The role of semantics, argument structure, and lexicalization in compound stress assignment in English

Ingo Plag, Gero Kunter, Sabine Lappe, Maria Braun

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It is generally assumed that noun-noun compounds in English are stressed on the left-hand member (e.g. cóurtroom, wátchmaker). However, there is a large amount of variation in stress assignment (e.g. silk tíe, Madison Ávenue, singer-sóngwriter) whose significance and sources are largely unaccounted for in the literature. This paper presents a study in which three kinds of factor held to play a role in compound stress assignment are tested: argument structure, lexicalization and semantics. Although often mentioned as influential, systematic empirical studies of these factors are scarce and those that are available have mostly produced unclear or contradictory results. Furthermore, this is the first study using speech data.

The analysis of 4353 noun-noun compounds extracted from the Boston University Radio Speech Corpus shows that there is indeed a considerable amount of variation in stress assignment. Overall, semantics turns out to have the strongest effect on compound stress assignment, wheras an approach relying on argument structure is much less successful in predicting compound stress. The paper also presents for the first time large-scale empirical evidence for the assumption that lexicalization has an effect on compound stress assignment. However, the influence of semantic factors and lexicalization is far from categorical, which speaks against rule-based approaches to compound stress. This is in line with recent findings on the semi-regular behavior of compounds in English and in other languages. The paper also makes a methodological contribution to the debate in showing that (and how) corpus-based studies using acoustic measurements can shed new light on the issue of variable compound stress.