I hope that Central Trains are daily besieged with complaints about their overcrowding and frequent delays. I do as much fuming about this as anybody else condemned to a daily commute along the Stansted Airport – Birmingham New Street line, but what I really want to write to head office about is the guards’ mangling of English stress patterns. (‘Dear Mr Suola, Thank you for your letter. The contents have been noted. Get a life.’)
You see, I have always taught students that the stressed words in an utterance are the words the speaker regards as salient in the discourse. With lower level students, you can be economical with the truth and say that we don’t (usually) stress prepositions, because these for the most part carry edge-of-the-action info, not right-in-the-thick-of it info:
‘The doorbell rang.’ (What basically happened.)
Steve opened the door.’ (Who did what.)
‘On the landing he saw a drop-dead gorgeous young hunk…’ (Prepositional phrase creates a setting, a starting point. Main point is the hunk*)
‘…and invited him into the flat at exactly eight P.M.’ (The prepositional phrase might actually be the true focus of interest here.)
Now if you were to utter the phrase, ‘on the landing he saw a drop-dead gorgeous young hunk and invited him into the flat at exactly eight P.M.’ I submit you would probably stress it thus:
‘on the LANding he SAW a DROP-DEAD GORgeous YOUNG HUNK and inVIted him into the FLAT at exACTly EIGHT P.M.’
UNLESS you were a guard who'd been taught public speaking by Central Chuffing Trains, when you might well stress it something like this:
‘ON the landing HE saw a drop-dead gorgeous young hunk and invited him INTO the flat AT exactly eight P.M.’
thus making a pig's mickey of all the clues as to the relevance and salience of the various components of the sentence. Why do they do it?
‘Ladies and gentlemen we shall shortly be arriving AT Melton Mowbray.’
‘This train is FOR Stansted Airport, calling AT Melton Mowbray, Oakham, Stamford…’
It doesn't impede communication, I know, but it bugs me. It bugs me almost as much as the people quacking into their mobile phones as loudly as if they were alone, or listening to those frantically fizzing MP3 players that are audible half the length of the carriage.
Guards also stress auxiliaries in counter-intuitive ways:
‘We shall shortly be arriving AT Peterborough. If you ARE leaving the train at Peterborough, please remember to take all your belongings with you. Peterborough, our next station stop’
It sounds rather as if some people had been expressing reservations as to the wisdom of alighting at Peterborough, and the guard is addressing those who have decided to chance it.
Oh, and don’t get me started on ‘station stop’ for Christ’s sake, or we’ll be here all night.
* Who might well have been a Turkish Oil Wrestler.