Saturday February 17, 2007

More than Meets the Ear

Last week I heard a promo on the local NPR station for a show about the many meanings of the word transformers.  I didn't get a chance to listen to the show, which apparently discussed things like gang defection, personal style, and sexual identity.  What caught my attention was the way the announcer pronounced the word, which struck me as odd.  To my surprise, I seem to have two pronunciations of the word transformer in my mental lexicon with slightly different meanings, and I wonder if your judgments match mine.

In the promo, the announcer said something like, "...what the word transformers means to today's youth."  The pronunciation he used put the stress on the first syllable: [ˈtrænz.foɹ.mɹ̩].  For me, this pronunciation refers to a particular electrical device that transfers current from one circuit to another.  The dictionary pronunciation of that word, however, is [trænz.ˈfoɹ.mɹ̩], with the stress on the second syllable.  For me, that pronunciation has a different meaning, primarily associated with giant shape-changing robots, but also covering anything that transforms itself.  The radio announcer sounded odd to me because he was referring to electrical devices when the show clearly dealt primarily with people changing themselves in some way.

My intuitions about this difference aren't very strong, and the difference in pronunciation doesn't seem to follow a general rule for agentive nouns.  It's not that case, for example, that such words with a reflexive meaning have a different stress pattern than those with a transitive meaning—with the word promoter I don't distinguish between the [ˈpɹoʊ.mə.tɹ̩] of a band and a relentless self-[pɹə.ˈmoʊ.tɹ̩]—they're all [pɹə.ˈmoʊ.tɹ̩z] to me.  Similarly, I would pronounce the word introducer the same, with second-syllable stress, whether  the person was introducing themselves or another person.

Nonetheless, for some reason I seem to have an unsystematic difference between [ˈtrænz.foɹ.mɹ̩] and [trænz.ˈfoɹ.mɹ̩].  It would sound correct, to me ear, to put the stress on the first syllable in, "looks like he blew a transformer" if you were talking about an electrical accident, but it would mean something entirely different if you put the stress on the second syllable.  (I'm sure there are whole web sites dedicated to this second meaning, but I'm afraid to google for them.)

Am I alone here, or do other people also make this distinction?  Try it yourself: when you say electrical transformer, do you say [ˈtrænz.foɹ.mɹ̩] or [trænz.ˈfoɹ.mɹ̩]?

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[trænz.ˈfoɹ.mɹ̩], for both, although when referring to the robots, I curl my lip inaudibly.

Posted by: Adam at Feb 17, 2007 9:50:47 PM

I only put the stress on the 2d syllable. But instead of [trænz.ˈfoɹ.mɹ̩] I say [træns.ˈfoɹ.mɹ̩]. This doesn't pattern throughout my speech--I don't play with model [trejns] or drink from aluminum [kæns]. Perhaps my syllabification allows for a rare [sf-] onset. Though that's almost unheard-of within my sphere.

Posted by: Michael at Feb 18, 2007 12:02:28 AM

I'm quite sure that the robots for me are stressed on the second syllable, and all other uses stress the first syllable - exactly the opposite of your judgments. I wonder if the internet can provide us with a clip from the show to see what *they* said...

Posted by: Aaron Braver at Feb 18, 2007 5:16:10 AM

I think I probably used to stress the first syllable, back in the days when the electrical device was the only application of the word. But nowadays it's the second syllable for both.

Posted by: theophylact at Feb 18, 2007 1:12:09 PM

Could it have been influenced by the jingle from the commercial for the toys, do you think?

Posted by: David Conrad at Feb 20, 2007 6:37:33 PM

I think I'm the opposite way round from you:

TRANSformer or transformer = giant robot, or possibly other thing which changes

transFORMer = chunk of iron with wires wrapped round

Posted by: Geoff Richards at Feb 22, 2007 5:05:45 AM

Second syllable for all uses here.

Posted by: language hat at Feb 22, 2007 7:20:56 AM