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Compound stress vs. primary word stress: fundamental differences

The stress patterns in compounds often differ from those in underived words: for instance, in the large majority of cases, nominal compounds have the strong-weak stress pattern; that is, it is the first constituent that receives stress. This differs from underived words where primary stress is usually located close to the right edge of the word (on one of the last three syllables).


Consider for example the difference between the quadrisyllabic simplex word macaroni macaroni and the quadrisyllabic nominal compound mini-pizza mini-pizza; both words have two stresses, one on the first and one on the third syllable. As shown in the table below, the simplex word macaroni has secondary stress on the first syllable and primary stress on the third one, which is in line with generalizations on stress placement in monosyllabic words. In mini-pizza, on the other hand, the stress on the first syllable is more prominent than that on the third one: it carries compound stress, which, at least in nouns, regularly falls on the first constituent of a compound. This is also known as a strong-weak pattern.

Table 1
Word stress: primary stress on the penultimate syllable macaroni [ˌma.ka.ˈro.ni] macaroni
Compound stress (basic pattern): compound stress on first constituent mini-pizza [ˈmi.ni.ˌpi.tsa] mini-pizza

If strong-weak compounds like mini-pizza were simplex words, their stress patterns would regularly violate even the strongest generalizations established for Dutch stress. Yet the patterns are systematic, productive, and thus not regarded as exceptions. The difference between compounds and monomorphemic words can be expressed at the level of the prosodic word: whereas the constituents of a compound behave like one unit morphologically, they behave like (two or more) independent units prosodically; in other words, a compound always consists of at least two prosodic words.

The above-mentioned example exemplifies this difference in behaviour with respect to the Three-Syllable Window, which requires main stress to be realized on one of the last three syllables of a prosodic word. A hypothetical monomorphemic word like ‘macaroni, with stress on the fourth syllable from the left syllable would therefore be excluded, as it is the fourth syllable from the right that receives stress. Mini-pizza, however, does have stress on the fourth syllable from the left; yet as the word consists of two independent prosodic words, mini and pizza, the Three-Syllable Window is not violated: both constituents have regular penultimate stress, and thus do not violate the Three-Syllable Window.