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Article On The Phenomenon Of Word Stress English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4484 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Phonology has been established as one of the most dynamic concepts within the linguistic domain, intensifying the need for a thorough analysis of its main principles and objectives.

As Lass (Lass, 1984) points out, there can be detected a slight distinction between phonology and phonetics in that, the former deals with “the function, behaviour, and organization of sounds as linguistic items”, whereas the latter devotes attention to the sounds themselves as “phenomena in the physical world”.

Goldsmith (Goldsmith, 2006) introduces the term “phonotactics”, in order to elaborate more on the notion of phonology. The idea lies in the potential that concrete sounds of words and utterances in natural languages can be subject to a sense of interdependence. What is more, the variety of morphs and phones chosen, in either oral or written speech, result in “modifications” among sounds, highlighting, in that sense, another term used by Goldsmith (Goldsmith, 2006), that of “automatic alternations”.

The present paper will account for the phenomenon of word stress in an effort to communicate the perception that the aforementioned is inextricably linked with phonology. Significant emphasis will be put on the parameters and features that dominate it as well as on the interactive relation culminating between phonological patterns and segmental processes.

Definition of Stress

According to O’Connor (O’Connor, 1973), stress is “the name given to the stronger muscular effort, both respiratory and articulatory”. Katamba (Katamba, 1989) defines it as “a matter of greater auditory prominence”, adding that a stressed element occupies a more salient position in the string it belongs to, compared to those unstressed.

Archibald (Archibald, 1995) makes another useful suggestion through which it is stated that, stress is “a significant contributor to bootstrapping the learner into acquiring grammatical categories”. To further support this claim, Archibald (Archibald, 1995) relies on Kaye’s survey (Kaye, 1988), which proves that phonology provides the framework within which word or phrase edges are indicated.

In this respect, it is observed that Archibald (Archibald, 1995) enriches the notion of stress, based on a study conducted by Echols and Newport (Echols and Newport, 1992). The procedure of the research is not going to be examined in detail as it goes beyond the scope of the present paper. The data collected, although, can steer the reader in a particular direction; unstressed and nonfinal syllables lack the possibility to be frequently included in speech. They are prone to be omitted in contrast with the stressed and final syllables that play a more dominant role.

Loudness, length, pitch, quality

Loudness, length, pitch and quality are four factors viewed as typical of word stress in terms of the prominent and intermediate syllables they exhibit, as Roca states (Roca, 1994). Roach (Roach, 1991) provides a worth-noticing analysis of each one of them, which is summarized as follows:

Loudness: stressed syllables tend to be perceived as louder than unstressed,

e.g.: ba:ba:ba:ba – this is a sequence of identical syllables given by Roach. In case one is pronounced louder than the other, then it will be heard as stressed.

Length: taking into account the same amount of syllables mentioned above, it becomes clear that the longer one is made, the more stressed it is heard.

Pitch: Roach claims that pitch “is closely related to the frequency of vibration of the vocal folds and to the musical notion of low- and high-pitched notes”. In the same example, if low pitch is the basic characteristic of all the syllables except for one, which has high pitch, then it is the latter that will be perceived as stressed whereas the others as unstressed.

Quality: it is a parameter that concerns mostly the function of vowels. Roach supports that, if in the word “ba:ba:ba:ba” one of the “ba” syllables is replaced by, let us say, a “bi” syllable, namely “ba:bi:ba:ba”, then the odd syllable will be recognized as more stressed.

In order to further expand on vowel quality, Katamba (Katamba, 1989) deals specifically with the phoneme schwa /É™/, whose unstressed nature does not leave room for voice prominence.

Primary/secondary stress

Words are usually divided into simple and complex ones. In the first case, it is intended that these words are composed of one grammatical unit, such as “father”, “potato” or “perhaps” in which stress is put on the first, middle and final syllable respectively, as proposed by Roach (Roach, 1991). Their phonemic transcription provides the following results:




The primary stress attributed to the syllables is relevant to the prominence that results from pitch movement, or “tone”.

