The Shifty Noun Sound

How many of these words are nouns?

  • Outlaw
  • Rebel
  • Record
  • Suspect

How many of these words are verbs?

  • Insult
  • Object
  • Present
  • Permit

Well, it depends. What syllable got the stress?

If a piece of chocolate cake is missing and I have icing on my face, then I’m a SUSpect. The people around me susPECT that I’m the one who ate it. But if they only knew how much I loved chocolate then they wouldn’t suspect me at all. They’d KNOW I ate it.

If the driving examiner would perMIT me to explain why I had to hit that post, then perhaps he’d be more likely to give me my driving PERmit. Probably not, but I was hopeful.

Go back to those lists at the top of the page. Put the stress on the second syllable and you’ll see that they are all verbs. But shift the stress over to the first syllable and you’ll see that they all become nouns.

We have a little “thing” that’s unique to English. If we have a two syllable verb, we like to put the stress at the end, on the second syllable. But for nouns we like to shift the stress to the front on the first syllable.

While there are exceptions, the stress occurs on the first syllable in about 80% of two syllable nouns and occurs on the second syllable in 60% of verbs.

This strange English habit of moving the stress to the front of nouns also happens when we combine words to create compound words that indicate a unique thing. This is a way that new word are formed in the English language. For example, a “black BIRD” is a bird that is mostly black, but a “BLACKbird” is a specific kind of bird. Likewise, if I paint a piece of wood black I have a “black BOARD”, but when that piece of black wood becomes “a thing” that I write on in a classroom, it’s a “BLACKboard”.

People used to have “cup BOARDS” for holding the cups in their houses. But as we combined those words (cup + board) to create a new word for that cup holding thing, we began calling it a “CUPboard”. We’ve been saying it that way for so long that if you listen to the way we say it (pronounced cuburd), compared to the way it’s written, we can see it’s lost all association with the original meaning and has become a completely new thing.

When someone is talented at going ahead of the troops to observe what’s up front, he’s a “good SCOUT”. If he’s young we call him a “boy SCOUT”. But when we turn boy scouts into an organization, it becomes a new thing and we shift the stress to the beginning of the word and get “BOY scouts”.

This happens frequently in English. As compound words become a unique thing we start shifting the sound to the front to indicate that it is a unique thing or a new noun. If look at the types of cooking that have become a type of cuisine, I would say that I’m eating “ITALian food” or “INdian food”. If I ate food from Mars today, I would tell you that I ate “Martian FOOD” because Martian food isn’t popular. It’s not a thing yet.

If a compound word has existed for a long time, the word may transform and we may even forget what words made it in the first place. There was a flower that was called a “day’s EYE”. But like cupboard, we shifted the stress to the front and the sound turned into what we now know as a “DAIsy”.

It’s all very interesting. And now that you know about the shifty noun sound, I’m sure that you’ll notice it all the time

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