Knowing One’s Place
Posted by Neal on February 27, 2006
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:
- 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.)
- 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
- “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.