The Grammarphobia Blog

Empire State-ments

Q: Why do we (OK, New Yorkers) pronounce the “Empire State Building” with emphasis on “State,” while we emphasize “Empire” when the words are just “Empire State”?

A: We’ve had this thought ourselves. When people (and not just New Yorkers) say the “Empire State,” they emphasize the first word over the second: “EMPIRE State.”

Similarly, residents of Connecticut refer to the “NUTMEG State,” Californians to the “GOLDEN State,” New Jerseyans to the “GARDEN State,” and so on.

So why does the principal stress shift to the second word when people say “the Empire STATE Building”?

In 2006, on the building’s 75th anniversary, the novelist Benjamin Kunkel wrote a small piece for the New York Times commenting on “our curious pronunciation of those four words.”

“Let’s say you had a building named, as ours would seem to be, after the Empire State, New York,” Kunkel wrote. “In that case, the usual way for a native speaker of American English to pronounce the two middle words of the name would be as a dactyl: ‘EM-pire state,’ you’d say. But we don’t say it like that. Instead we employ what in prosody is called an anapest: ‘em-pire STATE,’ with the accent, that is, on the word ‘state’ rather than on the word ‘empire.’ Say it and see for yourself: it’s ‘em-pire STATE build-ing,’ not ‘EM-pire state build-ing.’ ” 

But Kunkel didn’t offer a good reason why.

Generally, when an identifying adjective modifies “building,” the adjective is emphasized over the noun (“office building,” “apartment building,” etc.).

The same is true when a building has a proper name—the modifier gets the emphasis: “CHRYSLER Building,” “FLATIRON Building,” “WOOLWORTH Building,” “SEAGRAM Building,” and so on.

When “Building” is preceded  by a compound, then the principal emphasis falls on the word that’s normally emphasized in that compound: “Time-LIFE Building,” “LEHMAN Brothers Building,” “New York LIFE Insurance Building,” “Manufacturers Hanover TRUST Building,” “WARNER Brothers Building,” “Universal PICTURES Building,” “New York TIMES Building.”

So if we emphasize the first word in the phrase “EMPIRE State,” why don’t Americans call it the “EMPIRE State Building”? 

We have to admit that we don’t have an answer. And neither, apparently, does anyone else.

We did find a discussion of this subject on a respected language website, but it wasn’t much help.

The linguist Mark Lieberman, writing on the Language Log, noted that when “Building” is modified by a compound,” the main stress generally falls on the expected main stress” of that compound.

“Thus,” he wrote, “what used to be the Field Building in Chicago is now the LaSalle National Bank Building—and I assume (without ever having heard it pronounced) that the main stress ought to be on bank.”

He went on to say that “since New York is the Empire State—with main stress on state—it follows that the Empire State Building ought also to have main stress on state.”

But as we’ve said, and as some readers of the Language Log pointed out, the stress in the two-word phrase “Empire State” is on “Empire,” not on “State.” So that leaves us back where we started.

Of course, “Empire STATE Building” is easier to say than one strong syllable followed by five weak ones: “EM-pire-state-build-ing.” And yet, a string of unaccented syllables doesn’t seem to bother people who say (or used to say) “LEH-man-broth-ers-build-ing.”

Dictionaries aren’t much help here, either. The Collins English Dictionary says the phrase “Empire State Building” is pronounced with accents on the first syllables of “Empire” and “Building.” Well, perhaps by some English speakers, but not by Americans.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online gives “Empire STATE Building” for both the British and the American pronunciations.

If we do find an answer to this mystery, you’ll be the first to know!

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