In the second case, it is quite obvious that words consist of more than three syllables, such as “photographic” or “anthropology”. There is a type of stress here that is not salient enough to be considered as primary; rather, as Cruttenden (Cruttenden, 1986) proposes, it is weaker involving “a subsidiary pitch prominence” and, for that reason, is thought of as secondary stress. The examples presented below confirm the rule which presupposes that secondary stress is transcribed with a low mark:



Roach (Roach, 1991) identifies a third level of stress as well. It is called unstressed and is regarded “as being the absence of any recognizable amount of prominence”. What merits attention is the fact that unstressed syllables containing É™, ɪ, ÊŠ or a syllabic consonant are not as prominent as unstressed syllables with a different vowel. The example is extracted by Roach (Roach, 1991):

poetic – pəʊˈetɪk→ its first syllable is more prominent than that of

pathetic – pəˈθetɪk

Spencer (Spencer, 1996) incorporates new stress terms that can be used instead of the common ones mentioned so far. According to his linguistic theory, “tonic” syllables always pertain to the stressed syllables. “Pretonic” syllables occupy a position that precedes the tonic syllables. What is more, the syllables which follow the tonic syllables are called “post-tonic”. Spencer also states that secondary stress can be sometimes post-tonic (e.g.: gýmnàst) or pre-tonic (e.g.: còntradíct). In addition, he acknowledges that British English adjusts loan words to native language models, differentiating itself from American English (e.g.: láboratory [US] ≠ labóratory [UK]).

Despite the fact that the examples provided, gave an adequate impression of how primary and secondary stress are depicted in the phonemic transcription, it would be worth attempting a more precise analysis.

According to Roach (Roach, 1991), a stressed syllable is marked with a high vertical line ˈ whereas a syllable with secondary stress is marked with a low vertical line ˌ.

On the other hand, O’Grady, Dobrolovsky and Katamba (O’Grady et al., 1996) propose an alternative way of marking the syllables by placing numbers above the stressed vowels. Primary stress usually receives 1 and secondary 2:

e.g.: 2 1

t e l É™ g r æ f ɪ k

Furthermore, they claim that an x can be assigned on a new level, known as “word level”, which is found over the foot level and reveals which syllables are stressed and which ones are not. The Figure 1 illustrated below is given by O’Grady, Dobrolovsky and Katamba (O’Grady et al., 1996):

(x ) ( x) Word level

(x .) (. x) Foot level

σ σ σ σ

promise collect

English word-stress

Focusing on the assumption drawn by O’Connor (O’Connor, 1973), Burzio (Burzio, 1994) and Roach (Roach, 1991), it is presumed that English stress is not constrained in the sense that the assignment of stress on a syllable is fairly unpredictable. It is a highly challenging matter for someone to recognize if the stress falls on the first (e.g.: register), second (e.g.: excite) or third syllable (e.g.: federation).

Stress placement can be easier decided if, according to Roach (Roach, 1991), the following information is borne in mind:

The morphological simplicity or complexity of a word depending on the number of affixes (prefixes or suffixes) included.

The grammatical category, such as verb, noun, adjective, pronoun and so on which a word belongs to.

The amount of syllables a word consists of.

The way in which those syllables are phonologically structured.

Two-syllable words

Roach (Roach, 1991) and O’Connor (O’Connor, 1973) recognize that in English the number of syllables contained in words are responsible for the position of stress. In two-syllable words, for example, it is expected that the syllable, on which the stress will be assigned, will be clearly figured out. Roach (Roach, 1991) copes with lexical words such as verbs, adjectives and nouns, excluding articles and prepositions, and expands on English word stress, relying on the necessary examples:


A long vowel or diphthong that might be detected in the second syllable of a verb as well as a pair of consonants found in its end, render that syllable stressed (e.g.: apply – əˈplaɪ, attract – əˈtrækt)

A short vowel and one or no consonant included in the verb’s final syllable, make the first syllable be heard as stressed (e.g.: enter – ˈentÉ™, open – ˈəʊpen)

Adjectives: they tend to behave the same manner as verbs (e.g.: lovely – ˈlÊŒvli, divine – dɪˈvaɪn, correct – kəˈrekt). According to Roach, however, there is an exception, as shown in → a) honest – ˈɒnɪst and b) perfect – ˈpɜːfect. The adjectives’ first syllable is stressed despite the presence of the two consonants in the end of the word.

Nouns:  in a noun, when a short vowel is contained in the second syllable, the stress falls on the first syllable; otherwise, on the second one (e.g.: money -ˈmÊŒni, product -ˈprÉ’dÊŒkt, estate – ɪˈsteɪt, and balloon – bəˈluːn).

