Monday, July 14, 2008


Jan Freeman, in her The Word Blog, reacted to the zebra post by writing:
What with my near-daily dose of BBC News on the radio, I thought I was pretty current on British-American pronunciation differences: furore with three syllables (and an extra letter), vitamin with a short I (VITT-a-min), con-TROV-er-sy with a different stress, and so on.
...which made me remark to myself with surprise that I've never got(ten) (a)round to blogging about controversy, since (and this is the crucial thing about my blogging, isn't it?) I have an anecdote. (I think I didn't do it earlier because I was going to write a lot more about stress patterns in Latinate words, but in my new working-mother-on-the-go incarnation, I'll do this word now, and a hundred other words a hundred other times.)

And now, the anecdote you've managed to live without so far (but how?):

When I lived in South Africa, I had the altogether ego-enriching experience of being a relatively big [linguistic] fish in a relatively little [language-fascinated] pond, and so I had the pleasure of being a panel(l)ist on the SAfm (sort of the equivalent of BBC Radio 4 or NPR) program(me) Word of Mouth (which is like Radio 4's Word of Mouth or a bit less like KPBS/NPR's A Way with Words). Listeners write to the show with their language-related questions, and a couple of language experts join the host, John Orr, to answer them. Not once but THREE TIMES during my experience with WoM, some member of the South African native English-speaking population wrote in to complain that South African English was going to the dogs because people had started pronouncing controversy as conTROVersy (there's a short 'o' in the stressed syllable), rather than CONtroversy, and THREE TIMES they blamed this on the influence of American English.

Now, I only answered that one on-air once, but when I did, I did so with great glee as I pointed out (as I seem always to be pointing out) that just because something is annoying and new, it doesn't mean it's American. No, this "perversion" of the English language has its home in SAfE speakers' linguistic motherland. To quote Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd edition, 1996):
controversy. The mood of the moment is to challenge orthodoxy by placing the main stress on the second syllable. This stressing is often used by newsreaders and also, in my [editor R.W. Burchfield's] experience, by many scholars and lexicographers, not to go any further. My verdict is that the traditional pronunciation with initial stressing is at risk, but is still, just, dominant among RP speakers in the UK. In AmE the stress is always placed on the first syllable in this word.
I believe I read this on the radio--but since I no longer own a working cassette recorder, I doubt I'll ever hear those old program(me)s again.


Zhoen said...

Have you ever mentioned aluminum? Which seems to have grafted on an extra "i" in Br/E. Al You MIN EEE um. Or do we actually spell it differently?

lynneguist said...

Oh, zhoen, zhoen, zhoen. I never thought you'd be a topic-changer. Alas and alack.

Alumin(i)um has come up before in the comments, but since comments aren't searchable on the 'search this blog' feature, it becomes invisible and then comes up again (now for the third time). Check the comments on "spelling standards" and "rutabaga" for more discussion. But the more it gets discussed in the comments, the less likely I am to do a post on it, because I get unreasonably grumpy!

Joe said...

With respect to aluminum/aluminium, I remember an episode of the American game show "Jeopardy" where a British contestant was penalized for giving the answer "U.S. Aluminium". The host later explained that if the question were about the metal either answer would be accepted, but since it was about a corporation the corporation's actual name was needed.

lynneguist said...

The battle is lost.

anicca-anicca said...

I thought the difference between aluminium / aluminum (BE/AE) was in every dictionary.§Hdr=on&spellToler=on&chinese=both&pinyin=diacritic&search=aluminium&relink=on

Lynneguist, I love your blog, and I find your newest incarnation even more inspiring than the previous ones. Keep on keeping on!
And I'm German, and we don't usually do compliments... ;-)

John Cowan said...

You can search the whole blog, comments and all, by googling for [ aluminum], or replace "aluminum" by whatever you are looking for.

Jo said...

In terms of Latinate words, I've noticed that just six months of living in the UK has led me to say PROgress instead of PRAHgress, with a much stronger emphasis on the first syllable. It's not reversed stress, but it's distinctive.

