Happy New Year

It's been a while... but here I am to wish you Happy New Year!
But how do you say it? Biochemist writes to ask:
Why do Americans put the emphasis on New - as in: 'enjoy the NOO year holiday' or 'What are you doing at Nooyers?'
Brits refer to the New Year evenly emphasised: 'I'll see you next term, in the new year....' 'Did you have a good time at Christmas and New Year?' and so on.
The 'noo' versus 'new' issue is one that I've discussed before, but the stress difference took me a while to appreciate. I said it to myself a few times and didn't hear the difference Biochemist described. Coming back to it a half-day later, I did hear the difference in my own speech--but it does underscore the point that I'm losing it, dialectally speaking.

At any rate, Biochemist asks why, and of course, the answer is: Americans say it their way because it's what they hear from other Americans, and the British say it that way because it's what they hear from other Brits. One might hope that it's part of a general rule for how to pronounce compound nouns and that the rule differs in the US and the UK, but to my knowledge no one's discovered such a rule. (Some of you may be wondering why I keep calling New Year a compound when it's two words. It may be two words in spelling, but we use it as one word--and so it is pronounced with compound stress of some sort, rather than in the way that we would pronounce new year as a phrase made of adjective + noun, in which case the stress would usually be on the noun.) Here's a bit from the abstract for a research project headed by Sabine Arndt-Lappe and Ingo Plag at Universität Siegen:
It is generally assumed that compounds in English are stressed on the left-hand member (e.g. bláckboard, wátchmaker). However, there is a considerable amount of variation in stress assignment (e.g. apricot crúmble, Penny Láne, Tory léader) that is unaccounted for in the literature. [...] It turned out that, although making correct predictions for parts of the data, none of the structural and semantic mechanisms proposed in the literature works in a categorical fashion, and that probabilistic and analogical models are more successful in their predictions than traditional rule-based ones.
In other words, English compound stress is irregular. And where there are irregularities (or really complex regularities with different options for applying them), there's the opportunity for cross-Atlantic variability. You could say here that AmE uses the more 'typical' compound stress and BrE is doing something a little funny--if it is your wont to point out ways in which AmE makes more 'sense'. While it's probably wrong to say that one language variety makes more sense than another, it's an awful lot of fun to make that claim when you're an American living in the UK, dealing with condescension about your language on a regular basis. In any case, perhaps Arndt-Lappe and Plag or others will find something to answer Biochemist's question, but it's going to take some digging. Good luck to them! (And thanks to my colleague, Herr Dr Phonologist, for pointing me in the direction of their work.)

This wasn't my first New Year query--the last one has been sitting in my inbox since two New Years ago. It came from Justin, who's probably given up looking for answers to his questions on my blog:
what are Americans meaning when they say "Happy New Year's"? (I'm guessing at the apostrophe.) Is this "Happy New Year's Day" or is there something more interesting going on here?
First, we have to note that Happy New Year is a common expression in AmE--the possessive variation is not the only AmE version. Happy New Year's --with or without an apostrophe-- gets 9.7m Google hits, as opposed to 90.7 for Happy New Year. Of those with the 's, 97,000 are Happy New Year's Day, 678,000 are Happy New Year's Eve. My intuition is that Happy New Year's can be used to mean either of these--or both simultaneously. In other words, we might be using it in order to be vague about which bit of the holiday we're wishing you well for, since it spans two days--or, at least, an evening and a day. Of course, the version without the 's seems to wish people well for the year to follow, not just the holiday itself.

Thanks for coming back to read after my month-plus holiday from blogging. It seems perverse to call it a holiday since it was full of hard labo(u)r--a different kind from last year's. (Not that I went through a hard labo(u)r last year...but this time I was absent for the birth of a book, rather than a baby.) My schedule continues to be relentless, with deadlines smacking me in the face (I wish that they'd whoosh by me like they did for Douglas Adams, but mine are set on a collision course) and a one-year-old whose remaining moments of babydom I am savo(u)ring. So, I'll continue to aim, as I did last year, for a post a week (I may fail) and ask for your patience in waiting for me to respond to your e-mails. Happy New Year!


