hunter gatherers

The Bizarro from 2/7/15, noted on Facebook today by Nancy Caplow, who commented, “Potentially ambiguous compounds; subtly different prosody”:

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 5 in this strip — see this Page.)

(Some background on the complexities of accent in modifier + head constructions in English in: “Forestress and afterstress”, on accent in English noun-noun compounds (OSU Working Papers in Linguistics, 1986).)

The default accent pattern for Adj + N combinations is afterstress (ˌAdj + ˈN), for N + N combinations, forestress (“compound stress”: ˈN + ˌN), but there are a great many special cases (and discourse functions, like emphasis or contrast, can override these defaults; so can a preference for alternating stress in larger expressions), and there are also many cases of variability: alternative accent patterns for an individual speaker (I myself use both ˌcherry ˈpie and ˈcherry ˌpie, withoutany differentiation I can discern), and much variability associated with regional or social dialects. In fact, the largest generalization is a preference for an accent pattern that’s iconic of semantic relationships:

modifier + head constructions tend to be accented on the head; they have afterstress

It’s then not uncommon for N + N compounds, which are largely modifier + head combinations, to have afterstress in people’s actual productions, even when there’s no specific motivation for this accent pattern.

Now, from NOAD:

noun hunter-gatherer: a member of a nomadic people who live chiefly by hunting and fishing, and harvesting wild food. [that is, they live by both hunting and gathering]

This is a copulative N + N compound, along with (for instance) the language name Serbo-Croatian, the nation name Austria-Hungary, and the modifier U.S.-Canada in the U.S.-Canada border ‘the border between the U.S. and Canada’. The semantic contributions of the two elements of the compound are roughly equal; when they are distinguished in significance, it’s the first element that’s likely to be the more (socioculturally) significant (on the general grounds that when you mention two things together, you’re inclined to put the thing that’s most important to you first). But the default accent pattern for copulative compounds like hunter-gatherer is afterstress:


On the other hand, the subsective N + N compound hunter gatherer ‘a gatherer of hunters, s.o. who gathers hunters’ — the absurd interpretation entertainingly illustrated in the cartoon — has default forestress:



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