Altissima said...

Controversy is one of those words that I am never confident in pronouncing - I am equally drawn to either alternative pronunciation, and therefore neither feels "100% correct" to me. Is there a technical term for this phenomenon?

I like the Prince song where he gives equal weight to each and every syllable: CON-TRO-VERS-SY.

Kevin said...

I do so agree with you, Lynne, about the knee-jerk "it must be American influence" reaction to all language change. Look at any discussion about the pronunciation of controversy and you will find it all the time from people who clearly have no idea how Americans actually say this word.

Where there has been west-to-east transatlantic influence on BrE stress patterns, the shift seems, in fact, to be mostly towards stressing "earlier" syllables: TElevision REsearch springs to mind (as contrasted with earlier BrE teleVIsion reSEARCH) - though CIgarette never seems to have caught on in Britain.

Regarding controversy, I have a little theory, which I admit I have never got round to researching or testing thoroughly, that there is something about the quality of the "o" vowel in 4-syllable words which strongly attracts the stress away from the "original" or "logical" stress position in such words as controversy and kilometre.

Notice that this attraction does not apply to other vowels: no-one says *cenTImetre, *milLImetre, *tesTImony, or *aCRImony.

Doug Sundseth said...

"... no-one says *cenTImetre, *milLImetre, *tesTImony, or *aCRImony."

Hmm, now I might have to; I think I like the sound of those. I'll naturally have to blame the British for this corruption of the language, though, just to be fair. (Of course, being American, I'll have to say "cenTImeter" and "milLImeter", but I hope you'll allow me to go with the spirit rather than the letter on this one. 8-)

flatlander said...

Back in college when I did study abroad in Athens, I took a class on "Greece and the EU" taught by a British professor. I knew nothing about the topic (which is why we go to school, right?), and neither did my classmates, so whenever she talked about this or that conTROVersy we assumed it was some political science term we ought to know but were too embarrassed to admit we didn't. It was at least November before someone finally asked her to spell the word, which was followed by a collective "Ohhhh! It all makes sense now."

Cultural inferiority complex, perhaps? Or just lazy studenthood?

wjarek said...

Hello everyone! I'm a regular -- erm [sic] -- lurker on this blog, but haven't yet contributed. So let my first comment be a humble quote from the venerable John Wells:

"Among Received Pronunciation speakers the ˈkɒntr- form perhaps still predominates; but in British English in general the -ˈtrɒv- form is now clearly more widespread. Preference poll, British English: -ˈtrɒv- 60%, ˈkɒntr- 40%. In American English ˈkɑːntr- is the only possibility."

This comes from his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, and is accompanied by a nice graph. So evidently this has come from the land of aluminium...

[If you can't or don't want to read the IPA symbols, it's 60% for the second-syllable-stressed version in the UK, and -- he says -- the only possibility in the USofA is to have the stress on the first syllable. /ɒ/ is the non-American vowel of LOT.]

BTW, a great blog, Lynne!

anne t. said...

Hiroshima. The two ways of pronouncing this I've heard, HeROshima and HEroSHEEma. I'm uncertain which is whose. (The second sounds like the American.) It may be American vs. European or even Japanese. I know that in highschool after seeing Hiroshima Mon Amour, I was taught that the the first was the correct way to pronounce it.

When I learned what iambic was, I was surprised that the accent is on the second syllable, because in English - and, of course, Shakespeare is the lord of iambs and wrote in English - it seemed to me that the odd syllables (first, third) of individual words are more often the ones stressed.

Very interesting, Kevin, about your theory of the o verb in the second syllable of four-syllable words.

And Altissima, when you say that you are "never confident", I wondered if anyone would ever say conFIdent. Do any other English speakers stress the second syllable in other con- words?

I too like this blog very much as may be evidenced by my frequent participation!

Kevin said...

anne: thanks for reminding me about Hiroshima! That was another example in my "theory" which I'd forgotten about when posting earlier.

