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The dictionaries list both possibilities to stress nineteen (or any other -teen, for that matter): ,nine-teen and nine-'teen.

Are the two pronunciations completely interchangeable, a matter of dialect, or a matter of meaning? I am asking because I've never heard nineteen stressed on the first syllable in sentences like:

I am nineteen years old.

He had only nineteen dollars.

And I have never heard nineteen stressed on the second syllable in dates:

He was born in nineteen sixty-four.

Is it acceptable (where, when?) to stress the first syllable in the first set of examples, and is it acceptable(where, when?) to stress the second syllable in the last example?

P.S. Surprisingly there's no tag. Am I using the wrong linguistic term?

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I'm in Texas and observe these same unwritten rules for the stress. That would seem to eliminate dialect. –  zpletan Apr 25 '12 at 16:53
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Why do you think either syllable needs "stress"? Usually neither are particularly stressed. In some contexts you might emphasise -teen to distinguish it from ninety. Equally, Martin Luther King might have stressed nine- if he'd said "The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in eighteen sixty-three, but in nineteen sixty-three we're still waiting for it to deliver". –  FumbleFingers Apr 25 '12 at 17:11
    
"I was dreaming when I wrote this; forgive me if it goes astray..." –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Apr 25 '12 at 18:07
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This is actually a pretty interesting question, because the stress does matter, in that if someone does it wrong, you notice and/or get the meaning wrong. I think the best thing you can do is corner a native speaker with a whole bunch of different example sentences in hand and try to get them to say each one naturally. –  tchrist Apr 25 '12 at 18:15
    
I remember reading that these words are stressed differently in Australia and in the U.S., leading to confusion between nineteen and ninety. –  Peter Shor Feb 8 '13 at 14:21
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5 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

All the number words for 13–19 are normally stressed on the first syllable (or none at all), but can be stressed on the second syllable for emphasis or contrast. It really depends on the sentence.

  • I’ve got twelve. You’ve got thirˈteen. He’s got ˈfifteen.
  • He’ll turn eighˈteen on his next birthday.
  • I’ll shoot ˈeighteen holes today, not just ˈthirteen like last week.

If you were counting out a sequence, you would never stress the -teen portion:

  • ˈseven, ˈeight, ˈnine, ˈten, eˈleven, ˈtwelve, ˈthirteen, ˈfourteen, ˈfifteen, ˈsixteen, ˈseventeen, ˈeighteen, ˈnineteen, ˈtwenty, twenty-ˈone, twenty-ˈtwo, ...
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John Wells, formerly of University College London, highlights the phenomenon of variable stress:

There are plenty of words in English that seem to change their stress depending on the phonetic context. Typical examples are afternoon, unknown, sixteen. We say the 'late after'noon but an 'afternoon 'nap, 'quite un'known but an 'unknown as'sailant, 'just six'teen but 'sixteen 'people. The usual explanation of this is that the words in question are lexically double-stressed. Dictionaries show them with a secondary stress on the early syllable, a primary stress on the later one, thus for example /ˌɑːftəˈnuːn/ or àfternóon. I think that really the two stresses are of equal lexical status. The supposed difference between secondary and primary merely reflects the fact that when we say one of these words aloud, in isolation, the intonation nucleus necessarily goes on the last lexical stress, making it more prominent than the first.

I find his explanation fairly convincing. We generally don't quite like two stressed syllables together, and the stress shift in some of these words like nineteen certainly allows us to achieve this.

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Wikipedia says (s.v. "nineteen),

In English speech, the numbers 19 and 90 are often confused, as sounding very similar. When carefully enunciated, they differ in which syllable is stressed: 19 /naɪnˈtiːn/ vs 90 /ˈnaɪnti/. However, in dates such as 1999, and when contrasting numbers in the teens and when counting, such as 17, 18, 19, the stress shifts to the first syllable: 19 /ˈnaɪntiːn/.

However, it provides no reference for this fact. The fact that you in Armenia and I in Texas notice the same thing would seem to eliminate both dialectal causes and probably interchangeable pronunciations. The differing pronunciations don't change the meaning at all, so that can't be it either. I therefore conclude that Wikipedia is correct that this is a rule not written in dictionaries, but only because this is the most viable option I can see.

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+1, Thank you for your answer, but English is not spoken in Armenia. So when I say "I have heard", I mean on English-language TV, radio, etc. –  Armen Ծիրունյան Apr 25 '12 at 17:14
    
Oh, I see. English media, American media, or both? If it is both (or English media), then I think my statements hold. Otherwise, I'd be less sure of myself. –  zpletan Apr 25 '12 at 17:37
    
Mostly American, sometimes British. I never argued with your statement, just with the reasons you seemed to have arrived at it for. –  Armen Ծիրունյան Apr 25 '12 at 17:39
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You didn't argue (at this point, it's me arguing with myself, not you with me), but if your data points and my data points are both from American English, then my reasoning has a bit of a hole. –  zpletan Apr 25 '12 at 17:47
    
OK: It's the same in British English. Nineteen can stressed on the first syllable in order to emphasise a difference (eg from eighteen), but is stressed on the second syllable in [I think!] every other case. –  Andrew Leach Apr 25 '12 at 17:56
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In mid-western American english, the two syllables in nine-teen tend to have the same stress.

But, one could put more stress on the teen if you are talking about someone's age and want to emphasize that they are still a teenager.

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First-syllable stress is heard when someone is counting:

... sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty.

But then stress switches to the last syllable:

twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, ...

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