November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving variation

In response to yesterday's post on Thanksgiving stress (the phonological kind), several readers have reminded me that many Americans do have first-syllable stress on the word in question. The general situation seems to be that southerners say THANKSgiving while northerners say thanksGIVing.

This is consistent with an overall tendency, also manifest in cases like UMbrella vs. umBRELla. Thus Connie Eble writes (American Voices: How Dialects Differ from Coast to Coast, p. 47) that "New Orleanians also place the word stress on the first syllable in adult, cement, insurance, and umbrella". In some words (POlice vs. poLICE, GUItar vs. guiTAR), the initially-stressed pronunciations seems to have become stigmatized, and have been abandoned by many better-educated or more upwardly-mobile people. But in the case of thanksgiving, the pronunciation with first-syllable stress is supported by the otherwise exceptionless pattern of  stress in object+gerund/participle compounds, and seems to have remained regionally dominant.

[I should say that the pattern of historical, geographical and social variation here is probably much more complex than this. All that I really know is that there's a general southern tendency towards stress retraction in nouns, and that some specific examples of it have become stigmatized while others (apparently including thanksgiving) have not.]

Craig Russell provided some geographical detail:

*I* say the word with the stress on the first syllable. I was born in North Carolina, raised there until I was 13 years old, and my recollection is that "THANKSgiving" is the normal way to say the word in that part of the country.

At thirteen, my family and I moved to Oregon, where the "thanksGIVING" pronunciation prevails. It took me years to even notice the difference, and, it being a word that only gets said with any frequency for a few weeks a year, the pronunciation was not teased out of me by the other children like much of the rest of my southern accent.

Now I have moved back to North Carolina for work, and I hear the familiar "THANKSgiving" pronunciation again. However, the town that I moved to, Fayetteville, is home to one of the country's largest army bases, Fort Bragg, so the population here comes from all over the country. This gives me an opportunity to hear all sorts of different dialects side by side, and I have confirmed my suspicion: the pronunciation "THANKSgiving" seems (from my unscientific observations) to be associated with native southerners, and "thanksGIVING" seems to be more normal in the rest of the country (damn Yankees!).

Kris Rhodes wrote:

I have no poetry for you, but my wife and I and one pair of friends of ours all say THANKSgiving. I have heard "thanksGIVing" before, but always thought of it as a feature of some marginal dialect or something. I am suprised to discover that the reverse is the case.

Well, I guess that everyone's margin is someone else's core. Anyhow, Kris is from Arlington TX, his wife is from Holliday TX ("north of Dallas near the Oklahoma border"), one of his cited friends is from the Dallas area, and the other friend "was raised in Zimbabwe by missionary parents, and those parents are from Houston TX". They now all live in California.

Craig added:

... assuming that "THANKSgiving" is the original pronunciation (conforming to other gerund/participle-object compounds like the ones you mention), it's conceivable that the change in pronunciation happened after the US colonies were established and regional pronunciations started to drift, and we preserve the original. Of course, the opposite could have happened as well.

If the overall southern-states stress pattern was the older one, I'd expect to see some pockets of UMbrella and POlice in the British isles -- but I've never heard of this. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I'll ask some experts.

However, in the particular case of thanksgiving, the OED gives only the pronunciation [ˈθæŋksˌgɪvɪŋ], with first-syllable main stress, while the (1891 American) Century Dictionary follows Noah Webster's (1828) lead in giving only the second-syllable stress:

And as I wrote yesterday, the evidence from metered verse seems to suggest second-syllable main stress in poems by British writers going back to the 17th century.  So I'm now puzzled about the history, and for that matter about the current British pronuncation -- if you can supply some relevant evidence or references, please let me know.

[Update -- Vicky Larmour writes:

I'm British (English) and have only ever heard it said here as THANKSgiving (not that it is said here that much at all, of course, being as we don't celebrate it). I mentioned this to my British (Northern Irish) husband last night after reading your earlier post and he agreed with me, THANKSgiving is the only current pronunciation he's heard.

I've heard ThanksGIVing but only from American friends.

