Polar Bears and Cross Dressers

Polar Bear


One of the handful of slips the excellent British actor Hugh Laurie made on House (he speaks with an American accent on the show) was when he had a line with the term ‘cross dresser.’  Every vowel and consonant was technically correct, but he noticeably pronounced ‘cross dresser‘ with stress on the second word; in American accents, the emphasis is usually on ‘cross.’

The major difference here is in the way Americans and Britons treat those grammatical units called ‘noun phrases.’  These are any of those little adjective-noun combos, of which ‘grammatical units,’ ‘major difference,’ and, indeed, ‘noun phrase’ itself are examples from this paragraph.

My impression is that in noun phrases with an adjective (I would also cite ‘polar bear’ and ‘spread eagle’), the British tend to put stress more often on the noun than Americans do.  Some may recall Will Ferrell poking fun at this feature in 1990’s Saturday Night Live episodes, playing a libidinous quasi-English professor who referred to a jacuzzi as a ‘hot tub.’

Americans, on the other hand, typically say ‘cross dresser,’ ‘polar bear,’ and ‘spread-eagle.’ Of course, not every noun phrase gets stress on the adjective.  We say ‘Canterbury road,’ not ‘Canterbury road.’  And there are many of these types of phrases where stress entirely depends on context.  For ‘cross-country,’ the latter word gets stressed in the sentence ‘We’re going cross-country,’ but the former gets stressed in ‘I went cross-country skiing.’

Conversely, this is not to say that British dialects always hit the noun.  You’ll notice in this news story that nobody refers to the ‘Christmas tree’ as a ‘Christmas tree‘ (fun bonus: the Northeastern English accent as :12):

As my Hugh Laurie example at the top suggests, this is a real challenge for actors doing dialect work.  I’ve never been able to find any hard or fast rules, nor any comprehensive list of these types of differences.  And this problem extends beyond British and American dialects.  There are nuances to the way Irish English treats word stress that I can’t quite fathom (and am hesitant to discuss, since it can be hard to separate prosodic features of Irish English from questions of stress).

Are there any ‘rules’ to noun phrase stress for different accents and dialects?


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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19 Responses to Polar Bears and Cross Dressers

  1. Gassalasca says:

    How would you stress smart-bomb? As in ‘X smart-bombed Y’.

  2. Charles Sullivan says:

    As an American I stress the second word in spread-eagle.

  3. Erik Singer says:

    Well, Collins & Mees (in Practical Phonetics & Phonology) and the ever-invaluable John Wells (in English Intonation) have some good guidelines for compound word-stress in RP (most of the rules they describe apply equally to General American accents.) Neither claims to be wholly comprehensive, but they cover a good deal of the territory, limning such rules as the “Manufactures rule”: if the first element of a compound noun describes or specifies the thing it is made from (apple PIE) then it will take final-element stress. (Compare to APPLE tree), which takes initial-element stress. Why do we say running WATER but RUNNING shoes? In a compound formed from -ing + noun, if the noun aids in the activity being described by the gerund, the compound takes IES, but otherwise takes FES. And so forth. Of course, this is all very handy for non-native speakers (native speakers simply KNOW these things), but none of it aims to describe different stress patterns between different accents. If you find something that does, let us know!

    • Sharon says:

      Interestingly, in Ireland, where apple pie has always been called apple tart (even though it’s technically a pie) we would say APPLE tart. But on the rare occasions I find myself saying apple pie, it will be apple PIE, perhaps because I associate the phrase with Americans and use their intonation.
      Also for me it’s definitely CROSS dresser and cross COUNTRY skiier – but CROSS party politics or CROSS border agreement. I’m not sure there is any logic to this…

    • trawicks says:

      Great citations. In the case of compound stress, there probably isn’t so much of a difference between British and American English rules: otherwise you’d notice more situations of British or American actors botching the compound word-stress of each other’s accents! Still, I’d love to see a stress pattern difference master list or the kind you often find regarding British and American pronunciation differences.

  4. Amy Stoller says:

    American here, and I beg to differ: I stress the second part of cross-dresser and spread-eagle. I do, however stress the first part of polar bear.

    • trawicks says:

      Duly noted! ‘Cross-dresser’ and ‘spread-eagle’ are perhaps not the best examples, as both are infrequently used and arguably a bit archaic (and come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever uttered either). At least in the case of ‘cross-dresser,’ it seems to me that ‘cross’ is the more commonly accented of the two words in America. There are probably some other differences of the ‘polar bear’ type that are seldom acknowledged.

    • Michael F. says:

      I’m American and I agree about spread-eagle. It is stressed on the second word.

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    Hugh Laurie does a marvelous job with the American accent, but I picked up on a stress error a couple of weeks ago. He pronounced electrician with the accent on the first syllable; El-ectrician, where we would normally say e-lecTRICian. The stress confusions go far beyond compounds.

  6. gaelsano says:

    From what people have posted here, I don’t believe there are any fast and hard rules and one compound may have different stresses between fellow Americans, and even within one person’s idiolect. We may optionally change emphasis as in “apple PIE, not apple CRISP” or as in “the APPLE tree, not the OAK tree.”

