The Politics of Stress

[In the final week’s runup to the US presidential elections, I publish two posts on language related to this event. This is the first of them.]

The Politics of Stress

The prosody of Present-Day English is dominated by stress. This means that certain syllables in a word are given greater or lesser degrees of emphasis. A stressed syllable is usually louder than an unstressed one and may also differ in pitch.

Words of two syllables in English are usually stressed on the first (DUM-di), as in ‘MOther’ and ‘LANGuage’. Sometimes, however, the stress falls on the last syllable. This can be used, in some instances, to distinguish nouns from verbs. Note, for example, how the difference in stress in the word pairs ‘REbel’ : ‘reBEL,’ ‘UPset’ : ‘upSET’ distinguishes the noun (the first of the pair) from the verb (the second), even though these are indistinguishable in spelling.     

The most common stress pattern for a three-syllable noun in English is DUM-di-di. In this, English follows the practice of its Germanic neighbors and forerunners.

Deviations from this norm, therefore, frequently indicate a word of foreign non-Germanic origin.

A stress on the final syllable, for example, often occurs in the names of exotic animals, such as kangaroos, or exotic dishes such as vindaloo. Likewise, a stress on the penultimate syllable marks a word or name as foreign in origin: potatoes, tomatoes, and volcanoes are not native to English soil.

Given names tend to follow the same general pattern. The stress falls on the antepenultimate syllable in traditional English or invented names, but can fall elsewhere in names of foreign origin or names on which the giver intends to confer an exotic feel. The latter, for some reason, tend to be more common among women and girls.

Thus, more traditional, anglicized or obviously Germanic girls’ names tend to be stressed on the first syllable in three-syllable names: Márgaret, Ísabel, Cátherine, Álison, Híllary, Émily, Hárriet, Stéphanie, Béthany, Mádison and so forth all obey the rule. [Stressed syllable marked artificially by an acute accent] The same applies to names of more than three syllables, such as Elízabeth and Victória. Invented names such as Pámela, Jénnifer and Jéssica, irrevocably fall into step with the usual pattern.

Names that diverge from this tend to have a deliberately foreign or classical sounding feel to them. Historically, such names have often been preferred by aristocratic elites—as Diána and Camílla both attest, but also among post-Civil Rights Movement African Americans keen to disassociate themselves from names given them by white slave owners. In recent years, this fashion has spread more widely to all sectors of society.

There is therefore good evidence to suggest that modern English has a strong preference for a stress on the antepenultimate syllable of polysyllabic words (including names) and that stress placed elsewhere is associated with loan words or foreign names.

As a corollary of this, English speakers will tend to mispronounce unfamiliar foreign words by moving the stress from penultimate to antepenultimate position, especially if the penultimate syllable is followed by a single consonant. When this ‘error’ becomes the norm, it suggests that the name, concept or word borrowed from abroad have been fully assimilated into the host language. Márgaret is fully Anglicized; there is no hint that the original French name was stressed on the last syllable Marguerite. No-one would call Margaret Thatcher, Marguerite Thatcher, unless they were making some heavy-handed point about the un-Englishness of her ways.

Speakers, may also, however, do the opposite and hypercorrect, placing the stressed syllable on the penult in foreign words even when it is incorrect to do so, in order to make them sound more foreign. This may, as in the recent case of mispronunciation of US vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s first name by Republican senators and the current US President, be done deliberately. In this case, the error clearly serves the explicitly racist purpose of making the individual seem more alien than she in fact is. In this context, such behavior is a form of linguistic exclusion or shunning.

Kamala is a name derived from the Ancient Indian language, Sanskrit. It means ‘lotus flower’. The name is stressed on the first syllable in the original Sanskrit and thus follows exactly the same stress pattern as that of the vast majority of two-syllable English words. Furthermore, in view of Ms. Harris’s status, the correct pronunciation of her first name is well known in political circles. There is, therefore, no reason other than racism to pronounce the senator’s name otherwise.