No, not the stress that causes chest pains and panic attacks. I'm talking about the stress on syllables in the English language. You may know that old joke about putting the "emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle." Doing so can render a word almost unintelligible.
I am currently listening to a CD from The Great Courses called "Language A to Z." If you don't know The Great Courses, you should take a look at their website. They have college-level courses on every subject imaginable – language, science, math, history, religion, philosophy, literature, art, music – you name it.
And they always have fabulous sales at great prices. No, unfortunately, I'm not getting paid for this promotion. I just like the products.
Anyway, this course is taught by Professor John McWhorter from Columbia University, who has a PhD in linguistics. One of the segments is called "C for Compounds" and it points out a remarkable thing that native English speakers don't even notice, as we do it so automatically.
When a word or phrase becomes a "compound," we put the stress on a different syllable.
For example, if you see a bird that is black, you call it a "black BIRD." If, however, you see the bird known as a blackbird, the emphasis is on the first word -- we call it "BLACKbird."
Even where the two words do not unite to become one different word, the principle applies. Think of a house that is white. We call it a "white HOUSE." But the home of the president is the "WHITE house."
I was surprised by this observation, but I was so startled by his next point that at first I didn't believe him.
Think about giving directions. You send someone to "Maple ROAD" or "Maple LANE" or "Maple AVENUE" – but not to "Maple STREET." It's "MAPLE Street." And nobody knows why.
As the professor says, "Sometimes languages just throw things at you that don't make sense – or at least not yet."