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Noun noun constructions in English

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In English, noun-noun strings (NNs) have sometimes been analysed as compound words if unmarked stress falls on the first element, but as noun phrases if it falls on the second (eg Bloomfield 1935, Marchand 1969, Haspelmath 2002). However, the facts do not support this analysis: combinations with certain nouns are always stressed on N1, while other constituents systematically assign stress to N2, and there are many combinations that show variable stress, both between and within speakers. Using evidence from corpora and elicitation experiments, it will be argued here that English NNs are not stressed according to a morphological/syntactic divide, but on the basis of analogical patterns in the mental lexicon, themselves the products of semantic and historical factors. First, it will be shown that a syntactic analysis of NNs, regardless of their stress pattern, necessitates the formulation of exceptional phrase-structure rules. On the other hand, recognising all English NNs as compound words, avoids postulating the existence of such atypical phrases and is consistent with analyses of cognate constructions elsewhere in Germanic. Second, it is argued that stress is assigned to these compounds largely by analogy with related concatenations, a conclusion supported by Spencer (2003) and by Plag et al (2007). The contribution of the present work is to consider how such analogical patterns are established, and evidence is presented for the involvement of semantic and historical factors. Finally, the considerable inter-speaker variation revealed by the elicitation data suggests that, for many of these items, stress is not a categorical property of the construction per se, but rather reflects the way that the construction is classified by individual speakers. Despite being structurally compounds, some NNs are clearly more phrase-like than others, and those in families with compositional, phrase-like semantics tend also to have more phrase-like prosody. The stress assigned can, in at least some cases, depend essentially on how separate and independent the elements are felt to be in the mind of the speaker.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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