  1. Happy new year to you, too! (Does the stress change in your internal ear when the words are not capitalized?) My feed reader has been patiently waiting for you to reappear.

  2. I hear the verbal "Newyear's" much more, and more lately. As in "Have you got Newyears off?" from co-workers (nurses.)

    It's always sounded funny to me, but I use it now because it's understood more clearly to mean New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

  3. I don't think there is US-UK difference in stress; I think the difference is that the expression "New Year's" is more common in America.

    "New Year's" is specific to the Dec-31/Jan-1 festivities, what Scots call "Hogmanay" and Continentals call "Saint Silvester". It's a useful expression that is catching on outside the US. But while I say things like "What are you doing for New Year's?" I would never say "Happy New Year's", expressing good wishes only for the short holiday; I say "Happy New Year", expressing good wishes for the entire calendar year.

    The stress is on "New" in "New Year's", I guess because in "New Year's Day" and "New Year's Eve" the primary stress is on the last word and the secondary stress on "New", with "Year's" unstressed. By contrast, in "New Year", the primary stress is on "Year" but there is secondary stress on "New"; this applies to "Happy New Year", "in the New Year", etc.

  4. Happy New Year to you too, Lynne!

    Thanks (also to Herr Dr Phonologist) for the pointer to the Siegen project on English compound stress. I'll be very interested in its work and outputs, because its questions are also ones I have, as a Brit who spent 2003-8 living in America. I have to disagree with mollymooly when she says she doesn't think there is a difference in the stressing of this type of compound between AmE and BrE: the difference was one of the first non-vowel things I noticed about American ways of speaking, when I arrived there. It seems to me that, in Adj+Noun phrases like these, Brits stress the noun (the head of the phrase - the most important part), while Americans put at least equal stress on the preceding adjective (I haven't measured it, but maybe they even stress the adjective more than they do the noun). So I would say '(Happy) New YEAR' and 'Philadelphia AIRport', and I used to live in a place I called 'International HOUSE'; but Americans say 'NEW Year('s)' (not sure about when 'Happy' is before it) and 'PhilaDELphia Airport', and they called the place I lived in 'InterNAtional House'. A phonologist I asked about this at the time speculated that maybe Brits treated such phrases as single Noun Phrases (Adj+Noun = 1 phrase), and so those phrases only received one stress, whereas Americans were treating them as in some sense two separate phrases, so that they could receive two separate stresses.

    An added wrinkle is that Americans can put 'the' in front of the last two places I mentioned, so they can say, 'My 'plane leaves from the Philadelphia Airport', 'I live at the International House'. I can only put the 'the' in if I am contrasting the airport/house in question with some other one, and maybe not even then: so I could only use 'the' in sentences like 'My 'plane leaves from the Philadelphia airport, but yours is from the New York one'; 'I live in the international house, but where you live is decidedly parochial.'.

    When I put the 'the' in, it feels like I am treating 'airport' and 'house' in these sentences as common nouns, not as names; for me, if they are the names of places (which they are - even Americans would agree!) they are unique, and therefore don't need 'the' in front of them, as that implies a coming comparison with some other example of the same noun.

    I also don't necessarily agree with at least one of the examples in the Siegen abstract: it seems to me that, while I would certainly say 'apricot CRUMble', not all Americans would; wouldn't at least some say 'APricot crumble'? I'll leave Lynne and the Americans commenting here to judge it!

    This has become too long now. But, as the same problem had occurred to me, I wanted to chuck it into the debate here!

  5. nbm--it's always funny for me to see you commenting, as you have my mother's initials! I always have to think 'could she have become this internet-savvy?' then I think, 'nooooo.'

    Damien, I think the apricot crumble example is too complicated for comparison since (a) AmE and BrE pronounce apricot differently, (b) many (most?) Americans call this dessert crisp instead of crumble, (c) I've never heard of one made from apricots!

    But I think I'd say APple CRUMble or APple CRISP, with fairly even stress on the (stressed bits of the) two words. But I'm a bad judge, since I've had most of the crumble in my life in the UK!

