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The word protesters has for obvious reasons jumped into abnormally high-rotation on the news radio dial, and to my surprise, many of the members of the media (on NPR and the BBC) that I've heard use the word are pronouncing it protésters [pʰɹəˈtʰɛstɚz] rather than the way I would pronounce it, prótesters [ˈpʰɹoʊˌtʰɛstɚz]. (Please ignore the r-coloring I've indicated on the last vowel, which reflects my r-ful pronunciation; it's the difference in stress that I'm interested in.) I think I've pinpointed both the justification for pronouncing what I'll arbitrarily call "the media's way" and why I pronounce it my way; read on below the fold if you're interested, and let us know what you think in the comments.

protést [pʰɹəˈtʰɛst] is a verb meaning "to express an objection to what someone has said or done". There's also a noun derived from this verb, prótest [ˈpʰɹoʊˌtʰɛst], "a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something". (Definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary.) It's quite common for related noun/verb pairs like this to differ in the placement of stress (witness récord/recórd pérmit/permít, etc.), and the secondary stress on the second syllable of the noun is (arguably) a reflex of the primary stress on that syllable in the verb from which the noun is derived. So far, so good.

The agentive -er suffix attaches to verbs to create nouns that (roughly) have the meaning "one who verbs": a runner is "one who runs", a worker is "one who works", etc. These derived nouns tend to keep the verb's stress where it's found in isolation: "one who perfórms" is a perfórmer and "one who rállies" is a rállier.

If you're following along so far, you will have noted by now that this all points to the media's way of pronouncing protéster as correct: add -er to the verb protést, and that's what you get. But not so fast.

You see for me, protést is primarily the action of an individual with a specific grievance, while prótest primarily describes a group event and many grievances. In other words, I wouldn't describe the act of someone who protésts to my analysis here as a prótest, and I would also be very surprised to walk by a prótest and to hear them chanting "We protést!" So protésters doesn't work for me because the folks we're talking about aren't protésting; they're involved in a prótest.

So does this mean that -er can (irregularly, exceptionally) attach to nouns like prótest? I don't think so, because it turns out there's also a verb prótest — in my vocabulary at least, and likely derived from the noun — that means roughly "to be involved in a prótest". Add -er to this twice-derived verb, and you get my way of pronouncing prótester.

So now what's up with the media's way of pronouncing it protéster? A very reasonable and likely explanation is that for these speakers, the verb protést is simply not confined to describing the actions of individuals with specific grievances, but also covers the actions of groups with many grievances. This explanation would appear to entail that these speakers rarely if ever use a verb prótest with the more specific group-action meaning; this remains to be seen.


  1. Aaron Toivo said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 1:23 am

    I think I agree with your analysis of the semantics, and I see a similar situation with "permit":

    permít: v. "to allow"
    pérmit: n. "an instance of permission to do something"
    permítter: "one who allows"
    pérmitter: "one who issues permits"

    [Yes! I thought of this one while composing the post and somehow neglected to add it, so thanks for doing so.

    My high school driver's ed teacher used to talk about how we'd be getting our permíts, so there may be some interesting individual variation story to tell about this one, too. — EB]

  2. Jonathan said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 1:26 am

    I agree there are two verbs at work here, to prótest and to protést. I have a sense that to protést means "to assert" as in "to protést one's innocence" or, with "against", "to express disapproval" as in "to protést against unfair treament." But in the sense of "to engage in an organized prótest against something" we (or I) use "to prótest" with a direct object, as in "we went to City Hall to prótest the closing of the library." It is from this (paroxytone) verb that the word "prótester" seems to be derived.

    [I can use prótest intranstively. That there is something to protest is understood, naturally (just as with eat), but there's not syntactic need for an object for me. — EB]

    Maybe people who pronounce "protéster" do not make the same distinction as I do, but pronounce "to protést" for all meanings.

  3. AMcguinn said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 1:53 am

    The BBC pronounce it that way because all English people do. I can't help you on NPR — maybe they're just copying the BBC.

    ["All English people do" is quite a claim to make without producing some evidence, which is why I didn't make it. The NPR personality was Corey Flintoff — I've always thought of his accent as American, but he studied English literature so perhaps there's some influence there. I doubt "copying" has anything to do with it.]

    The meaning distinction raised by Jonathan is more interesting (and significant). Protest as a transitive verb has the exact opposite meaning in the US than in Britain, therefore it kind of makes sense to interpret the word differently based on whether it is pronounced in the English or American manner.

    [I don't get where you get "the exact opposite meaning" bit from Jonathan's comment. In any event, see my comment on Jonathan's comment above. — EB]

  4. John Cowan said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 2:12 am

    "in Britain, convicts protest their innocence, whereas in America, they protest their conviction." —me, commenting on this LL post

  5. dw said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 2:26 am

    In British English, as far as I know, one cannot protest anything except one's innocence. I have always assumed that this is the fossilized remnant of an older, more general usage, meaning something like "declaim".

    [Then whence protésters on the BBC of late? The folks they're talking about are certainly not protesting their innocence!]

