Stress minimal pairs

Lexical stress is contrastive in English, but when asked to prove that it is, we must be careful. True stress minimal pairs are lot rarer than a lot of people think. By “true stress minimal pair” I mean a pair of words, which mean different things, and differ only in the place of primary lexical stress. An example is insight ˈɪnsaɪt vs incite ɪnˈsaɪt.

The problem is that the stress status of a syllable often determines what vowel occurs in it. Take, for example, the two words export (noun) and export (verb). Yes, they differ in the place of lexical stress, but in many accents, including GBE, the vowel in the first syllable of the noun is e, but in the verb it is something else, ɪ or ə.

Many of the “true” minimal pairs are like import (verb)~ import (noun), where one member is a verb and the other a non-verb (noun or adjective) of related meaning. The non-verb has earlier stress than the verb: so ɪmˈpɔːt vs ˈɪmpɔːt. I don’t think I have ever come across a comprehensive list of such minimal pairs. Maybe you know of one.

Here are a few others I have thought of. Additions welcome.

  • discard
  • impress
  • intern
  • misfire

23 thoughts on “Stress minimal pairs

  1. ‘incense – in’cense
    ‘impact – im’pact
    ‘insert – in’sert
    ‘discourse – dis’course
    ‘affix – a’ffix [at least for some speakers]
    ‘discount – dis’count [for some]

  2. Jack,

    Thanks for that. I’ve edited your second comment to correct the link and zapped the first one.

  3. Cruttenden in his IPE (7th ed.) mentions an unpublished Ph.D. thesis by S. Guierre of 1979, who seemd to have analysed a corpus of >10,000 words of which only 85 were true ‘stress minimal pairs’.

  4. Sorry, Petr, but Lionel Guierre’s initial was not ‘S’. Unfortunately this distinguisht French scholar and very likable person is no longer with us, tho books of his may still be available from some sources.

  5. A. A. Hill in his “Stress in recent English as a distinguishing mark between dysllabes used as noun or verb” ( http://www.jstor.org/stable/452400 ) provided a hypothesis on this.

    1. Stress shift: this is the case with new nouns derived from old verbs.
    2. No stress shift: this is the case with new verbs derived from old nouns.

  6. At least as a trend, it sounds right (and rather trivial). Haven’t read the article, though.

  7. “discount, increase, insult, quadruple” all seem fine to me, but “invite” ? Unclear in what context the putative ‘invite stress pattern would occur. All of the others have both nominal and verbal forms, but unless I am missing something obvious “invite” exists only as a verb (and with stress on the second syllable).

  8. From the online version of the OED:
    ( /ˈɪnvaɪt/ , formerly /ɪnˈvaɪt/ )
    Etymology: < INVITE v.: compare command, request, etc. colloq. 1. The act of inviting; an invitation. 1659 H. L'ESTRANGE Alliance Divine Offices 326 Bishop Cranmer..gives him an earnest invite to England. 1778 F. BURNEY Let. Sept. in Early Jrnls. & Lett. (1994) III. 159 Every body Bowed, & accepted the invite but me..for I have no Notion of snapping at invites from the Great

  9. Checking my list of stress homographs more carefully I found sixty that fit the definition of pure stress minimal pairs fairly well (with half a dozen doubtful cases where pronunciation may be inconsistent). The full list is on
    http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/wordscape/wordlist/homogrph.html

    Obviously this does not pick up cases of different spellings such as incite/insight.

    dictate
    discard
    discharge
    discount
    discourse
    essay (?)
    filtrate
    fragment (?)
    impact
    implant
    import
    impress
    imprint
    incense
    inlay
    insert
    inset
    insult
    interchange (?)
    intern
    invite
    mandate (?)
    misprint (?)
    overbid
    overcharge
    overflow
    overhang
    overhaul
    overlap
    overlay
    overprint
    overthrow
    overwork (?)
    prefix (?)
    quadruple
    re-count
    refill
    refund
    remount
    replay
    retake
    rethink
    retread
    rewrite
    torment
    transport
    undercharge
    undercut
    underlay
    undertake
    upgrade
    uplift
    upset

  10. John,

    Thanks for the list!

    As for the cartoon, I’m afraid I no longer remember where I filched it from.

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