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Stress (linguistics)

In linguistics, stress is the relative emphasis that may be given to certain syllables in a word, or to certain words in a phrase or sentence. The term is also used for similar patterns of phonetic prominence inside syllables. The word accent is sometimes also used with this sense.

The stress placed on syllables within words is called word stress or lexical stress. The stress placed on words within sentences is called sentence stress or prosodic stress. The latter is one of the three components of prosody, along with rhythm and intonation.


Phonetic realization

The ways stress manifests itself in the speech stream are highly language-dependent. In some languages, stressed syllables have a higher or lower pitch than non-stressed syllablesso-called pitch accent (or musical accent). In other languages, they may bear either higher or lower pitch than surrounding syllables (a pitch excursion), depending on the sentence type. There are also dynamic accent (loudness), qualitative accent (Place or manner of articulation, e.g. reduction), and quantitative accent (length, known in music theory as agogic accent). Stress may be characterized by more than one of these characteristics. Further, stress may be realized to varying degrees on different words in a sentence; sometimes the difference between the acoustic signals of stressed and unstressed syllables may be minimal.

In English, stress is most dramatically realized on focused or accented words. For instance, consider the dialogue

"Is it brunch tomorrow?"
"No, it's dinner tomorrow."

In it, the stress-related acoustic differences between the syllables of "tomorrow" would be small compared to the differences between the syllables of "dinner", the emphasized word. In these emphasized words, stressed syllables such as "din" in "dinner" are louder and longer.[1][2][3] They may also have a different fundamental frequency, or other properties. Unstressed syllables typically have a vowel which is closer to a neutral position (the schwa), while stressed vowels are more fully realized. In contrast, stressed and unstressed vowels in Spanish share the same quality unlike English, the language has no reduced vowels.

(Much literature emphasizes the importance of pitch changes and pitch motions on stressed syllables, but experimental support for this idea is weak. Nevertheless, most experiments do not directly address the pitch of speech, which is a subjective perceived quantity. Experiments typically measure the speech fundamental frequency, which is objectively measurable, and strongly correlated with pitch, but not quite the same thing.)

Prosodic stress can also be put on any word in a sentence to make possible several sentences of different meaning:

I didn't take the test yesterday. (Somebody else did.)
I didn't take the test yesterday. (I did not take it.)
I didn't take the test yesterday. (I did something else with it.)
I didn't take the test yesterday. (I took a different one.)
I didn't take the test yesterday. (I took something else.)
I didn't take the test yesterday. (I took it some other day.)

The possibilities for stress in tone languages are an area of ongoing research, but stress-like patterns have been observed in Mandarin Chinese.[4] They are realized as alternations between syllables where the tones are carefully realised with a relatively large swing in fundamental frequency, and syllables where they are realized "sloppily" with typically a small swing.

Stressed syllables are often perceived as being more forceful than non-stressed syllables. Research has shown, however, that although dynamic stress is accompanied by greater respiratory force, it does not mean a more forceful articulation in the vocal tract.

Placement, rhythm, and metrical feet

  • quantity sensitivity
  • rhythm
    • trochaic (quantity-sensitive: 'LL, 'H; quantity-insensitive: ' )
    • iambic (L'L, L'H, 'H)
  • demarcative function (fixed word edge)
  • culminativity (lexical words have single stress)
  • binary vs. ternary

Some languages have fixed stress. The stress is placed always on a given syllable, as in Czech, Finnish and Hungarian (stress always on the first syllable) or Quechua and Polish (stress always on the penult: one syllable before the last) or on third syllable counting backwards (the antepenult), as in Macedonian (see: Stress in Macedonian language). Other languages have stress placed on different syllables but in a predictable way, as in Classical Arabic and Latin (where stress is conditioned by the structure of the penultimate syllable). They are said to have a regular stress rule.

French words are sometimes said to be stressed on the final syllable. In fact, however, it may be said that French has no word stress at all; instead, stress is placed on the final syllable (or, if the final is a schwa, the next-to-final syllable) of a string of words. This string may be equivalent to a clause or a phrase. When a word is said alone, its last syllable is also the end of the phrase, so the stress is placed there.

There are also languages like English, Italian, Russian and Spanish, where stress is (at least partly) unpredictable. Rather, it is lexical: it comes as part of the word and must be memorized, although orthography can make stress unambiguous for a reader, as is the case in Spanish and Portuguese. In such languages, otherwise homophonous words may differ only by the position of the stress (e.g. incite and insight in English), and therefore it is possible to use stress as a grammatical device.

English does this to some extent with noun-verb pairs such as a r cord vs. to rec rd, where the verb is stressed on the last syllable and the related noun is stressed on the first . The German language does this with certain prefixesfor example m-schrei-ben (to rewrite) vs. um-schr i-ben (to paraphrase, outline)and in Russian this phenomenon often occurs with different cases of certain nouns ( /zemli (genitive case of the Earth, land or soil) and (soils or landsplural form)).

