I was speaking with someone today and he brought up the TV show "South Park", and he emphasized the "Park" whereas most people (and the show itself, I believe) emphasize the word "South". This got me thinking: is putting the emphasis on the wrong word considered a form of mispronouncing a phrase? I realize that the "correct" way to say a word or phrase is pretty subjective (especially considering dialects), but I guess the question can be limited to consider different emphasis within one dialect.
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Consider the word Catholic, for example. If you put the stress on the second syllable (as it is in Catholicism), I think you will find very few people happy with your pronunciation.
So, yes — misplaced emphasis or stress can lead to significant mispronunciation.
On the other hand we have words like controversy, where the stress may come on either the first or the second syllable. An anal few like to argue for one or other pronunciation of that one — but most of us accept them both, and some even say both without particularly noticing.
So, no — not always.
If the question is "does stress crucially affect meaning in English?" then the answer is yes.
In a sentence, putting stress on various words affects the meaning:
In each English word, the stress is lexicalized. Some words have syllable-final stress:
Some words have penultimate stress:
Some have antepenultimate stress:
And so on:
Many words are crucially distinguished by the stress, such as these noun and verb forms of words:
Also, more closely related to your example, we normally have different stress patterns in how we pronounce set phrases vs. ad-hoc adjective-noun combinations.
For example, if I say "blackboard", I place primary stress on the first syllable ("black"). This will evoke the image of a slate on the wall that you write on with chalk. But if I am actually talking about a board (say, made of wood) that has been painted black, I would call it a "black board", placing primary stress on "board". Likewise, the word "South Park", as a set phrase, is generally stressed on the first syllable.
Not all common phrases take on this stress pattern, and not every one of these types of phrases have taken on the same status for everyone.
You will find that most speakers will conform to these rules almost all the time, although a word or phrase here and there might be treated differently by a given speaker or dialect region. For example, around here I hear people say the noun permit with stress on the secondary syllable — I only use that stress for the verb form.
So, these are the facts. Whether or not any deviation is considered a mispronunciation is, as you say, subjective.
Well, as the saying goes, you put the acCENT on the wrong sylLABle. That is a form of mispronunciation, but if everyone is "mispronouncing" something, then it's not really a mispronunciation. And if half of the people pronounce it one way and the other half pronounce it another way, then it's just a variant.
But, yeah, if your friend pronounces the show "South PARK" then he should be flogged. Or at least ridiculed. Or maybe just ... tolerated. Some people honestly don't hear the difference in pronunciations. The heavy Brooklyn accent, which swaps bird for "boid" but pronounces toilet as "terlet", gave rise to this misunderstanding I read about some years ago.
That's not really about emphasis, but it illustrates the point that different people pronounce words differently. Also different groups. The British say BERnard while Americans say BerNARD. Neither is wrong, it's merely a difference among groups. Except for the Indian guy I work with who says "Oh no, I do NOT like vegeTABLES." He's just wrong. I don't care if a billion people pronounce it like that, it's still wrong. (And in case you haven't sussed it out yet, I'm kidding.)
Where you put the accent in two-word phrases can really make a difference. There's an old children's joke:
The answer, of course, is:
If you listen to this joke carefully, you will realize one reason you're fooled by it is that people pronounce white house differently from White House. The way I pronounce white house, there is roughly an equal accent on both words, but White House clearly has the accent on White. The same holds true for South Park. Your friend is pronouncing it like south Park, like the southern part of Park Street, rather than South Park, where South Park is a place name.
There's also a popular science math video -- Not Knot, around 5:45 minutes in -- where the narrator mispronounces whole number the same way; he pronounces it as if whole were an adjective modifying number, rather than whole number being a mathematical term. It's quite noticeable if you're a mathematician listening to it.
I suspect it's an artefact of treating the title as a single word. In English, most words of two syllables have the emphasis on the first syllable.
Stress and intonation are a very important part of conveying meaning and can be used incorrectly.
The pronunciation of
Look at an example in Modern High German
In English, it is similar to
Following this rule
For more explanation of this concept, I believe you can refer to Steven Pinker's Words and Rules.
To address the question,
There are other rules as well that can be found in Google searches--I am not aware of them all. My idea is that it may have something to do with the heads of noun and verb phrases carrying more stress than other components of a phrase.