  6. Apricot crumble is delicious. Not that I've ever made one, but I think you may have to avoid cooking the apricots for too long before the crumble goes on them, or they could get very sharp-tasting. (Cooking time also undoubtedly affects apricot consistency, but that's more a matter of personal taste...)

    When I was writing that post, I tried to think of other examples of the 'apricot crumble' type which I had actually heard in the States. I couldn't at the time, but here's one: I would say 'peanut butter SANDwich', whereas I think most Americans would say 'PEAnut butter sandwich'* - which, again, I could only say if I was contrasting it with some other type of sandwich. This does get complicated very quickly - and, the longer the words involved, the more complicated it gets - so it's difficult to reach general conclusions, but I think that what I'm trying to get at is generally true. Isn't it?

    * That is, if they didn't think something was missing and say 'peanut butter and jelly sandwich' or, even better, 'PB'n'J' instead.

  7. Golly, I’m impressed! I do find it plausible that ‘New Year’s’ has the emphasis on ‘New’ because ‘Day’ is missing, but in ‘the New Year’ I feel that ‘Year’ is the important word and thus deserves emphasis.

    The compounds that spring to the mind of this Brit: bus-stop, hairbrush, bus-driver, hair drier, have emphasis on the first word because they are constructed in the form ‘bus driver = driver of the bus’ and ‘bus’ is the important word. On the other hand, fruit PIE is an example of the reverse construction and the reverse emphasis. I suppose this is the 'semantic' reasoning mentioned by the learned phonologists. Compounds with more than two or three syllables are always going to be more complex and are not a good comparison .... oh dear, am I doing that ‘you’re all wrong’ thing?
    For what it's worth, I do get annoyed when a presenter on Radio 3 (BBC) says 'bargain HUNter'.

  8. No, biochemist, you're absolutely right actually! Compounds longer than the 'fruit pie' type will always be more complex, so they're not as good for comparisons of this type because there will always be complicating factors: in particular, here, the fact that English prefers a more-or-less even pattern of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables, so any sequence where that alternation can't be guaranteed is going to cause complications of some type.

    I think your analysis of the compounds you mention, and why they are stressed the way they are stressed (in BrE), is absolutely correct. And 'fruit pie' is a better example of what I was trying to talk about than my 'peanut butter sandwich' was, exactly because of the length of 'peanut butter sandwich'. I think I am right in saying that both most Americans and most Brits would say 'BUS-stop', 'BUS-driver', 'HAIRbrush', 'HAIR-dryer', but there is a difference in 'fruit pie': most Brits would say 'fruit PIE' by default, and only say 'FRUIT pie' if they were contrasting it with, say, a meat pie; but many Americans would say 'FRUIT pie' regardless of whether there was any comparison involved. Of course, generalisations are always dangerous, but I think this one holds; can Americans confirm or deny it?

    OK, I'll butt out of Lynne's blog now. I'm enjoying this discussion, though!

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  10. As an American myself, I wanted to point out that the stress variations are not uniform in American English. For example, a good friend of mine from Georgia says RED light and GREEN light (to refer to traffic lights) while I would distribute the stress evenly between the two words. I've frequently found differences between our pronunciations of compounds.

    Some of the examples given here as "American" also do not agree with my dialect. For example, I'd say:

    Philadelphia AIRport
    Peanut butter (and jelly) SANDwich

    Damien, I would say FRUIT pie, as you suspected.

    I also think that the google search method of seeing how prominent New Year's is might actually underestimate the use of this phrase. I personally say New Year's (probably because it's what I tend to hear, or maybe because I think of the possessive uses...) but would write Happy New Year or New Year's eve. I know (or think, anyways!) that the "correct" written form is New Year, but the spoken form differs. I might also alternate the use of the New YearS and New Year form, depending on the context. (This is one of those words that I've never really been sure about...)

    This is also the case with the pronunciation of lots of other things that are written differently. Indeed, almost everyone I know says "Barnes and NobleS" (for the bookstore called Barnes and Noble), either because of parallelism with the s in Barnes or because it's what they hear or because it seems like it should be a possessive (cf. New Year's).

