Word stress in English

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Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine

Dragomanov National Pedagogical University

Institute of foreign philology

English philology department

Word- Stress

Report of Theoretical phonetic

Lyubchich Ira

405 En group

Kiev 2009



I. The nature of English Word Stress

II. Types of English Word Stress

III. Word Stress tendencies

IV. Word Stress functions

V. Variation in word stress

VI. English Word Stress – Does It Really Matter?




Word stress is not used in all languages. Some languages, Japanese or
French for example, pronounce each syllable with eq-ual em-pha-sis.
Other languages, English for example, use word stress.

Word stress is your magic key to understanding spoken English. Native
speakers of English use word stress naturally. Word stress is so natural
for them that they don’t even know they use it. Non-native speakers who
speak English to native speakers without using word stress, encounter
two problems:

1. They find it difficult to understand native speakers, especially
those speaking fast.

2. The native speakers may find it difficult to understand them.

So, in this report we will focus our attention on the accentual patterns
of English words. The sequence of syllables in the word is not
pronounced identically. The syllable or syllables which are uttered with
more prominence than the other syllables of the word are said to be
stressed or accented. The correlation of varying prominences of
syllables in a word is understood as the accentual structure of the word
or its stress pattern.

I. The nature of English Word Stress

Any word spoken in isolation has at least one prominent syllable. We
perceive it as stressed. Stress in the isolated word is termed ws,
stress in connected speech is termed sentence stress. Stress indicated
by placing a stress mark before the stressed syllable: Stress is defined
differently by different authors. B. A. Bogortsky, for instance, defined
stress as an increase of energy, accompan by an increase of expiratory
and articulatory activity. D. Jones fined stress as the degree of force,
which is accompanied by a stress force of exhalation and gives an
impression of loudness. H. Sweet stated that stress is connected with
the force of breath. Later, however P. Jones wrote, that “stress or
prominence is effected by inherent sonority, vowel and consonant length
and by intonation.”’ A. C. Gison also admits that a more prominent
syllable is accompanied pitch changes in the voice, quality and quantity
of the accented sounds.[2;179]

In disyllabic and polysyllabic words different syllables possess
different degrees of special prominence in different positions in
relation to the beginning, middle and end of words.

Word stress (WS) can be defined as the singling out of one or more
syllables in a word, which is accompanied by the change of the force of
utterance, pitch of the voice, qualitative and quantitative
characteristics of the sound which is usually a vowel. The analysis of
WS can be carried out according to the following parameters:

(i) the nature of English word-stress;

(ii) its degree and syllabic location;

(iii) its functions;

(iv) basic stress patterns of the English words.[3;171]

If we compare stressed and unstressed syllables in the two contract, we
may note that in the stressed syllable:

(a) the force of utterance is greater, which is connected with more
energetic articulation;

(b) the pitch of the voice is higher, which is connected with stronger
tenseness of the vocal cords and the walls of the resonance chamber

(c) the quantity of the vowel is greater, a vowel becomes longer;

(d) the quality of the vowel !& in the stressed syllable is different
from the quality of this vowel in the unstressed position, in why it is
more narrow than.

On the auditory level a stressed syllable is the part of the word which
has a special prominence. It is produced by a greater loud and length,
modifications in the pitch and quality. Their physic correlates are:
intensity, duration, frequency and the formant structure. All these
features can be analyzed on the acoustic level.

Word stress can be defined as the singling out of one or more s tables
in a word, which is accompanied by the change of the force utterance,
pitch of the voice, qualitative and quantitative characteristics of the
sound, which is usually a vowel.

In different languages one of the factors constituting word stress is
usually more significant than the others. According to the mo important
feature different types of word stress are distinguished different

If special prominence in a stressed syllable or syllables achieved
mainly through the intensity of articulation, such type stress is called
dynamic, or force stress.[2;179]

Stress can be studied from the point of view of production and of
perception. While producing stressed syllables, speakers use more
muscular energy than they do for unstressed syllables. From the
perceptual point of view, stressed syllables are recognized as stressed
because they are more prominent than unstressed syllables. Phoneticians
claim that at least four different factors are important in making a
syllable prominent:

1) listeners seem to feel stressed syllables louder than unstressed;
thus loudness is a component of WS (Peter Roach explains that if one
syllable in a sequence of identical syllables, e.g. ba:ba:ba:ba:, is
made louder than the others, it will be heard as stressed);

