Writings > Lexical Leavings


A correspondent (Mark Spahn) writes:
The distinction between "English teacher," meaning a teacher of the English language, and "English teacher," meaning a teacher from England, is made clear by accentuation. The first has the same stress pattern as "blackbird," while the latter has the same stress pattern as "black bird." The stress patterns might be distinguished in the written language by spelling the first as "Englishteacher" and the latter as "English teacher," but there is no such spelling convention.

(July 17, 2003)

Consider the intonation of the following two sentences:
  1. Joseph Smith was murdered in Illinois by a mob of Mormon haters in 1844.
  2. Mordechai Goldbaum was murdered in Munich by a mob of Nazi haters in 1934.
The first sentence comes from page 6 of the recent book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer.  The second sentence is made up on the pattern of the first sentence.

From what we know about history, "Mormon haters" would have to have an accentuation similar to "blackbird," to convey its meaning of "people who hate Mormons." By contrast, "Nazi haters" would have to be given an accentuation resembling "black bird," to convey its meaning of "Nazis who hate (Jews)."

Perhaps a better example of the second sentence might be
The Mountain Meadows massacre was perpetrated by Mormon haters.
where "Mormon haters" is given a "black bird" stress in order to convey its meaning of "Mormons who hate (Gentile intruders who pass through southern Utah on their way to California)."

This all is similar to the ambiguity of the written phrase "English teacher." When spoken, this phrase is either pronounced like "blackbird" to convey the meaning "one who teaches English," or like "black bird" to convey the meaning "a teacher who is English."

Someone somewhere has probably written a technical paper inferring all the rules about how contrasting accentuation disambiguates meaning.

(April 23, 2004)