Three-syllable words

In three-syllable words, the process is quite more complicated. Roach (Roach, 1991) distinguishes the differences or similarities among verbs, nouns and adjectives. More specifically, he analyzes the following examples:


In case the last syllable of a verb has a short vowel and ends with

almost one consonant, then it is the penultimate syllable that will be stressed and the final that will remain unstressed (e.g.: determine – dɪˈtɜːmɪn).

2. When a long vowel or diphthong is in the final syllable or when that syllable ends with more than one consonant, then the stress will be assigned on the final syllable (e.g.: entertain – entəˈteɪn, resurrect – rezəˈrekt).


If the final syllable is composed by a short vowel or əʊ, it receives no stress. If the preceding syllable contains either a long vowel or diphthong as well as if it ends with more than one consonant, then it will be assigned a stress (e.g.: mimosa – mɪˈməʊzÉ™, potato – pəˈteɪtəʊ, disaster – dɪˈzɑːstÉ™ , synopsis – sɪˈnÉ’psɪs).

The presence of a short vowel, both in the final and middle syllable and the absence of more than one consonant render those syllables unstressed contributing, in that way, to the prominence of the first syllable (e.g.: cinema – ˈsɪnÉ™mÉ™, emperor – ˈemprÉ™).

Adjectives: the stress behaviour of three-syllable adjectives is identical to that of nouns mentioned above (e.g.: intellect – ˈɪntÉ™lekt).

Noun-verb pairs

Roach (Roach, 1991), O’Connor (O’Connor, 1973), Spencer (Spencer, 1996) and Katamba (Katamba, 1989) reach a common agreement about the relation illustrated between nouns and verbs. Their theory implies that stress patterns are frequently modified by the variety of grammatical categories and morphological structures that govern the English language. Katamba (Katamba, 1989), in particular, follows Liberman and Prince (1977) attaching a more profound dimension to the theory of word stress. It is a “relational” concept, as is delineated. The location of stress over a word’s syllable clarifies whether that word is used as a noun or verb. Spencer (Spencer, 1996), for example, focuses on the following examples:


cóntrast contrást

tránport transpórt


O’Connor (O’Connor, 1973) presents the extent to which particular word endings affect the placement of stress. The suffix -ation, he claims, is always assigned stress on its first syllable (e.g.: imaginátion). The suffix -ity, on the other hand, contributes to the prominence of the preceding syllable (e.g.: sensitívity). Roach (Roach, 1991) elaborates more by examining the suffixes -ance, -ant and -ary and giving the examples, presented below. When single-syllable stems carry one of these suffixes, then the stress is likely to fall on the stem. When there is a two-syllable stem, however, the stress will be assigned either on the first or second syllable. This is explained, if the following considerations are taken into serious account:

A long vowel or diphthong that might be detected on the stem’s final syllable and the possibility to find there one or more consonants, result in the prominence of that specific syllable (e.g.: importance – ɪmˈpɔːtnÌ©s).

Otherwise, the stress falls on the penultimate syllable (e.g.: military – ˈmɪlɪtrÌ©i).

There is another interesting explanation about suffixes as well. According to Spencer (Spencer, 1996), when the adjectival suffix -al is added in the end of a noun like párent then it attracts the stress to the syllable that exists before it, namely paréntal. These suffixes are known as weak retractors and they have a different function from that of strong retractors in that the latter make the stress be put two syllables back from the ending. In this respect, the number of syllables that intervene is not taken into account, such as: désignàte, ántelòpe, cónfiscàte.

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The function of prefixes has enhanced a limited analysis on the part of the linguists. According to Roach (Roach, 1991), their effect on stress is not as worthwhile as that of suffixes. Neither one- nor two-syllable prefixes are able to carry main stress. It is mostly suggested that stress rules are equally applicable both to words with prefixes or without them.


