listen here).

Surprisingly, for barn owl Hazon Garzanti has the correct ˈbɑːn aʊl (p.92). So where does ˌiːɡlˈaʊl come from? (And why do we find ˈblækaɪs rather than the correct ˌblæk ˈaɪs?)

Leafing through the dictionary it isn’t hard to find other baffling phonetic transcriptions. Just take a look at the following:

according as əˈkɔːdɪŋæz (p.9 – Please note that the length mark I use here is not what you find in the dictionary: the authors use round dots (:) rather than the IPA ‘triangles’, [ː].)

according to əˈkɔːdɪŋtuː (p.9)

after ˈɑːftə* AmE ˈæftə* (p.23 – “The asterisk at the end of the phonetic transcription of a headword indicates that the final “r” is only pronounced when followed by a vowel sound” (p.XVII).)

afternoon (AmE) ˌæftəˈnuːn (p.24)

afterward ˈɑːftəwɔːd AmE ˈæftəwɔːd (p.24)

afterwards ˈɑːftəwədz AmE ˈæftəwɔːdz (p.24)

allegedly əˈledʒdlɪ (p.33)

amniotic ˈæmnjˈɒtɪk (p.39)

answer (AmE) ˈænsə* (p.47)

anywhere (AmE) ˈenɪhweə* (p.52)

apple pie ˈæplˌpaɪ (p.55)

belly-dancer (AmE) ˈbelɪdænsə* (p.105)

century ˈsentjʊrɪ (p.190)

chop tʃɔp (p.206)

colourfast (AmE) ˈkʌləfæst (p.232)

comprehensive school ˌkɒmprɪhensɪv ˈskuːl (p.243)

Why is classlessness transcribed as ˈklɑːsləsnəs (p.214) but completeness kəmˈpliːtnɪs (p.241)?

And, as far as semantics goes, can someone please tell me why fatuous is translated as will-o’-the-wisp (p.447) when it actually means “silly” or “pointless”, as in a fatuous comment?



  1. What a beautiful uvula she has!

  2. Alex,

    Ignis fatuus (foolish fire) is Latin for the phenomenon known as will-o'-the-wisp, so it looks like some silly dictionary mix-up to me.

    1. I think it's because Italians normally say "fuoco fatuo". The authors must have thought that "fatuous" corresponds to the Italian meaning "fatuo", usually associated with the word "fuoco". How ignorant of them!

  3. I just discovered this blog, and it's interesting. As will soon become obvious from my non-use of technical terms, I'm not a linguist.

    It seems to me, as a Chicagoan who listens to the BBC News, that we Yanks tend to emphasize the first word of two-word compounds while the British tend to emphasize the second. We say "TAPE recorder," they say "tape reCORder," and so on. This also applies to terms with "ago"; I don't imagine they're considered compounds. We say "several YEARS ago," they say "several years aGO."

    And of course, we say "NicaRAHgua" and they say "NicaRAEgua" (try to imagine the "ae" as the ligature).

    1. Thank you for reading this blog, Michael!

      Two-element compounds are typically pronounced with early stress both in British English and in American English. Obviously, this is not a rule and there are exceptions to that! "Tape recorder" usually takes initial element stress (IES) in both varieties. See LPD and CEPD.

      The expression "several years ago" is a phrase, not a compound. Phrases usually have late stress, instead.

      The different stress patterns you describe in "several years ago" are not just British or American, I think. You can find the same alternations within just one accent. Much also depends on the context.

      For more on compounds and phrases, see LPD p.171.

      As far as "Nicaragua" goes, the two pronunciations are to be heard in both BrE and AmE.

    2. Michael, I forgot to add that /ˌnɪkəˈrɑːɡwə/ is the usual pronunciation in AmE, as you also pointed out.