Yes, a great many people say HiROshima, but nobody ever says NaGAsaki. (In Japanese, of course, both words have level stress - so that it's neither HiROshima nor HiroSHIma when speaking that language.)

Zhoen said...

I did try to search, I apologize completely.

lynneguist said...

Thanks, accepted! But it kind of proves my point that it's hard to find new-topic stuff that ends up in the comments.

Anonymous said...

This American mathematician notes that the word "corollary" (which comes up a lot in mathematical proofs) seems to have a similar stress pattern: always on the first syllable in American, often on the second with non-Americans.

(Did you notice I didn't mention alumin[i]um once?)

Anonymous said...

Thanks to John Cowan for the search 'tool' that allowed me to find that duodenum has not cropped up yet. ([ aluminum], or replace "aluminum" by whatever you are looking for).
Throughout my biology classes in the UK in the 50s, it was duoDEEnum. Here in the US I discover it's invariably duODDenum, which sounds like dwodnum, which in turn sounds to me like a village in Wales or the West Country. "Dwodnum-in-the-Moor."
But I've also learned to mistrust the pronunciation of my high school masters. My chem teacher used to pronounce diesel as DYEesel. Clearly he was not a mod langs major, certainly not of Germanics.
As a mod langs major myself, (including German), I evince the reverse problem. I simply cannot wrap my mind around pronouncing Annie Leibovitz as LEEbovitz.

Andy J said...

@ anonymous
"I simply cannot wrap my mind around pronouncing Annie Leibovitz as LEEbovitz."
Clearly you don't hail from [does that idiom work in AmE?] Liverpool, where everyone pronounces the final "ein" in surnames as EEN.
I even once heard a Liverpudlian refer Albert EinstEEN, which is particularly bizarre

Anonymous said...

I've always pronounced it 'conTROversy' (I'm from southern England), and used to view those who said 'CONtroversy' with some disdain. I've become more accepting in my old age, though.
I don't, however, accent 'controversial' in the same place (CONtroVERsial).

James said...

Andy J: "hail from" works in AmE.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to the anonymous US mathematician. I never realised that corollary was pronounced differently in AmE. Of course, I last heard the word spoken over 25 years ago as a student in Cambridge (England) but I have read some articles and books by mathematicians since with no thought that they might be pronouncing the word differently! It makes me want to go back and read them again with the correct mental pronounciation :-) [are smileys allowed in a language blog?]

bill said...

This may be a silly question...but how do you pronounce Annie Leibovitz if it isn't LEEbovitz?
Is it LieBOvitz? Or LIEbovitz?

JaxCA said...

If stress is changing to the second syllable, does that mean Okies (people, excuse me, folks, from Oklahoma) have to start saying inSURance and umBRELla like the rest of us, or do they still get to say INsurance and UMbrella? Does Britain have an equivalent to Okies?

David Young said...

I sometimes hear people putting the emphasis on the second syllable in "pastoral" and "temporal". It sounds very wrong to me - I (British) put it on the first syllable in both cases. I wonder what is going on when they do this? Any ideas? Is it a normal way to say these words anywhere?

Anonymous said...

With apologies to Lynne, duodenum was on-topic, Leibovitz was not. But since you asked, in German EI is invariably EYE, while IE is EE.

Around '77 I remember Larry Adler complaining about a BBC presenter's pronunciation of Leonard Bernstein as BairnshtEYEn. (Evidently she also was a German linguist.) Larry's point was that in the US everyone pronounces it Burnsteen. Then, about a year ago I saw a clip of Edward R. Murrow pronouncing it the German way too.

Back on topic, (I hope), a few years ago a venerable British lady informed me that BALcony, at the turn of the century, used to be BalCONEy. Clearly it's just as much a generational matter as a geographical one.

BTW, and entirely off-topic, I am also Pete Moor and Xcalibr39. Problem is, sometimes I can log in and post as one or other of these IDs, and other times for-the-life-of-me cannot, so I give up and post as anon.

