When I learned the alphabet as a child, I heard it before I saw it. I heard that the last four letters were dubba-you, ex, why, zee. I thought that dubbayou was a long, strange name for a letter, but I didn't question it any more than I did aitch. It was just a name. Many years later, it struck me that it was a double U. Of course, a W is really UU. I had such a funny feeling, though, when I realized that something I had taken for granted for so many years had a background meaning that I had completely overlooked.This "funny feeling" is exactly what most native speakers get when a two-word phrase is stressed on the wrong word.
When two individual words go through the cultural process of becoming a set phrase, the original sense of each word is more or less forgotten and the new meaning completely takes over. When we hear the word painkiller, we think anesthetic. If, however, someone says painkiller, it brings up the strength and almost unrelated meaning of kill.
When you have a two-word phrase, you have to either stress on the first word, or on
the second word. If you stress both or neither, it's not clear what you are trying to say. Stress on the first word is more noticeable and one of the most important concepts of intonation. At first glance, it doesn't seem significant, but the more you look at this
concept, the more you are going to realize that it reflects how we Americans think, what
concepts we have adopted as our own, and what things we consider important.Set phrases are our "cultural icons," or word images; they are indicators of a determined use that we have internalized. These set phrases, with stress on the first word, have been taken into everyday English from descriptive phrases, with stress on the second word.
As soon as a descriptive phrase becomes a set phrase, the emphasis shifts from the second word to the first. The original sense of each word is more or less forgotten and the new meaning takes over.Set phrases indicate that we have internalized this phrase as an image, that we all agree on a concrete idea that this phrase represents.
A hundred years or so ago, when Levi Strauss first came out with his denim pants, they were described as blue jeans. Now that we all agree on the image, however, they are blue jeans. A more recent example would be the descriptive phrase, He 's a real party animal. This slang expression refers to someone who has a great time at a party. When it first became popular, the people using it needed to explain (with their intonation) that he was an animal at a party. As time passed, the expression became cliche and we changed the intonation to He's a real party animal because "everyone knew" what it meant.
Cliches are hard to recognize in a new language because what may be an old and tired
expression to a native speaker may be fresh and exciting to a newcomer. One way to look at English from the inside out, rather than always looking from the outside in, is to get a feel for what Americans have already accepted and internalized. This starts out as a purely language phenomenon, but you will notice that as you progress and undergo the relentless cultural indoctrination of standard intonation patterns, you will find yourself expressing yourself with the language cues and signals that will mark you as an insider—not an outsider.
When the interpreter was translating for the former Russian President Gorbachev about his trip to San Francisco in 1990, his pronunciation was good, but he placed himself on the outside by repeatedly saying, cable car. The phrase cable car is an image, an established entity, and it was very noticeable to hear it stressed on the second word as a mere description.
An important point that I would like to make is that the "rules" you are given here are not meant to be memorized. This discussion is only an introduction to give you a starting point in understanding this phenomenon and in recognizing what to listen for. Read it over; think about it; then listen, try it out, listen some more, and try it out again.
As you become familiar with intonation, you will become more comfortable with American
norms, thus the cultural orientation, or even cultural indoctrination.
For more on Set phrases, book a lesson with me, and we will practice aspects of pronunciation and accent reduction. See you soon!