The division existing between stems and affixes is introduced by Cruttenden (Cruttenden, 1986). It is probable for stems to include either single free morphemes (e.g.: blood) or word parts which, regardless of the fact that might be separated from their affix and make no sense, still remain uninfluenced (e.g.: tremend-ous). As far as the stem’s primary stress is concerned, Roach (Roach, 1991) claims that it is assigned on the last syllable, as is obvious below:

advantage – É™dˈvɑːntɪdÊ’, advantageous – ædvÉ™nˈteidÊ’É™s

proverb – ˈprÉ’vɜːb, proverbial – prəˈvɜːbiÉ™l

reflex – ˈriːfleks, reflexive – rɪˈfleksɪv


Phrases are another term examined by Cruttenden (Cruttenden, 1986) in an effort to reassure that the primary stress is assigned on the second element. In fact, English complex words (composed of two stems or free morphemes) can be affected by a variety of combinations. Such combinations presuppose relations developed between diverse grammatical categories, the most popular being those between adjectives-nouns and nouns-nouns (e.g.: black dréss, old scrípt, grass hát).

Compound words

Compounds result from the combination of a pair of free morphemes or, as Roach (Roach, 1991) suggests, from the combination of two words that can promote an independent function when separated from each other. In this respect, Cruttenden (Cruttenden, 1986) supports that the primary stress falls on the first element as can be seen in the examples he provides (e.g.: bláckbird, mátchbox). Second elements can be stressed as well, but that phenomenon provokes some incompatible inferences (e.g.: full móon).

Non-compound words

Halle and Vergnaud’s (Halle & Vergnaud, 1987) theory centers around the function of stress on non-compound words. On a scale from zero (0) to three (3), the latter representing main stress, the assumption to be drawn is as follows:

2 1 3


2 0 3


3 0




The presence of schwa in the noun “poison” above and the zero degree it receives, confirms the notion that in English as well as in other languages unstressed syllables lack voice prominence.

Nuclear Stress Rule

According to Cruttenden (Cruttenden, 1986), Spencer (Spencer, 1996), Katamba (Katamba, 1989) and Halle and Vergnaud (Halle & Vergnaud, 1987), the Nuclear Stress Rule favors the rightmost constituents of a phrase and, in general, all higher than compounds constituents, assigning on them the main stress. Cruttenden (Cruttenden, 1986), in particular, juxtaposes the aforementioned rule with the Compound Rule which states that “in compounds primary stress is reassigned to the left of two primary stresses previously assigned”. We are based on the examples provided by Cruttenden to draw the necessary conclusions:

Compound Rule

[ [blue] [bell] ]


1 1 Main Stress Rule (for words)

1 2 Compound Rule

Nuclear Stress Rule

[ [blue] [bell] ]


1 1 Main Stress Rule

2 1 Nuclear Stress Rule

Metrical Phonology

“Metrical phonology”, as is primarily defined by Liberman and Prince (1977), is an approach which intends to manipulate stress phenomena. According to Katamba (Katamba, 1989), the fact that metrical phonology is concerned with the prominence of the stressed syllables, is of crucial importance within the linguistic framework. Halle and Vergnaud (Halle & Vergnaud, 1987) justify the previous aspect, by supporting the claim that words with multiple syllables make the stress fall on just one of them. It is also added that the degree of stress prominence is changeable depending on the circumstances. Such a circumstance might be the syntactic structure, which sets the basis for an adequate comprehension of the linguistic patterns and the way they are organized. Moreover, it is probable that stress might be displaced and shifted from one syllable to another following the Rhythm Rule, which will be explained shortly.

As introduced by Katamba (Katamba, 1989) and Cruttenden (Cruttenden, 1986), in order for the metrical stress rules (word and sentence levels included) to be expressed, there have to be used “binary branching trees”, with these branches being either “strong” or “weak”. The strong (s) branch underlies the most prominent syllable whereas the weak (w) one the less prominent. Relying on the grids provided by Katamba (Katamba, 1989), we can focus on the following examples:

w s

pre tend

s w

milk man

Following the English Stress Rule proposed by Cruttenden (Cruttenden, 1986), it becomes clear that, when dealing with a word, all vowels are assigned stress beginning from the end. Plus or minus values attributed to the binary model are represented by [±stress], in which “plus” correlates with the strong syllables and “minus” with the weak ones.

Foot formation

The function and usefulness of foot formation have been examined by a number of linguists. It is viewed as a procedure, under the umbrella of which, both strong and weak syllables, are in mutual correlation. Its units are called metrical feet. According to O’Grady, Dobrolovsky and Katamba (O’Grady et al., 1996), these feet are usually recognized as “elements of metrical structure”, which are then organized into “prosodic words”, as proposed by Burzio (Burzio, 1994). Archibald (Archibald, 1995) and O’Grady, Dobrolovsky and Katamba (O’Grady et al., 1996) expand on the notion, claiming that metrical feet cannot exist without the head, the latter being defined by Katamba (Katamba, 1989), in particular, as the stressed element which governs its neighboring element either to the left or right.

