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A Stress Shift in a *Triblet of Trisyllables

More and more often one hears the triplet of trisyllabic (common) verbs ending in /-trib-ute/, namely contribute, distribute, and attribute, being pronounced with stress on the initial syllable instead of the standard stress on the penult. This shift has occurred in dialects of British English (and in those of its closest derivatives, notably Australian, South African, and Anglo-Indian) but not in North American. (Only for the rarer verb retribute does the OED list an alternative stress on the first syllable.)

The reason seems clear. Whenever verbs end in a derivational morpheme or quasi-morpheme like {-ize} or {-ate}, the stress falls typically on the second syllable preceding the suffix, hence ironize like soliloquize, ululate like proliferate, etc. Even a class of trisyllabic verbs of a mere three or four members ending in the same sequence of sounds lends itself to reinterpretation as part of derivational morphology, i.e., as involving suffixation, thence giving rise to the shift from medial to initial syllable as a contemporary innovation that is consonant with the historical drift of English prosody.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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