And from Jo Kershaw:

I'm not sure whether or not this is relevant to the issue of stress patterns in British dialect, but I have noticed that -- although 'police' is pronounced with a second syllable stress by Scottish speakers using formal speech -- the Scots regional form 'polis' definitely has the stress on the first syllable. I've never heard anyone from any part of Britain say UMbrella, though, and the tendency to refer to it as a 'brolly' certainly suggests to me that the second-syllable stress is more normal.

And Andrew Weir:

I don't know about UMbrella, but in Scots initial-stressed ["polIs] for "police" is very common. The entry in the Dictionary of the Scots Language states that this was a common 18thC English pronunciation, so it might well be that the change from initial stress came after the establishment of the American colonies.


[Update #2 -- Mike Pope writes:

I don't think the word-initial stress is strictly regional. It's either socioeconomic, or maybe it's an urban-rural split (which might be saying the same thing, dunno). Out here in Wa(r)shington, one tends to hear pronunciations such as MONroe and DUvall from the residents of those comparatively small burgs, whereas we city slickers tend to say monROE and duVALL. Ditto POlice and INsurance and a host of similar examples that I can't think of at the moment, as usual.

And Arnold Zwicky does what I should have done in the first place, namely checks a bunch of dictionaries. He adds some other useful comments as well:

(In what follows, 1 means first-syllable stress, 2 means second-syllable stress.)

1. First, a quick dictionary search, in volumes I have at home or can find on-line...

British: OED has only 1 (as you have already noted). NSOED4 (1993) has 1, 2 (in that order).

American: AHD4, NOAD2, Free Online Dictionary all have only 2. Merriam-Webster Online gives 2, but "also" 1. Webster Dictionary 1913, online, appears to give only 1; well, it says "Thanks"giv`ing (?), n.". (contrast your citations of Noah Webster (1828) and the 1891 Century, with only 2.)

Historically, this is bewildering. the current situation looks pretty clear: 1 in the U.K. (and, i think, Australia) and the southern U.S., 2 in the rest of the U.S. (what do Canadians say, i wonder.)

2. The connection between 1 for this word and 1 for police/cement/umbrella/etc. in the southern U.S. isn't clear to me. I don't recall the facts in detail -- I do recall that there is literature on this -- but I do remember that there is a tendency for the shifts to 1 to co-occur, but that it's only a tendency. My guess is that the stressings are learned word by word, so that the co-occurrence of 1 for different words is just like the co-occurrence of other dialect features, and is not part of a regular phenomenon of stress-shifting. after all, the affected words don't seem to form a natural class phonologically.

What this means is that there is no reason to expect 1 for "thanksgiving" (which is just what you'd expect from the regularities of stress in English, as you point out) to co-occur with other 1 stressings in the U.K.

3. If 2 is now general U.S. for the holiday, but 1 is what you'd expect for the compound meaning 'the giving of thanks', then i'd expect there to be at least a few people with both stressings, but semantically differentiated.


[Update #3 -- Jarek Weckwerth writes:

For me, as a non-native speaker, the possibility of having the stress on the second syllable was a total surprise. (OK, I do try to follow a British model, and we don't celebrate Thanksgiving in Poland.) So I checked. I'm away at a conference, so I could only consult the dictionaries I have installed on my laptop. The lowdown:

(1) Longman Advanced American dictionary and the Kosciuszko Foundation Dictionary (a large bilingual Polish-English dictionary based on an American model) both give thanksGIVing only.

(2) The Oxford-PWN bilingual dictionary (the largest English-Polish dictionary on the market, based on BrE): THANKSgiving for BrE and thanksGIVing for AmE. (They do give you the American pronunciations if they think they're different, but they're extremely inconsistent, especially in their AmE recordings, or their relation to the transcriptions.)

(3) Now the really interesting thing: the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (17th editiion) gives only thanksGIVing for BrE, and both options for AmE. Funny, innit? (Screenshot attached. Red = UK, blue = US.)


[Update #4 -- Deborah Pickett writes:

Born and raised Australian, it never occurred to me that "THANKSgiving" was even a possible pronunciation. It isn't a holiday here, but we deal with enough Americans that we aren't surprised by the word. Everyone I've ever known in this country calls the holiday "ThanksGIVing".

Conveniently, I live with a Canadian (from Alberta), and asked her what holiday Americans had last weekend. Result: "ThanksGIVing".


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 23, 2007 09:10 AM