I heard an actor playing the role of a mathematician on TV mispronounce "Hilbert space" by putting the primary stress on "space" and the secondary stress on the first syllable of "Hilbert". That's the only time I've heard it pronounced other than with the primary stress on first syllable of "Hilbert" and the secondary stress on "space". (For those who may not know, "Hilbert space" is a concept one usually first learns as an undergraduate, unless one is not a mathematician or physicist.)

Is there a name for this phenomenon by which locating the stress in a phrase with more than one word is necessary for correct pronunciation? And a scholarly account of the matter?

(Another example: "law merchant". If this meant a merchant who sells laws (if such a thing could be imagined) the primary stress would be on "law". But "merchant" is being used here as an adjective qualifying "law" and it's pronounced (unless some people pronounce it differently?) with the stress on "mer-".)

Postscript: "Metric space", "affine space", "linear space", "topological space", "projective space", "uniform space", "measurable space", "compact space", "symmetric space", "separable space", "conformal space", "symplectic space", "normed space" are all commonplace phrases and it would seem bizarre to hear any of them pronounced with the primary stress on "space".


1 Answer 1


"Hilbert space" is not a phrase, it's a noun. Such compound nouns, made by combining two nouns, typically (though not always) have primary stress on the first part. If you imagine that there is an adjective "Hilbertian" derived from the noun "Hilbert", then "Hilbertian space" would have stress on the second part, "space", instead, because it would be a phrase rather than a word. Phrases typically have more stress at the end.

An example of this difference very often cited is the phrase "black board" with primary stress on "board", as compared with the word "blackboard", with primary stress on the first part. (The orthographic difference between space, hyphen, and nothing separating the parts of a phrase or word cannot be relied on to distinguish word from phrase.)

  • Your point about it's being a phrase is well taken, but you are clearly wrong about adjectives. Even in high-school geometry one uses the phrase "Euclidean space" and there's a primary stress on "-clid-" and secondary stress on "space". And when one speaks of a metric space the primary stress is on the first of three syllables. You'd know the actor was illiterate in mathematics if he said "metric SPACE". Or "affine SPACE" or "inner product SPACE" or "quotient SPACE" or "vector SPACE" --- all terms in daily use by everybody (except non-mathematicians). Oct 19, 2016 at 16:13
  • I disagree. The primary stress is on "space" in your example "Euclidean space" in a normal neutral pronunciation. It would be on "clid" if you are drawing a contrast with some other kind of space. Some of your other examples are not phrases, because they don't have adjectives -- "quotient" and "vector" are nouns, not adjectives. The tendency of phrases to have primary stress on the last word is described by the Nuclear Stress Rule in the reference The Sound Pattern of English.
    – Greg Lee
    Oct 19, 2016 at 16:47
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    What about "metric space" and "topological space" and "projective space" and "uniform space" and "measurable space" and "compact space" (indeed, the word "space" is sometimes omitted with that last one, just as the phrase "prime number" is often abbreviated to "prime", as in "Euclid proved that infinitely many primes exist"), and "symmetric space" and "separable space" and "conformal space" and "normed space"? All phrases consisting of an adjective followed by a noun and all pronounced with the primary stress before the word "space". Oct 19, 2016 at 17:12
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    @Michael: mathematicians treat most of those as compound nouns. Compare algebraic number and complex number (stress on the first word) with negative number and even number (stress more evenly distributed over both words). The first two are treated as compound nouns, and the last two as adjective-noun combinations. (I'd treat separable space as an adjective-noun combination as well, but I'm not an analyst.) Oct 19, 2016 at 17:22
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    If anyone wants to pursue this, I recommend looking up Larry Nessly's article in Essays on The Sound Pattern of English. As I recall, he did some research on stress retraction in English -- cases where primary stress comes to the left of where one might expect it.
    – Greg Lee
    Oct 19, 2016 at 18:07

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