Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Knowing One’s Place

Posted by Neal on February 27, 2006

Fellow OSU grad Liz Strand had a question that she posed to the OSU Linguistic Department’s Phonies a few months ago. She wrote:

I have a question that I was hoping to get your expert Phonies input on. We listen to a lot of calls at [my workplace] and transcribe a good share of the utterances that come into our telephone-based applications…. [C]all-listening helps us diagnose design and performance issues, and transcriptions are used to tune application behavior and enhance our recognition performance.

We listen to tons of addresses, and someone recently noted an interesting pattern of stress on the street name segment of addresses, but none of us is sure how to explain it:

  1. when the word “Street” is part of the street name, it’s UNSTRESSED in relation to the descriptive portion of the street name (controlling for the influence of contrastive stress, etc.)
  2. when the structurally-similar (single closed syllable) “Court” or “Road” or “Lane” are part of the street name, they’re STRESSED in relation to the descriptive portion of the street name

e.g.:

  • “I live at 469 ELM Street.”
  • “I live at 469 Elm COURT.”
  • “I live at 469 Elm ROAD.”
  • “I live at 469 Elm LANE.”

The pattern of word-level stress seems to hold for longer descriptive names (“Market,” “Mississippi,” etc.) and street types (“Avenue,” “Boulevard,” “Expressway,” etc.), as well.

Any inklings as to what’s going on here?

One respondent suggested that this happened because in a phrase such as Elm Street, street is the less informative word–street is the default name suffix for a street, and naturally receives less stress than the word that carries more information, Elm.

This explanation sounds reasonable enough, but I have two problems with it. First, I’d say road and street are close to synonymy as terms denoting paths for vehicles to travel on. Granted, they’re not entirely synonymous: for me, street implies paving, whereas a road could be paved or of dirt. And I hardly ever hear about country streets. Even so, in a city, I could use either term to refer to any given paved pathway for vehicles. So I’d predict that both Elm Street and Elm Road would be stressed on Elm, but instead we get the contrast that Liz mentions.

The second problem is one I noticed in the mid-90s, during the heyday of a popular evening soap opera. On the radio they’d play ads for the latest steamy episode, introducing it with, “Tonight, on Melrose PLACE…” Every time they’d say it, I’d shake my head and silently ask myself, “What is with you people? Why do you keep saying Melrose PLACE instead of MELROSE Place?” I brought it up in Arnold Zwicky‘s morphology class when we talked about compound words, and was surprised to find Arnold and everyone else claiming that they accented place the same as court, avenue, road, or lane. But when I played Monopoly as a kid, I don’t remember anyone ever putting a hotel on Park PLACE. And it so happens that I live on a street with place for its suffix, and my wife and neighbors always deaccent it, just as we do for street.

So at least for speakers of my street-naming dialect, the answer to Liz’s question isn’t so simple. I think it would be neat if there were an explanation more interesting than just saying it’s an idiosyncratic fact about the word street (and for some people, place) that it is deaccented as part of a street name, while all other streetname suffixes (with the possible exception of place) are accented. But I don’t know of such an explanation. If any of you out there do, I’d be interested in hearing it, as would Liz and her colleagues.

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5 Responses to “Knowing One’s Place

  1. AJD said

    Eh? In Monopoly it’s definitely Park PLACE. On the other hand, I always said “St. JAMES Place”.

  2. irina said

    Aren’t these incongruencies intriguing… Our associative power of observation makes us wonder why this rule doesn’t apply in all situations. I had never noticed that stress difference (I am not a native speaker), but it has reminded me that this is probably one of the things I most like about language…

  3. I figure that ‘street’ is the most typical ending, so people stress any other ending to emphasize that it’s *not* ‘street’. This doesn’t fully explain your (Neal’s) dialect with regard to ‘place’, but apparently it works for others’. For me (Neal’s brother), ‘place’ sounds fine stressed or unstressed.

    Also, I can think of some cases where the suffix gets equal stress. Specifically, in Washington, D.C., most people say “Mass Ave” with equal emphasis on both words. But when they say “Massachusetts Avenue,” I detect slightly more stress on ‘Avenue’.

  4. ACW said

    In the sixty seconds that I have devoted to introspection, I have convinced myself that the street-type descriptor must be stressed with the lone exception of street. This feels like a special case of the more general phenomenon of stressing the head: after all, Elm Avenue isn’t an elm, it’s an avenue. We also stress the head in “New York City”, “Boston Garden”, and “Lincoln Center”, though somehow “Fleet Center” gets anomalous left-stress. It reminds me of the famous case “white house” (head stress) versus “White House” (left stress). The conventional wisdom is that this left stressing can only happen in phrases that are more or less lexicalized.

    My son plays the card game “Magic: The Gathering”, and deals with a set of thousands of named cards. Apparently among his crowd of Magic players, the custom is to left-stress the names of cards, with often weird results. A (hypothetical) card called “Thing of Beauty” would be pronounced “THING-of-beauty”. They also do this to acronyms like PTQ (Pro Tour Qualifier, a class of tournament), which they pronounce “PEE-tee-kyoo”.

  5. […] true syntactic phrases. The problem with taking that line is that there are minimal pairs such as Elm Street and Elm Avenue that have different stress patterns even though their meaning is almost identical, and to say that […]

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