Thoughts on Syllable Stress 

As I listened to the audio that accompanied the exhibit on the works of the American artist, Joan Mitchell, and Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO),  here in my home town of Toronto, Canada, a few months  ago, I remember being struck by the fact that the narrator (clearly francophone) not infrequently stressed the wrong syllable. Yet his delivery, especially the “word stress,” was so clear that I, as a coach of accent management, found it very engaging. Incorrect syllable stress can throw us, but when we’re continually brought back to the important ideas in a sentence, we still pay attention.

Even native English speakers are using incorrect syllable stress on radio … on podcasts. For example, I was listening to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) interview where the host of the weekly radio show kept saying “diasPOra” although his guest used the correct syllable stress, “diAspora,” several times. It made me uncomfortable, but I knew they were both talking about the same thing. In the last few weeks, I’ve listened to a podcast featuring a discussion among lawyers (very well educated) where one of the panelists (American born – no ESL issues) said “impliCAted” instead of “IMplicated.”

And of course, whenever we listen to the British, we often hear syllable stress that’s different from our own: “BROchure” instead of “broCHURE,”, “GArage” instead of “gaRAGE,” “DEEtail” instead of the American “deTAIL”. And let’s face it – when we listen to English songs, how often have songwriters put the stress on the wrong syllable just to make words rhyme?

And by the way, that word, “detail”? The Canadian Oxford Dictionary lists the American pronunciation as the correct Canadian pronunciation. Well I’ve never used the American pronunciation. No one has ever corrected me. No one has ever misunderstood me. So how rigid should we be about syllable stress? How flexible should we be in accepting that there can be a variety of pronunciations?

I remember working with a colleague who always pronounced “SUBsequently” “subSEEquently.” Nicest guy in the world! Very intelligent and he spoke several languages. But his pronunciation of that word drove me crazy. I couldn’t stand it any longer, so finally corrected him. He immediately went to a dictionary to confirm who was right. Well, the dictionary provided the North American pronunciation, i.e. mine! I began by feeling vindicated. Then subSEEquently, I felt rather ashamed of myself.

Why was I such a snob? Everyone understood what he was saying. What difference did it make? I wonder if the choice is ultimately the client’s/student’s. We can point out the accepted pronunciation in our country or our particular region, then allow the learner to decide which they prefer. If, in the course of their interaction with someone, the listener looks puzzled, the speaker understands why and can correct it, if necessary.

We can point out the more common generic pronunciation of the word, but not insist on its use. I’m not saying we shouldn’t identify and teach accepted pronunciation in our particular location, I’m just saying that “it’s not a big deal.” We can teach awareness without insisting on conformity. What we should focus on is the sounds that interfere with intelligibility and the rhythms that interfere with our understanding of intention.  I think there’s a balance between what’s important for comprehension and developing aural tolerance.

Food for thought. If you have any thoughts on the matter, I’d love to hear from you.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Syllable Stress 

  1. I’m also a bit of a stickler about trying to use proper pronunciation, spelling and general usage of language, ESPECIALLY if that information is readily available to the user, which is more and more often the case in the age of the Internet and smartphone technology, but we all slip up eventually.

    I’ve tried to tame my hyperactive inner editor through the years, because it also bothers me (and surely others) that I feel compelled to correct someone, even though everyone participating in the conversation knows full well what the person intended to express.

    And I’ve been pretty successful in curbing that habit. If someone mispronounces something, I don’t need to overtly and purposefully correct them, but it’s perfectly fine for me subsequently in the conversation to use the correct pronunciation/usage.

    What really bugs me, though—even worse than being corrected when I’M in the wrong—is being “corrected” on a word by someone who’s actually been mispronouncing it, especially after I’ve so politely refrained from correcting their mispronunciation and simply chosen to use the correct pronunciation.

    I’m often vexed by just these sorts interactions when using borrowed words or phrases from other languages, particularly in towns like St. Louis or New Orleans with a strong French connection. A perfect example would be whenever I’m “corrected” when I pronounce the “s” in “fleur-de-lis” rather than elide or omit it. Of course, not wanting to sound like a belligerent ass, naturally, I would never insist someone else SHOULD pronounce the “s”; while it IS the technically correct pronunciation, there are some French speakers in various regions of North America (and even a few pockets of France, IIRC).

    Ugh, or when people get elision- and hyperforeignism-crazy and elide the “s” sound in “coup de grace,” which is much more clearly black-and-white; “grace” is most assuredly never pronounced “grah” by a genuine francophone, I don’t care what region they’re from.

    Down here in the States, it’s getting absurdly out of hand how hung up people get on perceived slights by others because of which words or phrases they use, such as gender-neutral professional titles like “actor” being used universally vs. the pointedly gender-specific (though not technically incorrect) “actress,” or correcting a salesperson’s casual “Happy holidays” with an angry “You mean, ‘Merry Christmas!’” (Of course, the inverse of both situations would be equally rude.) And, in their mind, NOT making it a point to correct their “offender” would be equal to having their rights infringed upon. Really? Receiving happy holiday tidings, or hearing someone say “officer” rather than “policeman” or “server” rather than “waitress” is such a threat to your values?

    My perspective is: whoever HAS to make it a point to correct or point out and kvetch about how or which words are used—regardless of which side of whatever disagreement they’re doing it from—is the asshole. And knowing that, it would seem that just trying not to be that asshole would a pretty decent policy for everyone to have.

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    1. It is difficult isn’t it, when we’re challenged on what we know to be correct, and as someone who speaks French fluently, you’re quite right about fleur de lis and coup de grâce, and what people have decided must be correct even when it’s wrong. I’m trying to find the inner strength to just “let it go” and smile inwardly rather than argue, while at the same time continuing to say what I know to be correct. The other party usually ends up resentful but silent. I remember using the term “actor” to refer to an “actress,” sometime ago, and the actress with whom I was speaking replied, rather haughtily I thought, using the word “actress.” Okay. As far as disagreements about what’s correct and not correct language, there seems to be a lot of anger out there these days. Well, there seems to be a lot of anger about many things. I totally agree with you that we should all be doing our best to be polite and to treat each other with respect. Thank you for your thoughts.

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