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I have heard BBC speakers pronounce these words with
emphasis on the syllable in caps: CONtribute, REfuse (as in I
refuse to be...)
There are lots of others where Brits routinely stress a different
syllable than Americans. Why is this?
Classics Deptartment, retired
There is some variation in stress placement within British English, as well as differences between British and US speakers. Nearly all the variation is in words of Romance etymology: words from the Germanic word stock are much more stable in stress placement, following the general Germanic pattern of stress on the root.
So we are talking about a small number of words where stress varies (examples include 'controversy', advertisement and 'magazine'). Not all British English speakers would place the stress on the same syllable in these words.
In addition, there are systematic differences in the treatment of unstressed syllables between different accents. Some of these differences between (most) English English and (most) US English are associated with the loss (in most English English) of post-vocalic r. The way in which the vowels of unstressed syllables are pronounced varies too, with some accents having more reduction (to schwa or /I/) than others.
All of these factors IMpact/imPACT on the two words you noticed.
CONtribute is certainly a possible pronunciation in Britain (it is my own pronunciation, in fact), but so is conTRIbute (and conTRIBute is the one in the Oxford English Dictionary).
REfuse (=won't do)is much rarer, and I would not expect to hear anything but reFUSE. There are a number of possibilities around what you heard:
(a) the speaker made a reading error, confused by REfuse (=rubbish) or RE-fuse (put a new fuse in).
(b) You may have misheard because of a systematic difference between your accent and the speaker's. The vowel /i/ (as in 'seat', but a bit shorter) is widely used in British English in unstressed syllables were most US speakers would have /I/ or schwa. You may have heard the vowel /i/ in the first syllable. This may not be a vowel that you can use in unstressed syllables, so you thought the syllable was stressed.
Accents vary. They vary in all aspects: sounds (my vowel in 'man' will not be the same as yours); words (I have a /h/ in 'herb' and a /l/ in 'solder' while you probably don't: you probably have a /r/ in 'farm' and 'car' and I don't; intonation; and stress. Nothing to be surprised about. Compared to the differences in the vowel sounds, the differences in stress pattern are fairly small, but that may just make them all the more salient.
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