It is common for dialects to differ in their stress placement for some words. For example, in British English, the word "laboratory" is pronounced with primary stress on the second syllable, while American English stresses the first.

Some speakers make quite complex semantic distinctions in English using secondary stress. For instance, between "paper BAG" as in a bag made of paper, and "PAPer bag" as in a bag for carrying newspapers.

'Primary' and 'secondary' stress are distinguished in some languages. English is commonly believed to have two levels of stress, as in the words c unterf il and c unterint lligence , and in some treatments has even been described as having four levels, primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary, but these treatments often disagree with each other. It is possible to describe English with only one degree of stress, as long as unstressed syllables may occur without vowel reduction.

Stress and vowel reduction

In many languages, such as Russian and English, vowel reduction may occur when a vowel changes from a stressed to an unstressed position. In English, many unstressed vowels reduce to schwa-like vowels, though the details vary with dialect. Other languages, such as Finnish, have no unstressed vowel reduction.

Historical effects of stress

It is common for stressed and unstressed syllables to behave differently as a language evolves. For example, in the Romance languages, the original Latin short vowels and have generally become diphthongs when stressed. Since stress takes part in verb conjugation, this has produced verbs with vowel alternation in the Romance languages. For example, the Spanish verb volver has the form volv in the past tense but vuelvo in the present tense (see Spanish irregular verbs). Italian shows the same phenomenon but with alternating with instead. This behaviour is not confined to verbs; for example, Spanish viento "wind", from Latin ventum.


English is a stress-timed language; that is, stressed syllables appear at a roughly constant rate, and non-stressed syllables are shortened to accommodate this. Other languages have syllable timing (e.g. Spanish) or mora timing (e.g. Japanese), where syllables or moras are spoken at a roughly constant rate regardless of stress.


Different systems exist for indicating syllabification and stress.

  • In IPA, primary stress is indicated by a high vertical line before the syllable, secondary stress by a low vertical line. Example: or . Extra stress can be indicated by doubling the symbol: .
  • Linguists frequently mark primary stress with an acute accent over the vowel, and secondary stress by a grave accent. Example: or . This has the advantage that it does not require a decision about syllable boundaries.
  • In English dictionaries that show pronunciation by respelling, stress is typically marked with a prime mark placed after the stressed syllable: /si-lab - -fi-kay -sh n/.
  • In ad hoc pronunciation guides, stress is often indicated using a combination of bold text and capital letters. Example: si-lab-if-i-KAY-shun or si-LAB-if-i-KAY-shun
  • In Russian and Ukrainian dictionaries, stress is indicated with an acute accent ( ) on a syllable's vowel (example: ) or, in other editions, an apostrophe[5] just after it (example: ' ). Stressing is rare in general texts, but is still used when necessary: compare (castle) and (lock).
  • In Dutch, ad hoc indication of stress is usually marked by an acute accent on the vowel (or, in the case of a diphthong or double vowel, the first two vowels) of the stressed syllable. Compare achter tgang (deterioration) and chteruitgang (back exit).
  • In Modern Greek, all polysyllables are written with an acute accent over the vowel in the stressed syllable. (The acute accent is also used to distinguish some monosyllables in order to distinguish homographs (e.g., ("the") and ("or")); here the stress of the two words is the same).
  • In Portuguese, stress is sometimes indicated explicitly with an acute accent (for i, u, and open a, e, o), or circumflex (for close a, e, o). In diphthongs, when marked, the semivowel (or the semivowels) never receives the accent mark. Stress is not marked with diacritics when it can be otherwise predicted from spelling: it is marked only on uncommon pronunciation of pattern of letters.
  • In Spanish orthography, stress may be written explicitly with a single acute accent on a vowel. Stressed antepenultimate syllables are always written with this accent mark, as in rabe. If the last syllable is stressed, the accent mark is used if the word ends in the letters n, s, or a vowel, as in est . If the penultimate syllable is stressed, the accent is used if the word ends in any other letter, as in c rcel. That is, if a word is written without an accent mark, the stress is on the penult if the last letter is a vowel, n, or s, but on the final syllable if the word ends in any other letter. However as in Greek, the acute accent is also used for some words to distinguish various syntactical uses (e.g. t "tea" vs. te a form of the pronoun t ; d nde "where" as a pronoun or wh-complement, donde "where" as an adverb).

See also


External links

ar: bn: bg: br:Taol-mouezh ca:Accent pros dic cv: cs:P zvuk cy:Acen da:Accent (tryk) de:Akzent (Linguistik) et:R hk (keeleteadus) el: es:Acento pros dico eo:Akcento eu:Azentu fa: ( ) fr:Accent tonique gl:Acento pros dico ia:Accento (linguistica) os: it:Accento (linguistica) he: kk: la:Accentus lt:Kirtis nl:Klemtoon ja: nn:Fonologisk trykk pl:Akcent wyrazowy pt:Acento t nico ru: stq:Betoonenge scn:Accentu sk:Pr zvuk fi:Sanapaino sv:Betoning uk: fiu-vro:Ras hus (keeletiid s) zh:

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