By insaner

2015-08-18 09:25:57 8 Comments

I'm a first language English speaker, but grew up bilingual in Spanish in a Spanish speaking country. Today I was speaking to another first language English speaker (Canadian) and used the word "accessory" but the other person did not understand me. I changed the stress from the first syllable to the second and they finally understood. I thought this was because my English is more Americanized, and chalked it up to the difference with Canadian English. Curious, I looked up the pronunciation in the dictionary but it only offered the second syllable stress pronunciation as correct.

Have I been pronouncing it wrong all this time? I only use the first syllable stress version when talking about objects (an accessory for a camera, for example) but for some reason use the second syllable stress version in other situations (like "accessory to murder"). I cannot trace why I pronounce it the first way, so I have no idea where I learned to pronounce it that way (or why the other way in other contexts). Can anyone confirm if there are any regions (that use English as first language) that pronounce it the first way?


@Greg Lee 2017-11-28 03:15:32

I find the pronunciation of "accessory" with just a single stress on the first syllable very odd. I would never say it that way -- it just doesn't sound like a possible American English pronunciation. I don't know why, but I have a guess.

English stress is fundamentally dissimilatory -- syllables get stressed before an unstressed syllable, or, even more favorable to stress is the position before two unstressed syllables. That is what is odd about "ACCessory" -- there are three unstressed syllables in a row. One of the first two should have dissimilated and become stressed.

Yes, I know what you're thinking. You know lots of words with three unstressed syllables in a row: "PRESidency", "ADvocacy", for instance. But those are morphologically complex forms in which the vowels of certain morphemes lose their stress. The Main Stress Rule in The Sound Pattern of English incorporates references to the specific morphemes At and Or, for instance.

@sumelic 2017-11-19 04:16:39

There seems to have once been a pronunciation of "accessory" with the main accent on the first syllable, and no stress on the second syllable. Many polysyllabic words ending in "-ary" or "-ory" put the main accent two syllables before this ending (as in "commentary" or "inventory"). But some of these words have come to have the main accent on the first syllable before "-ary" or "-ory", and "accessory" is currently pronounced everywhere with this accentuation (as far as I can tell).

The Oxford English Dictionary says

N.E.D. (1884) also gives the pronunciation (æ·ksėsəri) /ˈæksɪsərɪ/.

Walker's Critical Pronunciation Dictionary (1791) only gives a single pronunciation, with the main accent on the first syllable. It is a prescriptive dictionary, but Walker usually noted when he was proposing a new pronunciation, and he doesn't say anything like that in this entry.

It's also mentioned in Correct Pronunciation, A Manual Containing Two Thousand Common Words that are Frequently Mis-pronounced, and Eight Hundred Proper Names, with Practical Exercises, by Julian Willis Abernethy (1912)—as an incorrect pronunciation. (According to the preface, Abernathy intended to recommend only "the best current usage"). Abernathy cites "Worcester", which I guess would be J E Worcester, as the main "authority" he felt supported the pronunciation with the main accent on the first syllable. I don't know if the pronunciation was even common in Abernathy's time (making it one of the words he thought were "frequently mispronounced"), or if he just mentioned it because he had encountered it in some old dictionaries, and he wanted to advise people against using a pronunciation that he thought was outdated.

I don't know the distribution of this pronunciation in present-day English, or whether it represents a retention of the old accentuation pattern or an innovation based on some other tendencies (e.g. a general tendency to place the main accent on the first syllable of words, or analogy from the accentuation of "access"). I can't recall ever hearing it myself.

Possible stress on the first syllable when the second syllable is accented

Some of the comments beneath this question bring up a slightly different point. An English word can only have one main accented syllable (which is always a stressed syllable, and is often said to have the "primary stress"), but according to many analyses, there may be stressed syllables in a word other than the main accented syllable. (I found a document that seems to give a more complete explanation of English stress and accent, if you want to learn more about that: "Sentential Prominence in English", by Carlos Gussenhoven.)

The vowel in the initial syllable of "accessory" is reduced to something like /ə/ for many speakers, but not all.

It may be that some speakers have the main accent on the second syllable, but also stress the first syllable, and consequently pronounce it as /æk/ with an unreduced vowel.

Or, it could be that to speakers who reduce the vowel, a pronunciation with unreduced /æ/ just sounds like it has some stress on the first syllable. There are arguments about what "stress" is in English, and where it occurs. (E.g. not everyone distinguishes "accent" from "stress" the way I've tried to do in this answer.)

Words that are derived from other words with a different accentuation pattern can sometimes have adjacent stressed syllables like this; I would say that another possible example of this is "activity", related to the adjective "active", and pronounced with unreduced /æ/ in the first syllable even though the second syllable of "activity" has the main accent.

I found a source that calls this "tertiary stress" ("Word Stress – Part 1", p 111), but in any case there is no consensus as far as I know about the names for different "levels" of stress in English. Probably the least controversial way of describing the difference between the pronunciations is by referring to the presence or absence of vowel reduction.

@alwayssummer 2015-12-01 08:19:57

Have I been pronouncing it wrong all this time?

In North American pronunciation, the answer is yes, you have been pronouncing it wrong.

Can anyone confirm if there are any regions (that use English as first language) that pronounce it the first way?

Just for kicks I tried a few other accents in and I can confirm that the Australians and Brits also place the accent on the second syllable.

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