Deacccenting

Coming past me every so often on tv, a commercial for the Car Gurus company, in which the pronunciation of the company name varies from a clear car gurus, [ˈkarˌguruz], with a secondary accent on the first syllable of gurus, to something like cargaroos, [ˈkargəruz], with this syllable unaccented and its vowel reduced to schwa — indeed, including the intermediate variant [ˈkargʊruz], with that syllable deaccented and its vowel laxed but not reduced to schwa.

My ears perked up at the pronunciations with deaccented second element, because they sounded so odd — because they effaced the identity of the guru component of the name, which is surely semantically important to the image of the company, which proposes to offer gurus, in this sense from NOAD:

noun guru: an influential teacher or popular expert

From Wikipedia:

The company logo

CarGurus is a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based automotive research and shopping website that assists users in comparing local listings for used and new cars, and contacting sellers.

You can watch the commercial, “The Detective”, here. And, of course, listen to it.

Accent levels and vowel reduction. The conventional view is that within words, English has three degrees of distinctive accent: primary (indicated by a raised tick at the beginning of the relevant syllable), second (a lowered tick), and unaccented (no mark). Phonetically, accent is realized by lengthening of a syllable and (rather less reliably) by increased loudness and raised pitch.

All three of these prosodic dimensions lie on continua phonetically; speakers’ productions vary along these continua, potentially confounding hearers’ categorizations of the acoustic phenomena. In any case, there’s variation in the productions of the gu syllable of gurus in car gurus, and it tips some of them into cargaroos territory for me.

Meanwhile, the range between “full” vowels and “reduced” ones  is also a continuum phonetically, although (once again) hearers’ perceptions are of a small number of discrete categories:  high back tense close /u/ (Wells’s GOOSE vowel, here a full vowel); lower, more central, laxer, and more open /ʊ/ (Wells’s FOOT vowel, here a partially reduced vowel); and even lower, central, lax, and open /ə/ (Wells’s commA vowel, a reduced vowel). (Notice again that a number of phonetic dimensions are in play here.)

The generalization is, crudely: less accent, more reduction.

Deacccenting. Another generalization, again a crude one: the more familiar a word, the more likely it is for syllables with secondary accents to lose their accent, to become unaccented. So what was historically a secondarily accented element town [ˌtawn] ends up as [tən], eventually spelled as ton (Newtown eventually becomes Newton though the usage of locals).

From a 7/8/12 posting:

Mike Pesca, talking about strikeouts and curveballs, introduced the Higgs boson as a metaphor and ran it into the ground. All through this, he gave boson the accent pattern primary accent + unaccented, rather than the standard pattern primary accent + secondary accent.

… Presumably, for Pesca the word boson had become so familiar that the final syllable was deaccented, as in outsider-pronunciations of Oregon with /ˌan/ vs. Oregonian pronunciations with /ǝn/.

So it is with CarGurus: people who are most familiar with the name are likely to deaccent and reduce [ˌgu] to [gʊ] or [gǝ] — even though this works against their corporate interest.

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