2) 2) if one of the syllables in the above-given “nonsense” word is made
longer, that syllable is heard stressed, so the length of the syllables
is another important factor in making prominence;

3) every syllable is said on some pitch (related to the frequency of
vibration of the vocal cords which is an essential perceptual
characteristic of speech) . If one syllable is said with high pitch as
compared to the others then it will be heard as stressed;

4) a syllable can be heard prominent if it contains a vowel that is
different in quality from neighbouring vowels. If one of the vowels in
the “nonsense word” is changed, the “odd” syllable: will be heard as

The phonetic manifestation of stress varies from language to language.
Indifferent languages one of the factors constituting word stress is
usually more significant than the others. According to the most salient
feature the following types of word stress are distinguished in
different languages:

1) dynamic or force stress if special prominence in a stressed
syllable(syllables) is achieved mainly through the intensity of

2) musical or tonic stress if special prominence is achieved mainly
through the change of pitch, or musical tone.

3) quantitative stress if special prominence is achieved through the
changes in the quantity of the vowels, which are longer in the stressed
syllables than in the unstressed ones.

4) qualitative stress if special prominence is achieved through the
changes in the quality of the vowel under stress. Vowel reduction is
often used as a manipulation of quality in unstressed syllables.

II. Types of English Word Stress

Types of English word stress according to its degree. One of the ways of
reinitiating the prominence of syllables is manipulating the degree of
stress. There is controversy about degrees of WS in English and their
terminology. Strictly speaking, polysyllabic word has as many degrees of
stress as there are syllables in it. Designating strongest syllable by
1, the second strongest by 2, etc., we may represent the distribution
Jesses in the following examples:

examination indivisibility

igzeminein indivizibiloti

32415 2536174

But from a linguistic point, i.e. for the purposes of differentiating
words from each

and identifying them, the fourth, the fifth and other degrees of lexical
stress are redundant English, while the distinctive and recognitive
relevance of the third degree of stress is a objective point. The
majority of British phoneticians (D. Jones, Kingdon, A. C. Gimson among
them) and Russian phoneticians (V. A. Vassilyev, Shakhbagova) consider
that there are three degrees of word-stress in English:

• primary — the strongest

• secondary — the second strongest, partial, and

• weak — all the other degrees.

The syllables bearing either primary or secondary stress are termed
stressed, while syllables with weak stress are called, somewhat
inaccurately, unstressed. American linguists stingiest four degrees of
word stress, adding the so-called tertiary stress . Contrary stress
differs from tertiary that it usually occurs on the third or fourth
pre-tonic syllable, and tertiary is always post-tonic, e.g.
administrative, dictionary. category.[3;173]

English language not only through the increase of intensity, but also
through the changes in the vowel quantity, consonant and vowel quality
and pitch of the voice. Russian word stress is not only dynamic but
mostly quantitative and qualitative. The length of the Russian vowels
always depends on the position in a word. The quality of unaccented
vowels in Russian may differ greatly from the quality of the same vowels
under stress. Stress difficulties peculiar to the accentual structure of
the English language are connected with the vowel special and inherent
prominence. In identical positions the intensity of English vowels is
different. The highest in intensity is /a/, then u:, u, e, u,

The quantity of long vowels and diphthongs can be preserved (a) pretonic
and (b) post-tonic position. All English vowels may occur in accented
syllables, the only exception is /, which is never stressed. English
vowels /i, u, u/ tend to occur in unstressed syllables. Syllables with
the syllabic m, n/ are never stressed.

Unstressed diphthongs may partially lose their glide quality. In
stressed syllables English stops have complete closure, fricatives have
full friction, features of forties/lenis distinction are clearly

Stress can be characterized as fixed and free. In languages with fixed
type of stress the place of stress is always the same.

In English and Russian word-stress is free, that is it may fall any
syllable in a word:

a) idea sarcastic archaic

b) placard railway

Stress in English and in Russian is not only free but also shifting. In
both languages the place of stress may shift, which helps t0
differentiate different parts of speech, e.g. linsult—to inlsult,
import—to imiport.

When the shifting of word-stress serves to perform distinctive function,
V. Vassil.

Stress performs not only distinctive function, it helps to constitute
and recognize words and their forms (constitutive and recognitive

Strictly speaking, a polysyllabic word has as many degrees of stress as
there are syllables in it. American and English phoneticians give the
following pattern of stress distribution in the word examination. They
mark the strongest syllable with primary accent with the numeral 1, then
goes 2, 3, etc.[2;180]

English word-stress is traditionally defined as dynamic, but in fact,

the special prominence of the stressed syllables is manifested in the
English language not only through the increase of intensity, but also
through the

changes in the vowel quantity, consonant and vowel quality and pitch of
the voice.

