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Why do some British speakers of English emphasize the second syllable of words such as con-TRO-versy. One British woman I knew (living in Oxford) did this to many words including (unbelievably) the search engine yuh-HOO.

I had never heard anyone (Yank or Brit) put the em-PHA-sis on the second sy-LAB-le quite as much as she did.

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    In the UK, most people pronounce that search engine ya-HOO, or YAH-hoo.
    – Orbling
    Jan 3, 2011 at 0:59
  • @Orbling - my friend pronounced the search engine to sound like the name of the nearsighted cartoon character, Mr. Magoo. That is with a quick "yuh" to rhyme with the U sound in "mug" followed by a longer, emphasized HOO. Magoo / muh-'GOO => Yahoo / yuh-'HOO
    – John Satta
    Jan 6, 2011 at 22:56
  • @John Satta: Yes, I have come across that myself - though more often I have heard it with an a rather than a u in the very short first syllable.
    – Orbling
    Jan 7, 2011 at 0:46
  • @John Satta: would you really say that Mr Magoo’s first syllable rhymes with mug? I’ve always heard Magoo as having a schwa for the first vowel, which while often written as \uh\ is certainly not the same vowel as the u of mug.
    – PLL
    Jan 11, 2011 at 20:02
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    @Scott Mitchell: The vowel quality differences can be considered a side-effect of the stress change. A large number of unstressed syllables get reduced to schwa (the "uh" sound), so that is what is happening in [dəˈfɛns].
    – Kosmonaut
    Jan 11, 2011 at 21:18

5 Answers 5

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I can’t explain an unknown individual’s reasons for pronouncing words a certain way.

/kənˈtrɒvəsi/ is a common pronunciation in the UK, though as noted by Oxford it’s “widely held to be incorrect”.

/jəˈhuː/ may be different from your expectations but again listed by Oxford as an accepted pronunciation, so hardly “unbelievable”.

It sounds like you’re over-generalising from a single experience. I’ve certainly never heard /ɛmˈfasɪs/ or /sɪˈlab(ə)l/.

Addendum 1: As a counter-example, I heard a British TV announcer the other day incorrectly pronounce a word that should have the stress on the second syllable: incomparable as /ɪnkəmˈparəb(ə)l/ instead of /ɪnˈkɒmp(ə)rəb(ə)l/.

Addendum 2: A different counter-example – where American English puts the stress on the second syllable while British English does not – is altimeter (AmE /alˈtimitər/ vs. BrE /ˈaltɪmiːtə/).

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    @Brian: I don't think John was entirely serious about those last two. Jan 3, 2011 at 1:16
  • @Cerberus, you are correct. I was trying to inject some levity... perhaps I should have added an emoticon :-)
    – John Satta
    Jan 6, 2011 at 22:15
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    @John: Perhaps Brian was trying to inject even more levity and has the last laugh. Jan 6, 2011 at 22:24
  • After some googling, I found this link: [books.google.com/… Scroll down to "adversary" and read the author's note that "This is a good example of what Wilson Follett (1966) calls eccentric pronunciation, a "homemade deviation" from standard usage. " see my next comment
    – John Satta
    Jan 6, 2011 at 22:46
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    @Brian: interestingly, in the US, /ɪnkəmˈparəb(ə)l/ is the "correct" pronunciation :-]
    – treeface
    Jan 11, 2011 at 18:36
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(BrE) Both Cambridge and Oxford Advanced Learner's dictionaries allow for both pronunciations. It's long been a joke in the UK that it's controversial how you pronounce controversy.

I seem to remember reading somewhere, probably in David Crystal's 'Stories of English', that the favoured pronunciation used to be on the first syllable, then switched to the second. And for me stressing the first syllable now seems a little strange. But I don't think this is a particularly general rule.

I've noticed for example, with that words that have come from French (probably more recently), such as ballet, where we Brits usually put the stress on the first syllable, Americans often stress them on the second, probably getting closer to the equal stressing of the original French.

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For the same reason some British people pronounce "toast" almost so that it sounds like "taste" to my American ears. And why they call the hood of a car the bonnet to boot (oh, wait, boot is the trunk).

Also for the same reason that people in this southern U.S. put the accent on the first syllable on insurance.

These are just examples of variations on English. There are many that you will find among all speakers of English.

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I noticed this too when watching Britcoms. They say, weekEnd instead of WEEKend, for example. There are many more taht I can't recall off the top of my head.

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  • ice CREAM vs. ICE cream… ci-ga-RETTE vs. CIG-ar-ette… Jan 12, 2011 at 18:47
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Well, I'm American (sorry I don't know linguistic terms) and I say conTROversy & ADmirable. And, to me, it's MUHgoo. And I say INsurance. And I say adDENDum. Live in LA but was in Virginia (near DC) 'til 12 yo & parents are from OK.

Sometimes, I wonder if my overall pronunciation is whack-a-doodle as the Los Angeles local TV news "talking heads" are seemingly speaking a different language (the word choice is especially entertaining during car pursuits; these idiots seem to think that using a 3 syllable word incorrectly is better than using a one syllable word appropriately).

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    Hello LA, and welcome to EL&U. We like answers to be fact based, not solely opinion based, and as such, love to see links to sources which support your answer. Dec 29, 2013 at 4:59

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