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Stressing over stress: more pronunciation complexities

Sometimes you stumble upon an easy, familiar word, and you just can’t remember how to say it.

Take “complex”, for example. You’ve probably heard it pronounced two ways, with stress on either the first or second syllable.

But which one is right? The answer is a bit complex.

For the noun form, the stress always goes on the first syllable, like “apartment COM-plex” or “sports COM-plex.”

But what if you’re describing a complicated math problem or maybe a difficult relationship with a relative?

When it comes to the adjective form of “complex”, some dictionaries list both pronunciations as standard, while the Oxford English Dictionary lists one as British and the other as American.

But a listener named Julie says she rarely hears the adjective form pronounced with stress on the second syllable anymore. She wanted to know if that’s a recent shift.

It’s certainly possible. Anne Curzan says in English, shifts in pronunciation tend to “just happen.”

“Sometimes the stress will move forward, because Germanic languages [like English] often like to put the stress toward the first syllable of the word,” Curzan said.

For example, did you know that “balcony” used to be pronounced “bal-CO-ney”?

In the 19th century English poet Samuel Rogers said hearing it pronounced “BAL-coney” was enough to make him sick. But the new pronunciation stuck.

Who knows, maybe pronouncing “complex” with stress on the second syllable isn’t long for this world. Or maybe it’s about to experience a renaissance.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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