Posted by Neal on December 21, 2007
Potential conflicts for recently married couples, as they determine how Christmas will be celebrated in their new household:
Gifts: Do you open some on Christmas Eve, or do you save them all for Christmas Day?
Christmas Eve: Do you go to a midnight service, or an afternoon one? (Or neither?)
The word candy cane: Do you pronounce it with the stress on candy, or on cane?
My wife and I still have not reached a reconciliation on the last item. My pronunciation: candy cane, with stress on the first word. It’s the same stress pattern you get with compound nouns like Christmas tree and Nativity scene. Her pronunciation: candy cane, with stress on the second word, like what you’d do with pumpkin pie or Christmas Day. I just can’t get used to the stress being on cane, so when she says candy cane, I keep wanting to interpret it as contrastive stress instead of ordinary stress. For example, if she says, “I got some candy canes for the boys’ stockings,” I get the weird feeling that, even though I’ve been there for the whole conversation, I somehow walked in on the middle of a sentence, one that must have started like, “I didn’t get candy corn, candy apples, or candy cigarettes for the boys’ stockings –”.
So why would there be a difference in where people put the stress accent on candy cane, anyway? I finally decided to find out. Ingo Plag and his team have done quite a bit of research on stress placement in English noun-noun compounds, including a very clearly written paper here. Here’s what I found out from this paper:
Conventional wisdom is that compounds in English as a rule have stress on the first element (the “Compound Stress Rule”; see also this post by Heidi Harley). Some go so far as to say this rule is without exception, and thus that compounds with the second element stressed are actually not compounds at all, but 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 one is a compound and the other a phrase strikes me as being stubborn, and even a use of circular argumentation. (“We know it’s not a compound because it’s stressed on the right. Why is it stressed on the right? Because it’s not a compound.”)
After acoustic analysis of American English speakers pronouncing newly created compounds, Plag finds that the Compound Stress Rule is exceptionless, provided we’re talking about argument-head compounds. These are compounds such as bartender, in which the head noun (tender) is derived from a verb, and the other noun (bar) is what would have been that verb’s direct object (which is one kind of what syntacticians call a verbal argument; others include subject and indirect object). Every compound like this is stressed on the left. (Or is it? It occurs to me that self-portrait could make some trouble.)
Candy cane, however, is not an argument-head compound. Instead, it’s a modifier-head compound. The head noun is cane, and candy modifies it by describing what kind of cane it is (i.e. one made of candy). For modifier-head compounds, there is much more variability in stress assignment. This can be seen in the four examples I gave up above:, which are all modifier-head compounds: Christmas tree, Nativity scene, pumpkin pie, Christmas Day.
Some have tried to classify modifier-head compounds into groups according to semantic relations, and say that it’s just a fact that compounds with these particular semantic relations are right-stressed: the made-of relation (pumpkin pie), the temporal relation (Christmas day), and others. And what of the modifier-head compounds that fall into one of these classes and end up being left-stressed anyway, like the temporal-relationship compound summer school? Well, if you’re excluding right-stressed structures from your definition of compound, then you can say that an exception like summer school was once a phrase, but through sheer frequency and familiarity, has become a compound and had its stress shifted accordingly. If you don’t exclude right-stressed structures, then you don’t have that explanation available to you.
In any case, Plag demolishes this argument. All the compounds he has his subjects say are fresh, new, and never heard before, which would mean all the modifier-head compounds in the experiment should be right-stressed. Despite this prediction, subjects pronounced some of the novel modifier-head compounds with stress on the left side. Furthermore, even in already-existing modifier-head compounds, being left-stressed does not correlate with how frequently the compound appears in corpora.
So what does determine whether a modifier-head compound like candy cane is left-stressed or right-stressed? Plag concludes that in addition to the kind of semantic relation denoted by the compound, analogy is at work: If it so happens that there are existing modifier-head compounds with the same head as a novel one, the novel one will be stressed in the same way as the existing ones. For example, if you want to talk about a present you give on the occasion of someone’s brush with death, you’re not going to call it a brush-with-death present when you already have in your lexicon compounds like Christmas present, birthday present, and going away present.
So where does that leave me with the strangely stressed candy cane? First of all, this stress pattern is less surprising on a modifier-head compound like this one than it would be on an argument-head compound. Second, the made-of relation is known to favor right-stress, as in pumpkin pie and (moving beyond foods) cotton shirt. But in that case, why would one speaker (my wife) have the right-stressed candy cane while another (me) has the left-stressed candy cane? Plag doesn’t answer this question; as he admits, this study is only the beginning of the story, and “semantics and analogy interact in complex ways.” Perhaps further progress is made in later works on Plag’s webpage, but I haven’t read them yet.
[Update] We had some extended family over for some early gift-giving today, and I discovered that my wife’s sister pronounces candy cane not like my wife does, but like I do! They grew up in the same household; I wonder what happened?
This entry was posted on December 21, 2007 at 12:57 am and is filed under Christmas-related, Compound words, Stress and focus, Variation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.