    For what it's worth, I'm from Florida and went to (AmE) college/ (BrE) university in New Jersey, where my pronunciation and accent changed considerably...

  11. @ Josh: I said in one of my previous comments in this thread that generalisations were dangerous, so I'm not at all surprised at the exceptions that you mention, both in your own speech and in other people's.

    'Correct' is a matter of opinion, of course, as you imply by putting it in inverted commas! If people get their meaning across by saying, for example, "What are you doing for New Year's?", then that's fine. Personally I'd say "... for the New Year?" - I don't think any speaker of BrE (in varieties that I know, anyway) would say "New Year's".

    The possessive 's after names of shops, even when it's not actually there in their official name, is common. For example, the department store is officially Marks and Spencer, but only employees, that I know of, refer to it as such (my wife used to be one). For everyone else, it's "Marks and Spencer's" (if they use the full name and don't say "M 'n' S" or "Marks 'n' Sparks", which is often heard). In some coverage of the bankruptcy of the British part of Woolworth's, which happened around Christmas, I noticed that, when that company changed its store-fronts to use just the family name, they first displayed 'Woolworth', but by the Eighties they had changed to 'Woolworths' (no apostrophe, I don't think). There's even one UK chain of bars that looks like it has pre-empted what would probably have happened anyway by calling itself "Yates's Wine Lodge".

    On search methods, Google is very commonly used because it's a famous and wide-ranging search engine, but I've heard that Yahoo! is better because its counts are less variable (do Google and Yahoo! searches on some term, then repeat them the next day, and you might see what I mean).

    Sorry the last part of this response is a little OT. But it seems I can't keep away from this thread!

  12. Damien, you're still more on-topic than spam about Esperanto. Much as I like Esperanto, spam is spam and it's deleted.

  13. @Damien: But "Philadelphia Airport" isn't the name if the airport, the name is "Philadelphia International Airport". So I'm thinking those who say "the Philadelphia airport" are indeed treating it as a common noun with a decriptor, not a name. I (Amerian) wouldn't say "I'm leaving from the Philadelphia International Airport", there the "the" is grammatically wrong.

    As for "peanut butter sandwich", the strongest stress on sand, with secondary stress on the stressed sylables of the other two words.

    As for the original topic, in Biochemist's first "British" example (why the examples when the topic is stress, not wording?) I too, American, would stress year. I can't imagine any phrase or sentence with "the new year" where I would put the emphasis on new rather than year.

    Biochemist, every single example in your comment I would stress the same as you.

    On "New Year" I think American's put the stress on "new" when thinking of the day, "New Year's Day" (or New Year's Eve), or in the set phrase "Happy New Year". But when actually talking about the new year, the stress goes on year.

  14. @anon & biochemist: when you say the new year, you're using 'new year' as a phrase, rather than as a compound. New Year the compound treats the new year as a kind of event with a particular name--and it's that that's the compound and gets compound stress. So, we'd expect both groups to stress 'year' where it's a compositional (i.e. built from its parts) phrase rather than a lexical compound (i.e a term you've learn{t/ed} as a whole). In 'Happy New Year' it's most likely to be a compound--and so we'd expect to hear the difference clearly then.

  15. I've never heard the expression, "Happy New Year's"...always it's been "Happy New Year" with the words stressed evenly. Actually, I've never really thought about it this much.

  16. I think Damien's onto something with his fruit pie.

    As a Brit, I'd stress APRICOT crumble if I wanted to distinguish it from APPLE crumble or RHUBARB crumble, and apricot CRUMBLE if I didn't want apricot PIE.

    I'd stress BLACKboard to show I didn't mean a WHITEboard, WATCHmaker because there are lots of different makers of things and PENNY Lane because other Lane's are available. But I might stress LANE to distinguish it from Penny ROAD.

    Context is everything, of course, but most stress is born out of a need to make a distinction.

    So, I'll wish you Happy New YEAR - even if I'm not sure why!



  17. @ Anonymous: The fact that the main airport of Philadelphia isn't actually called 'Philadelphia Airport', as you point out, makes it a bad example for me to have used. But I don't agree that you can deduce from that, that those who say 'the Philadelphia airport' are using a common noun with a descriptor attached.