    The only predictable ones are where the emphasis is necessary to disambiguate. Hot dog is always “HOT dog” when referring to the food. No other food is titled “hot ___” irrespective of temperature, but there are many “dogs” like “corn dogs” and “chili dogs.” This explains Will Ferrell’s mocking of “hot TUB.” “Hot tub” is the only large human-holding vessel called “hot ___” whereas as we have “wash tubs” and “bathtubs.” Polar bears are the only “polar” animal. No one says “polar whales” or “polar fish” but we have many different “bears.” I’m with Charles Sullivan on “spread eagle.” I’ve always heard “spread EAGLE,” probably to differentiate it from “spread OUT” and from “SPREAD (the butter).” I’ll beg to differ with trawicks on “Canterbury Road.” Well, not Canterbury, not exactly. But growing up I heard “I live on BLUEBERRY Lane and Matt lives on PARTRIDGE Way.” Notice that the person could have emphasized the word “partridge” or the word “way.”

    Americans can be thought to be “logical” in their stress. But I’m not saying Americans are logical in other parts of English.

    [rant] Yanks have a bizarre tendency to half-Anglicize foreign words. How about Chilean as chi-LAY-an? If CHIL-ee-an is too Anglicized, why not just go all the way and say chee-lay-ahn or the actual Spanish “Chilenos”? Saying “Chilean” as anything other than CHIL-ee-an is quite bizarre.[/rant]

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      CHIL-ee-an could perhaps be confused with an aficionado of chili, that Mexican-influenced meaty stew from Texas.

    • Ellen K. says:

      “…why not just go all the way and say chee-lay-ahn…?”

      Saying the “Chile” part like in Spanish does NOT warrant changing the pronunciation English language suffice -an to “ahn”.

      You don’t comment on your indicated stress difference between chi-LAY-an and CHIL-ee-an. The stressed 2nd syllable, and lack of stress on the first, would be why “chih” instead of “chee” in the first syllable. The unstressed first syllable requires the “chee” of the Spanish be changed to something pronounceable in English, to a sound we can use in an unstressed syllable (if we are going to accent shift, we may as well, as you suggest, say chileno). Likewise, the unstressed second syllable requires changing the “lay” to something we can in English say in an unstressed syllable. I suppose it’s ironic that the sound we change FROM in chi-LAY-an is the one we change TO in CHIL-ee-an. For whatever reason, this sound can appear in some unstressed syllables, but not others. I don’t make the rules (of English phonetics) I just observe and follow them. Anyway, seems to me like the difference between CHIL-ee-an and chi-LAY-an follows from the stress difference.

    • IVV says:

      Nah, CHIL-ee is a food or an adjective for cold. Chee-Lay is a South American country. So, Chee-Lay-an.

      • AL says:

        Agreed, I’m American and I pronounce them CHEE-lay and chee-LAY-uhn. What’s inconsistent about that?

        • gaelsano says:

          Don’t tell me, you probably pronounce Beijing as Bay-zhing and Taj Mahal as Tazh Mahal, even though both are hyper-foreign-izations. Neither “j” in question is pronounced anything like the French “j” yet many still do it. For the same reason people tend to pronounce all foreign “a” with palm. There is bizarre assumption that all foreign languages follow this rule: j = beiGe, a = PALM, e = DRESS, FACE. Never wondering if it is more accurate or less. Yet no one ever bothers to say hOnda with THOUGHT or GOAT. It drives me nuts like when people say “Crah-sahnt” for crescent. It’s wrong and it’s pedantic about it.

          I just wanted to be fair. Though Brit compound word stress seems to be highly illogical, Americans make up for it in their bizarre, pedantic, and inconsistent system for loan words.

          This also connects to stress. English cannot have a series of checked vowels without any reduction to schwa. Yet people love to fall over themselves trying apply the oddest stresses on words like Chile and karaoke and others. Again, though, it’s a French-style hyper-foreign-ism. Ams perceive French to be stress final so we get “tazh maHAL” “chee LAY,” and (for some) “kah ruh TAY.”

          This all ties well into the PALM post. When it comes to loan words, the Americans are the most boneheaded Anglophones on Earth.

        • gaelsano says:

          *correct “a series of checked vowels” to “a series of non-tense vowels”

  7. Josh McNeill says:

    Wouldn’t “Canterbury Road” be an exception since it’s not a compound while pretty much everything else you listed is? I think I’m just confused on whether you mean to be talking about compounds or noun phrases in general since these would be two different animals. For instance, “red coats” and “Redcoats” have different stress patterns for me and the only difference seems to be that one is a compound and the other is simply a NP.

  8. Nick Curnow says:

    Best example I can think of from coaching is “Empire State Building.” Most Americans I’ve heard make it “Empire STATE Building” whereas here in Australia, it’s almost always “Empire State BUILDING.” Also, while on the subject of the Big Apple, getting Aussies to say “New York” correctly is always fun as to us it’s very distinctly two words with somewhat equal stress, leaning towards the YORK. Whereas most Americans have a defined stress on the YORK (except when saying “NEW York CITY”) and tend to run the words together in connected speech (this last is of course my perception).