    [ˈpʰɹoʊˌtʰɛst], really? I would say [ˈpʰɹoʊtɛst] myself.

    [This seems to be a transcriptional preference: the full [ɛ] vowel in the second syllable indicates some degree of stress, which I indicate. Compare prótest [ˈpʰɹoʊˌtʰɛst] with bíggest [ˈbɪgəst]. — EB]

  6. Sid Smith said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 3:07 am

    Agree with the above poster: the BBC stress pattern accords with UK usage. In fact, I can't think of any circs in which I'd stress protest (v) on the first syllable — including Eric's meaning of "going on a protest".

  7. Charles Hollingsworth said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 6:25 am

    So where does "Prótestant" fit into this analysis? And is (or was) there a noun "protéstant"?

  8. GeorgeW said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 6:57 am

    Doesn't AmE exclude the agentive suffix /-er/ ~ /-erz/from the stress pattern of the word?

    PROtest (noun)
    proTest (verb)
    PROtest-er (noun)
    PROtest-erz (plural noun)

    [No. For example, I doubt that anyone (American or otherwise) would say e.g. ínvestor(s) instead of invéstor(s). — EB]

  9. Jongseong Park said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 9:35 am

    [ˈpʰɹoʊˌtʰɛst], really? I would say [ˈpʰɹoʊtɛst] myself.

    Interesting. I think I say [ˈpʰɹoʊˌtʰɛst] myself, and would never leave the first t unaspirated. In contrast, I pronounce 'protestant' as [ˈpʰɹɒɾəstənt] where I write [ɾ] for the 'flapped' intervocalic t. A simple unaspirated [t] for an intervocalic t in English that is not followed by a stressed vowel sounds alien to me; [ɾ] and [tʰ] are the only options for me.

    The intervocalic t of 'protest' is never flapped as far as I know. The aspiration might not be as strong as when it heads a stressed syllable, but it is unmistakeable and clearly distinguishes the [tʰ] in 'protest' from the unaspirated t in 'actor' or 'softest'.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 10:14 am

    I agree with the two verbs analysis.

    @AMcguinn: If you mean the "to affirm" meaning (Wiktionary gives the example "I protest my innocence"), that's not the exact opposite of the "to object to" meaning (which Wiktionary lists as "chiefly North America"). Perhaps vaguely sort of opposite, but not at all "exact" opposite.

  11. Catherine said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 10:39 am

    So where does "Prótestant" fit into this analysis? And is (or was) there a noun "protéstant"?

    Charles, I can remember, as a child, learning of a group who called themselves "Protéstants" as a deliberate distinction, but I can't figure out how to search for any more information. Perhaps they were an offshoot of Lutheranism because it was from a Lutheran pastor that I heard of them. I'm not even sure if they were a historical or a contemporary sect.

  12. Lane Greene said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 10:53 am

    I did a little of the transatlantic analysis here,
    based on the fact that the OED (obviously not exhaustively) gives the two pronunciations of "protest"-as-verb as American, and lists proTEST as the only British pronunciation of the verb.

  13. blahedo said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    I agree with the original analysis, that there are two verbs here; prótesting is what chiefly groups do at demonstrations (and is nearly synonymous with "demonstrate" in this sense), while protésting is what you do when someone accuses you of something (and is roughly synonymous with "object").

  14. dw said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

    In British English, as far as I know, one cannot protest anything except one's innocence. I have always assumed that this is the fossilized remnant of an older, more general usage, meaning something like "declaim".

    [Then whence protésters on the BBC of late? The folks they're talking about are certainly not protesting their innocence!]

    They're protesting _against_ Mubarak, etc., not (in British English) protesting them as direct objects.

    [(myl) But there are many, many examples of UKers protesting direct objects, e.g. here.]

  15. Chris Brew said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    You can definitely protest eternal love to the object of your affections. Even though the British aren't given to such things, it can be done.

  16. Bruce H. said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    I also agree with the two-verbs analysis.

    This said, note that -er is not confined to deverbal agentive nouns. The OED (entry "er") tells us that X-er originally meant "someone who has to do with X" and that many words today continue this sense: hatter, outsider, villager, New Yorker. Thus initially stressed "protester" could in principle be "someone who attends protests". My native intuition prefers the deverbal reading, perhaps because deverbal -er is more productive or more frequent.

    [Thanks, Bruce — I completely ignored the denominal possibilities of -er. — EB]

  17. mollymooly said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

    I've rarely come across a "permítter" and never a "pérmitter"; my previous-example would be "állied fórces", which seems to derive from the noun "álly" rather than the verb "allý", and may influence the trend to pronounce the verb with the same initial stress as the noun.

    [It's also possible that this is an example of the "Rhythm Rule" in English; see this 1984 article by Bruce Hayes for examples and details. — EB]

  18. Eric P Smith said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

    I am an older UK speaker. I don't recall ever hearing "prótest" as a verb from a UK speaker (and I generally notice such things if they are there to be noticed). And ironically it was only last week, in the current news climate, that I first became aware of "prótester" from any speaker. To me it sounds utterly alien.