    That would be a possibility if this example was the only such example that existed; but the fact is, I think, that AmE at least can put stress on the descriptive element of phrases like this in many more examples than BrE can. Previous comments in this thread have shown, as I suspected, that stress on the descriptor in phrases like 'New Year', 'Philadelphia Airport' etc isn't universal in AmE, since there are speakers of AmE who stress 'New YEAR', 'Philadelphia AIRport', just as BrE does. But there are also examples where the 'common noun plus descriptor' analysis isn't possible, and yet AmE can still put the stress on the adjective, even if there is no comparison implied (this is where it differs from BrE: BrE needs a comparison, explicit or implied, in order to stress the descriptive element). These are examples like 'InterNAtional House' (where no other house was being compared to), 'FRUIT pie' (where no other pie was being compared to). At least one speaker of AmE further up this thread has agreed that he would (by default?) stress 'fruit' in 'fruit pie', but this stress-pattern isn't a default that any speaker of BrE could use as far as I am aware.

    My 'International House' example here is exactly analogous to your 'Philadelphia International Airport' example: the Americans I know who would say 'I live at the International House' are putting 'the' in front of the name of the place are doing the same as people would be doing if they said "I'm leaving from the Philadelphia International Airport". As you say, it is not likely that people would say "I'm leaving from the Philadelphia International Airport", but I don't think the reason why it's unlikely is because of ungrammaticality (if that were the reason, no-one would say 'I live at the International House', but they do). Rather, I think that people don't say "I'm leaving from the Philadelphia International Airport" because most people don't call it that; they just call it 'Philadelphia Airport'.

    This fact is in defiance of the fact that there's actually another airport in Philadelphia, Northeast Philadelphia Airport (PNE). So saying 'the Philadelphia {a/A}irport' should be inefficient because it doesn't make clear which Philadelphia airport. But, unsurprisingly, that doesn't seem to matter!

  18. The official name of the arena in Denver where the Nuggets (basketball) and Avalanche (ice hockey) teams play is officially "Pepsi Center". Nearly everybody calls it "the Pepsi Center", which would seem to be support for Damien's point.

    OTOH, the biggest public university in Ohio calls itself (quite obtrusively) "The Ohio State University", but nearly everybody not a student there choose not to use the "the".

    I don't know whether there's really a systematic difference between AmE and BrE in willingness to use the definite article. FWIW, I recall a rather lengthy Language Log article (or series of articles) on the use of definite articles in proper nouns, but can't find it on a cursory search.

  19. I can think of two more examples of compound stress which are curiously contradictory (at least in the UK):

    street vs every other thoroughfare
    ('DOWNING Street', 'CORONATION Street', 'Portobello ROAD', 'Shaftesbury AVENUE', 'Trafalgar SQUARE')

    juice vs squash
    ('ORANGE juice', 'APPLE juice', 'orange SQUASH', 'blackcurrant SQUASH')

  20. @Damien

    I could have used as an example my own local airport, where I know what people do and don't say. I do grant the possibility that people think differently in Philadelphia. But, in that case, you aren't talking about what Americans do, but what Philadephians do. I can tell you that what I said is true in the part of the country I'm from. And if someone here said "the CITY airport" I'd take it to mean "the airport in CITY.

    (the same anonymous)


  21. street vs every other thoroughfare
    ('DOWNING Street', 'CORONATION Street', 'Portobello ROAD', 'Shaftesbury AVENUE', 'Trafalgar SQUARE')

    I think this is also true of U.S. English, which strikes me as more noteworthy. In the U.S., it is rarely the case that two streetnames in the same town will have the same attribute and different types, as "Elm Street" vs "Elm Lane". (The obvious exception is numbered grids, as Fifth Ave vs 5th Street in Manhattan.) Because the attributes are unique, the type is often omitted altogether in speech -- "I'm on Elm" rather than "I'm on Elm Lane". And yet, if "Lane" is uttered, it is stressed as in British, in spite of being omissable and redundant.

