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In my idiolect, the word "defense", with the emphasis on the first syllable means "the role of defending". With the emphasis on the second syllable, it means "the act of defending". A similar (though not quite as clean) distinction applies to the word "offense" which, with the emphasis on the first syllable, pertains to a role and, with the emphasis on the second syllable, pertains to an act. Is this phenomenon peculiar to these words, or does it apply more generally? Is there a formal name for such sets of words?

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    The word desert (not to confuse with dessert!) comes to mind as another example, where the two meanings are perhaps more different and also clearer for non-native English speakers.
    – EdvinW
    Jan 20 at 19:18
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    Also PRESent (n, adj) and presENT (v).
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 20 at 23:37
  • Another pair: pro-GRESS (v) and PRO-gress (n) ; there are many more.
    – arp
    Jan 21 at 18:43
  • Do linguists care about things like that? For example, I can't see the historical coincidence of "buffet" (the thing wind does) and "buffet" (the thing you get your food from) happened to end up getting spelled the same, as holding much research interest.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 21 at 22:12
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This has not been elevated to the status of a special term. There is some generality to the pattern and is discussed in the phonological literature. In English, verbs versus nouns have different stress patterns, having to do with whether final consonant clusters force final stress (in verbs) or not (in nouns). In addition, one can use nouns as verbs and vice versa. This give rise to pairs like perMIT (verb) vs. PERmit, transFER vs. TRANSfer, proTEST vs. PROtests, and the examples you noted. "Defense" and "offense" add a complication of being nouns derived from verbs by a consonant change.

This system is kind of chaotic, though, and I (and others monitoring my speech) find that I use perMIT for the noun, TRANSfer for the verb, maybe PROTest along with proTEST, but CONvict vs. conVICT are strictly "by the rules". The (fairly arcane) analysis of The sound pattern of English would give you DEfense and OFfense by a specialized layer of derivation, turning a noun into a noun.

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    There's also the problem that there are some American lects where the stress is always on the first syllable, regardless of POS.
    – jlawler
    Jan 20 at 22:24
  • That's the reason why I specified "in my idiolect". I confess that I didn't even have the confidence to extend that to my local (more or less North Midland American) dialect. Jan 20 at 23:06
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    I agree that transfer and protest are quite lax about where they want to be stressed as verbs (I would probably say ˈtransfer about transferring files or transferring to a new school, but transˈfer when it refers to analogically applying some sort of logic to something else). But perˈmit as a noun? As in, “you need a perˈmit from the local government to be able to do that”? That sounds as unfamiliar and strange to me as conˈvict for someone who’s been convicted. Is this a feature of any dialect? Jan 21 at 9:29
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Of course there is the term homograph for words sharing the same spelling, but I am not aware for a special term of homographs that are essentially distinguished by their stress patterns.

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These are examples of suprafix in English, where the stress pattern on a word changes to give it a distinct meaning. More specifically, your examples are all initial-stress-derived nouns.

Such words (and words which are generally spelled the same but pronounced differently) are known as heteronyms (or heterophones).

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