Exception-triggered alternation

Exhibit A: the joke routine That’s Good / That’s Bad from an Archie Campbell comedy sketch — discussed in my 7/22/19 posting “Oh that’s good”.

Exhibit B: the principles that predict when a N + N compound in English has primary accent on the first (modifier) N (front stress, or forestress) and when that accent falls on the second (head) N (back stress, or afterstress) — discussed in my old paper “Forestress and afterstress”, (OSU Working Papers in Linguistics, 1986, viewable on-line here).

From a sufficiently abstract point of view, these two phenomena can be seen to be manifestations of a single scheme, which I’ll refer to as exception-triggered alternation.

Exhibit A. From my posting, quoting Wikipedia on the routine:

Campbell would state a troublesome occurrence; when the partner would sympathize by saying, “Oh that’s bad,” Campbell would quickly counter, “No, that’s good!”, and then state a good result from the previous occurrence. When the partner would say, “Oh that’s good!”, Campbell would immediately counter with “No, that’s bad!” and tell the new result, and so on.

At each twist, flip, or zig, Campbell would introduce new information that makes the situation more specific, which then overrides the good/bad judgment of the previous stage, until there’s a resolution, in one final narrowing of the context. Part of one routine, with Archie’s part in italics:

“Hey I guess you heard about my terrible misfortune.” “No, what happened?” “Yeah, my great uncle died.” “Oh that’s bad!” “No that’s good!” “How’s come?” “Well, when he died, he left me 50,000 dollars.” “Oh that’s good!” “No that’s bad!” “How come?” “When the Internal Revenue got through with it, all I had left was 25,000 dollars.” “Oh that’s bad.” “No that’s good.” “How come?” “Well, it was enough that I bought me an airplane and learned to fly.” “Well that’s good.” “No that’s bad. I was flying upside down the other day and I fell out of the thing.” “Well that’s bad.” “No that’s good. When I looked down under me and there was a great big old haystack.” “Well that’s good.” “No that’s bad. I got a little closer and I saw a pitchfork aimed right at me.” “Well that’s bad.” “No that’s good. I missed the pitchfork.” “Well that’s good.” ”No that’s bad.” “How come?” “I missed the haystack too.”

Exhibit B. Just part of the system, but enough so that you can see the alternation. N + N compounds are either forestressed or afterstressed. The principles governing accent placement trigger switches back and forth between these grammatical alternatives: they are forestressed EXCEPT IF they’re proper names, in which case they’re afterstressed EXCEPT IF the proper names have certain specific lexical items as their heads, in which case they’re forestressed. (Just a small piece of a complex system of principles and lexical exceptions.)

That is,

a HUMMINGBIRD lane has a forestressed N + N compound referring to a lane associated with hummingbirds;

but Hummingbrd LANE is an afterstressed proper noun referring to a thoroughfare (similar to such nouns with head lane: those with head avenue, boulevard, road, pike, etc.);

but the forestressed proper thoroughfare name HUMMINGBIRD Street has the specific N street as its head. (And for most speakers, the head N street is the only one that triggers this effect.)

Minimal pairs are not hard to find. An actual location in NYC’s East Village:


That’s the corner of (forestressed) 1ST Street and (afterstressed) 1st AVENUE. I’ve been there; raunchy details in an appendix below.

Exception-triggered alternation. What they have in common:

Two contrarily opposed states — good vs. bad, forestressed vs. afterstressed — for some phenomenon, with the choice between them determined by context, the choice flipping between the two as the context narrows more and more (with each flip, the contextually more specific choice overrides the contextually more general one).

No doubt there are other such alternations.

Appendix: 1st and 1st. From the Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York site, “History at Lucky Cheng’s” on 12/13/11:

The rumor has been floating for a few years, but by now you’ve heard the official news that, after nearly two decades, Lucky Cheng’s is leaving the East Village for Times Square. Rumor says the building at 24 First Avenue will be sold, and that means either demolition or renovation — either way, we’re going to lose a significant piece of history, and you can bet that whatever comes next will fail to be anywhere near as interesting as the last half-century here.

Formerly a Lower East Side Russian baths, the Lucky Cheng’s building was home to Club Baths, the first openly gay-owned bathhouse, from 1971 – 1983.

(#2) Exterior of the Club Baths NYC back in the day

Keith Haring was a regular and preferred the Monday and Friday Buddy Nights.

Former manager Bob Kohler recalls the scene, “We had these huge palm trees, real live trees. For the people coming, you pay your money, there’s going to be sex. Boom, boom. You walk in and there are birds singing. Here you are, you came to fuck. And suddenly you are sitting there and there is a jungle, there’s parrots, and palm trees and exotic flowers.”

(#3) Ad forthe baths

… Club Baths was shuttered during the AIDS crisis and ensuing municipal panic

Back in the 1970s, when I went to NYC fairly often on business, I was able to enjoy the pleasures, both decorative and sexual, of the establishment. (Not my first gay baths; that would have been the famous Continental Baths (1968-75), visited in (I think) December 1973.)

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