  22. Stress in compound nouns is an issue that has interested me and appeared in my blog on several occasions. I found Ingo Plag's research enlightening, and discussed it in the first linked post.

  23. I've just come from listening to NPR (National Public Radio) on which a British reporter, didn't catch his name, was interviewing Pakistani people about what they expect from Barack Obama. BARack Obama, he said, repeatedly. With a hard first A and stress on the first syllable, instead of BaRACK with a soft first (and second) A and stress on the second syllable. Why oh why?

  24. Also, the second A was the A of British pasta as opposed to the a of American pasta British A like apple, American A like vowel sound in rock.

  25. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE let's not get into the pasta discussion again here!

  26. Sorry, I was taking that for granted, as already discussed. I don't know how to indicate the right sounds. A as in apple instead of A as in the vowel sound of rock then. Sorry.

  27. I have found that many differences between British and American pronunciation and usage can be traced through German, which doesn't come as much of a surprise as German people and language have been a major influence on the language in the US. The use of articles is far more common in German than English, for instance (German would never permit using the equivalent of "in hospital", it would have to be "in THE hospital" as common in AmE), as is leaving out "on" in phrases like BrE "I'll do it on Tuesday". And German compound nouns are typically expressed as single words, including "Neujahr".

    I'm not saying this is THE explanation, far from it, but I think the strong influence of German on AmE could well be a factor both here and in many AmE/BrE differences.

  28. Back to stress in compound nouns - we are all familiar with a toothbrush or TOOTHbrush, I believe. Could there be a parallel TOOTHcomb?! British newspaper columnists collectively had a funny turn a few years ago, writing about a 'fine TOOTH-comb' - they all seemed to make the same mistake, ignoring the original phrase 'fine-toothed COMB' used for a detailed search (both figuratively and for nits in hair). For several months we had to read this nonsensical usage in the papers and hear it on TV and radio - then it just disappeared, to be replaced by another fad....

  29. I looked for it on the site and haven't found it anywhere, so from one Yank...

    What is Orange or Blackcurrant Squash?

    My assumption is some sort of juice, perhaps one with more "pulp" in it?

  30. But apparently you didn't see the comments policy, where it asks you not to put new, unrelated queries in the comments, but to email them to me instead!

  31. Squash is a sugary, concentrated fruit drink which you dilute yourself with lots of water. A staple of most childhoods (mine anyway)!

  32. dealing with condescension about your language on a regular basis.

    People have a problem with Canadian?!

  33. Philly English, like Boston and (to a lesser degree) New York English, has some uses of the that aren't found in most American varieties. I can easily hear my (deceased) aunt saying "the Philadelphia airport". I suppose this is Irish influence, where extra definite articles are a way of life.

  34. It really bothers me when I hear people say "New Year's." It doesn't meaning anything in particular, and that's what's annoying about it. It's a simple colloquialism. I'm sure it comes from "New Year's Day," but when people actually say "New Year's" that is not what they are thinking. It's just slang. There are actually quite a few terms where the 's is totally unnecessary and the speaker doesn't really consider why it's there. For example, people where I live always refer to the store Aldi as "Aldi's," as if that is what it's meant to be called. When I say "Aldi" to people, they sometimes don't realize that I'm talking about the same thing they call "Aldi's." It is incredibly annoying.

  35. This is wonderful stuff, and I am digesting it with the hope of writing a sentence (in an article I'm still planning) that does not betray me as totally ignorant of how the language is used in Britain. A supplementary question for somebody, though, deals with the preposition at, in the phrase "at the New Year". I am inferring that it's more likely to mean "on or about January 1" rather than "in the course of next year", but some evidence stronger than my own inference would be welcome.

  36. Yes, the 'at' would be for the turning-of-the-year, not the whole year. Like 'at Christmas' or 'at Easter', a specific time.

    Similarly, BrE likes 'at the weekend' better than AmE does.

  37. Chris redmond, I (american) would say on christmas day/new years eve/day, or I would say at christmas time if not the actual day.

    I am guessing british say at christmas the same way they say at the weekend, while americans would say on the weekend.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)