Saturday, February 21, 2009

Casualties of War

In previous posts, we’ve flagged basketball names that are just spoken flat-out wrong, from “Vitale” to “Kobe”. One of the oddest cases of bad pronunciations in basketball is a problem that pervades all major sports in the United States and Canada: the odd first-syllable stress when we speak of “offense” or “defense”. Have you noticed that these words always receive second-syllable stress in other contexts? Try saying the phrases “Department of Defense” or “The defense rests, Your Honor.” Stress on the second syllable, right? So why, then, would we switch the emphasis in an athletic context? Other sporty permutations of the word still place emphasis on the second syllable: Try muttering “Defensive Player of the Year” (a clear case of iambic tetrameter if there ever was one, making Ben Wallace nearly Shakespearean) or “He’s a subpar defender.” Yet, the iconic chant to spur your team to guard their own goal better is “DE-fense!” (which is probably unique to basketball) and the knock on Amar’e Stoudemire is that he “can’t get back on D” (omitting the unstressed syllable entirely).

These problems recur with that word’s opposite. If I make a rude comment, I might worriedly inquire: “I hope you didn’t take offENSE” (iambic tetrameter yet again); a hagiographer might dreamily write that a politician or a military leader is “on the offENSIVE” — again, the stress is with the second syllable. But consider: For the past five seasons, the Phoenix Suns have boasted the best OFFense in the league and have led the league in OFF-ensive efficiency.

Stress shifts in spoken language are hardly unheard of, but they are usually regionally based. Consider “CON-tro-ver-sy” in the United States vs. “”con-TRO-ver-sy” in England or India. Or “FI-nance” over here vs. “fi-NANCE” across the Atlantic. Are there any other cases where these discrepancies are found only in one industry or walk of life?

Perhaps one motivation for the first-syllable stress in ‘offense’ and ‘defense’ is to distinguish: when commentators are likely to be talking simultaneously about a player’s or team’s performance at both ends of the court, it helps to stress what is different in the two concepts, and to elide what is common (the –fense part!). Also, loading all the oomph upfront in those words emphasizes the aggressive, go-get-it spirit required to succeed. Finally, it could be that these mutations just happened by chance one day and caught on, without anyone thinking much of why. The sports world has venerated John Madden and Yogi Berra as commentators, although their elocution hardly made them Laurence Olivier or Alan Keyes. Finally, some linguistic analysts argue that stress shifts are more likely at faster speaking rates. This is likely to be the case in the rough-and-tumble toil of sports announcing. If only George Blaha could just chill out.

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