(Tagline *I was born to crash your system, Google, and there's nothing you can do to stop me*)

Anne T. said...

Here in San Antonio and Southern Texas there are the BalCONes Heights and the BalCONes Escarpment, a geological structure that is like a series of balconies. I wonder if balconies were originally more of a Spanish architectural structure - or Italian, and the different emphasis a century ago might have been carried over from those languages?

Jaxca - I'm married to an Okie (or anyway, he's from Oklahoma) and haven't noticed these pronunciations of insurance and umbrella. I'll have to devise some kind of test and pay attention.

[This is veering off topic, but pronunciation-wise I've noticed that he doesn't say the eh sound of e very well, so pen can often sound more like pin. And his pronunciation of oil rhymes with bowl, which cracks me up.]

nat said...

The mention of "furor(e)" right at the top of this post was an eye-opener (or ear-opener?) for me - I'm Australian and up until now I was only aware of one spelling (furore) and one pronunciation: FYOORor. Now you're telling me that combination is actually very, very bizarre? I can't believe I never noticed that before...

And @ anne t.: yes, "balcony" comes via Italian. All the other main Western European languages seem to have "balcon" (subject to spelling variations etc.).

lynneguist said...

Nat, if you hit the link on furore, you'll be taken to a past post on the topic.

Anonymous said...

@David Young: pasTORal is AmE. At least, in the Midwest.

Anne T. said...

I say pasTORal as well - originally from the East Coast, soo..

Oh, and Jaxca, I spelled the words I wanted to hear my husband say, and he says inSURance and umBRElla like the rest of us. He thought that saying these words with the accent on the first syllable would be pretty strange and doesn't recall anyone he knows saying them that way. Where are you getting your info? (He's from Eastern OK.)

Anonymous said...

I'm from the East Coast too, and I have *never* heard "pastoral" with 2nd-syllable stress. It rhymes with "astral," (AmE) period / (BrE) full stop. No controversy at all! "Bernstein" is BURN-stine.

Cameron said...

My Texan soon to be ex wife always says INsurance. I have had the impression that although not universal it's not an uncommon pronunciation in the States, but that may just be because I have become used to hearing it from her.

Anonymous said...

It's a Southern thing.

anne t. said...

I haven't noticed the different accent of umbrella here, or insurance. I'll keep an ear out for these words now, though.

I say pastoral with three syllables, but this proves nothing. Pastral, with two, sounds to me very clipped and British and, if pronounced this way by an American speaker, may even sound affected to me. But this may be just reverse snobbery or something.

I've been racking my brain to recall some words on which my mother has corrected my pronunciation - some of them four syllable and regarding the accent, I'm sure. To no avail. One word in particular my parents thought it very funny where I put the accent. Agh.

Anne T. said...

This seemed particularly relevant:

Peregrine said...

Hi Lynn
Hmm, perhaos it's a Jo'burg thing. In Durban I've only ever hear contROVersy, and think of the first syllable stress as foreign.
Controvertial OTOH is controVERtial.

Picture Taker said...

I found this blog while I was trying to figure out how to pronounce 'Leibovitz' and I wasn't planning on commenting until I saw the Okie comment.
I'm born and raised Okie and I like the way we talk.
That is all :)

Ian said...

Economy, astronomy, autonomy, lobotomy.

Yup, good theory, thanks Kevin!

David Crosbie said...

Kevin, Ian

there is something about the quality of the "o" vowel in 4-syllable words which strongly attracts the stress away from the "original" or "logical" stress position in such words as controversy and kilometre.

In these words at least there's a much older process at work. It's not a question of vowel quality, nor of syllable-count. There's a rule applied to words taken from Latin — largely because for many centuries most of the people who coined most of the words were fluent in Latin, including spoken Latin.

The key factor is syllable weight.
• A light syllable ends in a short vowel.
• A heavy syllable ends in a long vowel or a consonant.