The idea of bounded feet is captured by the possibility that words can be susceptible to different stress rules. In a bounded tree, the syllable that immediately precedes or follows the head, is governed by that. Paying attention to Katamba’s theory (Katamba, 1989) as well as to that developed by O’Grady, Dobrolovsky and Katamba (O’Grady et al., 1996), a word like sender, for example, is stronger on the left syllable than on the right within the same foot. On the contrary, a word like pretend has the right syllable stronger. Finally, in case all syllables in a word precede or follow the head and are governed by that, indicate that the tree which is formed is unbounded.


Rhythm constitutes inseparable part of the phenomenon of word stress since it defines the speed and length of the unstressed syllables, which depend on the frequency of the strong beats heard, as Gimson (Gimson, 1989) supports. A new term about unaccented syllables is promoted both by Gimson (Gimson, 1989) and Spencer (Spencer, 1996) and is called “clitics”. It is probable for clitics to be uttered with diverse rapidity; a) if the strong beat of a rhythmic group is followed by unaccented syllables, these syllables will then be salient for a longer period of time whereas b) if it is preceded by unstressed syllables, the latter will occupy less time. Gimson (Gimson, 1989) provides the following example:

The authority / of the government / is in danger

In the phrase above it is clear that the unaccented syllables of the and is in have a different speed from -ity and -ernment. The rhythmic grouping of such syllables is strongly related to word-clusters. That kind of grouping is considered as the result of the combination of several words. Moreover, as Gimson (Gimson, 1989) claims, “a rhythmic division will not normally fall within a word pattern”.

As has been mentioned throughout the present paper, however, the presence of schwa seems to alter the already existing rules. Relying once more on Gimson’s example:

They couldn’t have chosen

the sound /É™/ in have makes the verb be recognized either as the first group’s last syllable or as the second group’s first syllable.

The gap between a phonological word (W) and a phonological phrase (P) is bridged by the clitic group (C) inserted. According to Spenser (Spencer, 1996), clitics are separate words in terms of morphology and syntax and, for that reason, it is necessary for them to attach to others phonological groups. When clitics cliticize to the left syllable, they are called enclitics. When they cliticize to the right, they are known as proclitics.


Extrametricality is the last parameter of word stress, which will be analyzed in the present study. Similarly to rhythm, extrametricality has provoked the interest of many linguists who aimed to raise awareness of its particular characteristics. More specifically, a syllable is thought of as extrametrical if, according to Katamba (Katamba, 1989), it is subject to no stress assignment rules. O’Grady, Dobrolovsky and Katamba (O’Grady et al., 1996) propose that the foot-building procedure is responsible for the elimination of any extrametrical syllable. Burzio (Burzio, 1994) and Archibald (Archibald, 1995) expand on the notion of extrametricality by stating that its concept is considered of great importance in languages which have the penultimate syllable stressed. In English, in particular, as Archibald (Archibald, 1995) claims, any lack of extrametricality implies that the stress falls on the penultimate. In case the presence of extrametricality is mandatory, however, it is the antepenultimate syllable that is assigned stress. Finally, focusing on Halle and Vergnaud’s analysis (Halle & Vergnaud, 1987), it is rendered conceivable that it is the rime node and, not the syllable one, which is filtered by the final element’s extrametricality.


It is concluded that the phenomenon of word stress is mostly a complicated matter in terms of the multilateralism that governs its general construction. In the present paper, effort was put on the analysis of its special mechanisms which were addressed in as much detail as possible. Apart from the definition provided, there was concern with investigating its component parts and their relations in making up the whole concept of stress. Light was also shed on the fact that stress is an integral part of English playing an active role in the formation of words or phrases. The work was divided in categories and elaborated with examples so as to make any necessary information clear and promote legitimate inferences. Among the assumptions drawn about the majority of principles that are typical of word stress, genuine generalizations were attributed to other parameters such as rhythm and extrametricality. It is assumed that word stress is an interesting and constructive field of phonology which does not deserve to remain unexplored provided that it copes with voice prominence when producing speech in real-life situations.


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