14 February 2011

Plastic Bag

On Monday evening, I was flying back from Singapore on an RBA flight, and as we approached Brunei, I heard the announcement "We will shortly be collecting the handsets. Please place them in the plastic bag." What I found interesting was that the main stress in the second sentence was on plastic rather than on bag (which is where I would have put it).

The rule for stress placement in noun phrases such as plastic bag is this: if it is a compound noun (N + N), such as traffic lights or police car, then the stress falls on the first item; but if it is Adj + Noun, such as tall man or interesting film, then the main stress falls on the second item. In this case, plastic is an adjective, so the stress should fall on bag rather than plastic.

Well, fine. Except there are rather a lot of exceptions. For example, Oxford Street is stressed on Oxford, but Oxford Road is stressed on Road; and chocolate cake is stressed on chocolate while choocolate biscuit is stressed on biscuit. And there seems to be no easy explanation for these patterns.

Perhaps it's not really surprising if the RBA announcer didn't follow the native stress patterns exactly!