This Latin stress rule takes account of the penultimate syllable of a word. As summarised by Donka Minkova (A Historical Phonology of English):

HEAVY PENULT Disyllabic fā́ma 'fame' ergo 'therfore'
…….........…….Trissylabic comḗta'comet', columna 'column'
LIGHT PENULT Disyllabic crócus, ónyx '
……………….Trissylabic ábacus, Lúcifer

The rule was not applied to 'native' words of Germanic origin. We don't say Middélsboro, for instance. But it was commonly applied to learnèd words from Latin or from Greek via Latin.

And it didn't stop at three syllables. In the cases we're looking at, there's a syllable before the final three, which accounts for Ian's examples, ecónomy, astrónomy, autónomy, lobótomy and also to the words ecónomist, lobótomise with long final syllables. The rule still holds with five syllables like homeopathy or six syllables like epistemólogy.

Although all these words have short-O as the stressed antepenultimate, the rule is far more general. It applies to other short vowels before penultimate light syllables as in análysis(despite ánalyse), electrícity (despite eléctric), herétical (despite héresy). (I can't think of a short-U example.).

And, of course it applies to long vowels and heavy syllables before penultimate light syllables

The reason these short-O words stand out is
• We're more used to long O when the vowel is stressed.
• The O-sound is part of the first element of the compound.
• It goes against the 'native' law of stressing the root cf próblem-sólving, stár-gázing, sélf-rúle.

David Crosbie said...

The Latin Stress Rule was still a psychological reality when scientists invented the words (and things) thermómeter, barómeter etc. We even applied it when the first part of the compound wasn't of Greek (or Latin) origin. Hence Nilómeter, gasómeter, clapómeter.

But then we had to absorb the measure-of-length terms from the Continent. Metre already existed as an English word describing poetic rhythm. It existed as the word for a measure of capactity — but only in the fertile mind of Thomas Jefferson. All might have been well if we hadn't adopted the spelling meter for the Continental length-units. There's only one obvious spelling pronunciation for kilometre. But the spelling kilometer is far too close to thermometer.

However, the influence of the Latin stress rule didn't extend to the others because we don't have so many words ending in ámeter, -émeter, –ímeter, -úmeter. There's parámeter and perímeter, but I can't think of any with short-E or short-U. So, there wasn't a body of analogous words to make us say centímeter etc.

Al of this explains why we say còntrovérsial. It almost explains cóntrovèrsy; we just need to add that the primary and secondary stresses have swapped places.

If we disregard the spelling and concentrate on how we say the word (many of us), it even explains contróversy.

In my speech, and in many UK (and other) accents, the syllable spelled –ver- is very light indeed. There is no sound — not even the ghost of a sound — corresponding to the letter R. The sound we do pronounce is even weaker than unstressed short-E. It's what linguists call schwa — like a little grunt. So the vowel before light penultimate –ver- carries the stress.

By contrast, most American accents have an R-sound at the end of that syllable. So you almost say cóntrovèrsy, but not quite. It seems that for most of you –ver- though not light is not quite heavy enough to take secondary stress.

The conservative BrE pronunciation retaining the stress on cón- seems to be restricted to the RP in the narrowest definition of the accent. John Wells (see quote above by Wjarek) states that speakers of RP (not near-RP like me) are divided between pronouncing –ver- as unstressed NURSE vowel and grunting it as a little schwa. The first of these seems to be the equivalent of a typical AmE pronunciation. The latter always sounds artificial to me.

David Crosbie said...

The Latin Stress Rule also explains one difference between aluminum and aluminium.

Penultimate syllable is light -mi-
Antepenultimate is stressed alúminum

Penultimate syllable is light -ni-
Antepenultimate is stressed alumínium

Penultimate syllable is heavy -min-
Penultimate is stressed alumínium

David Crosbie said...

The Latin Stress Rule also explains one difference between aluminum and aluminium.

Penultimate syllable is light -mi-
Antepenultimate is stressed alúminum

Penultimate syllable is light -ni-
Antepenultimate is stressed alumínium

Penultimate syllable is heavy -min-
Penultimate is stressed alumínium