    The above readers' comments now persuade me that in the US there are indeed two verbs, "protést" meaning to object and "prótest" meaning to take part in a prótest. In the UK, the second of these has until now been rare. A prótest consists of people who are protésting, and accordingly I call them protésters.

  19. dw said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

    They're protesting _against_ Mubarak, etc., not (in British English) protesting them as direct objects.

    [(myl) But there are many, many examples of UKers protesting direct objects, e.g. here.]

    Fair enough. As in so many things, my views are out of date :)

    But there is still quite a striking contrast between the US and UK. In the UK, "protesting against" outnumbers "protesting the" by about 4:1.

    In the internet as a whole, "protesting the" outnumbers "protesting against" by about 5:2.

  20. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

    For the record, in his pronunciation dictionary, John Wells gives both options for the verb in both BrE and AmE.

    But more interestingly, under protester, he gives the results of one of his pronunciation polls, albeit for BrE only:

    Preference poll, British English: [stress on the second syllable] 69%; [stress on the first syllable] 31% (born since 1982: 45%)

    Note that the polls were done on paper, via regular mail (!), and – if I remember correctly – essentially on a self-report volunteer basis. So any "new" trends may be underreported. Or overreported ;)

  21. I.D. Mercer said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 6:47 pm

    I'm a native speaker of North American English (Western Canadian), and my intuitions largely agree with Eric's.

    As for the -ing form of the word, I'm pretty sure I describe a large group of people at a rally as PROtesting, not proTESTing (because they are involved in a PROtest).

  22. Gene Chambers said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

    This reminds me of a recent tendency I've noticed for TV news-people to pronounce the word dis-TRIB-u-tuhr as dis-tri-BYOO-tuhr.

  23. Ian Mac said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

    I would attribute this mostly to wanting to sound fancy. Like @AMcguinn said, the BBC uses the king's, and NPR, which fancies itself the American intellectual media would probably not be beyond borrowing a British pronunciation in an attempt to sound cultured.

  24. Jason L. said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 12:59 am

    To this AmE speaker, prótest and protést are two distinct words that are spelled the same way. The former, as a verb, means to demonstrate, and cannot be used transitively; as a noun, it means a demonstration. The latter, as a verb, means to object to, and as a noun would have to be a "protestation".

    Speculating blindly, it stands to reason that, following the very common pattern in English of making nouns out of Latin(ate) verbs of the form prefix+root by shifting the stress onto the prefix, prótest arose as the noun for protést, and then acquired a meaning of its sufficiently distinct that one could then verb it, which, to my understanding, doesn't generally involve a change of stress. Diseases are things that you contráct, but projects are things that you cóntract out.

  25. pj said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 6:21 am

    I'm another BrE speaker for whom 'protéstor' is fine and 'prótestor' would cause a wrinkled nose. I can sort of see what you're getting at with the 'two different verbs' idea, but for me there is absolutely no problem with a person going on a prótest to protést [against something].

    Relatedly, I've been noticing recently BBC broadcasters using 'résearcher' a lot, where only 'reséarcher' is ok for me. Personally, I stress the second syllable in both noun and verb forms of 'research' as well, though for the noun ('did some résearch') I wouldn't quibble, which puts me in line with the OED: it gives both stresses as alternatives for BrE noun 'research', but for the verb first-syllable stress as an alternative only in AmE.
    I don't think anyone could claim a difference in nuance between the activities of a reséarcher and a résearcher, could they?

  26. Zythophile said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

    [(myl) But there are many, many examples of UKers protesting direct objects, e.g. here.]

    The Middle East-based newspaper I work on, although it has large number of North Americans working for it, has adopted British English as its standard and insists on "protest against" and "appeal against"; no Briton on the staff has protested against this, though they range in age down to their mid-20s. I'd need a lot of evidence to be convinced that "protesting the" is used in the UK by anything but a very small number of American-influenced Britons.

    I'd agree, however, having sub-edited a large number of stories about Middle East protests, that Americans use "protesters" (or "protestors") where Britons would prefer to use "demonstrators".

  27. J.H. said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

    This reminds me of a recent tendency I've noticed for TV news-people to pronounce the word dis-TRIB-u-tuhr as dis-tri-BYOO-tuhr.

    I've never heard anyone say the latter, or if I have I've considered it nonstandard (AmE speaker living in Hong Kong, where I'm exposed to a huge variety of accents).

  28. Keith said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

    I agree with Zynthofile: British usage is in my experience overwhelmingly "protést against" and "appeal against" where American English is "protest" and "appeal".

    Also, British usage tends to describe people as "demonstrators" who take part in "demonstrations" against a regime, although "demonstrations to protest against" something or somebody are not rare.


  29. maidhc said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 3:13 am

    "recess" is another word that works like that (or used to), and I could probably think of a few more.

  30. speedwell said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

    Why (I'm serious, why) do I habitually spell "someone who protests" as "protester," and "someone who attends a protest rally" as "protestor"?

  31. AB said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    Agree with the above poster

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