‘Most words of more than four syllables have 2 stresses: primary
(nuprefixes and entry. The primary stress falls either on the third or
the second syllable from the end and the secondary stress falls on the
syllable separated from the nuclear syllable by one unstressed syllable:
pro-ition, recog ition, etc.

The place of word-stress in English compound words principally
de“rewrite” on the semantic factor, i. e. the element which determines
the mean-of the whole compound has a primary stress. But most of the
compound possess the nuclear stress on the l element: ‘bookcase,
‘diligence etc, whereas compound adjectives have, as a rule, primary
stress on element of the compound ‘well- ?oiown, ibsent– jinded,

III. Word Stress tendencies

In spite of the fact that word stress in English is free, there are
certain factors that determine the location and different degree of it.
Prof. V. A. Vassilyev describes them as follows:

• the recessive tendency;

• the rhythmic tendency;

• the retentive tendency and

• the semantic factor

The first and the oldest of the English lexical stress tendencies
(characteristic of all Germanic languages) known as the recessive
tendency originally consisted in placing lexical stress on the initial
syllable of nouns, adjectives and verbs derived from them and on the
root syllable of words which belonged to other parts of speech and had a
prefix. In most cases prefixes lost their referential meaning since
then, with the result that recessive stress in present-day English of
two subtypes:

1) unrestricted: when stress falls on the initial syllable, provided it
is not a prefix which has no referential meaning. A great majority of
native English words of Germanic origin are stressed this way: father
mother husband, ‘wonder

2) restricted: when stress falls on the root of the native English words
with a prefix which has no referential meaning now: a’mong, be’come,
before,fo,’get, etc.

It is this tendency that determined the incidence of stress in a huge
number of disyllabic and trisyllabic French words which had been
borrowed into English until the 1 5th century (during and after the
Norman Conquest).

The presence in English of a great number of short (disyllabic and
trisyllabic) words defamed the development of the so-called rhythmic
tendency which results in alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.
Borrowed polysyllabic words developed a secondary stress on the syllable
separated from the word-final primary stress by one unstressed syllable.
These words began to be pronounced, in isolation, on the model of short
phrases in which a stressed syllable alternates with an unstressed one:

The retentive tendency consists in the retention of the primary stress
on the parent word: person — personal, or more commonly the retention of
the secondary stress on the parent word: ‘personal — 1perso’nalily. The
difference between constant accent and ‘ retentive stress consists in
that the former remains on the same syllable in all the g forms of a
word or in all the derivatives from one and the same root, whereas
retinal, stress in a derivative falls on the same syllable on which it
falls in the parent word, while i other derivatives from the same root
it may be shifted e.g.: personal .

There are certain categories of English words stressing of which is
determined the semantic factor, e.g. compound words and words with the
so-called separable prefix The majority of such words have two equally
strong stresses, both stressed parts considered to be of equal semantic
importance, with the semantic factor thus canceling rhythmic tendency in
word stressing, e.g.

• compound adjectives: hard-working, blue-eyed,

• verbs with post positions sit down, take off

• numerals from 13 to 19:fourteen, sixteen.

It should be noted that the rhythmic tendency becomes operative when
such work occur in sentences and the first stress of a double-stressed
English word disappears in an immediately or closely preceding word
requires stress: a ‘very good-looking ‘girl.[3;175]

IV. English Word Stress functions

In discussingaccentual structure of English words we should turn now to
the functional aspect of word stress. Word stress in a language performs
three functions.

I. Word stress constitutes. a word, it organizes the syllables of a word
Into a language unit having a definite accentual structure, that is a
pattern of relationship among the syllables; a wok4 does not exist
without the word stress. Thus the word stress forms the constitutive
function. Sound continuum become phrase when it is divided into units
organized by word stress into words.

II. Word stress enables a person to identify a succession ‘of syllables
as a definite accentual pattern of a word. This function of word stress
is known as identificatory (or recognitive). Correct accentuation helps
the listener to make the process of communication easier, whereas the
distorted accentual pattern of words, misplaced word stresses prevent
normal understanding.

Ill. Word stress alone is capable of differentiating the meaning of
words or their forms, thus performing its distinctive function. The
accentual patterns of words or the degrees of word stress and their
positions form oppositions, e.g. ‘import — im’port, ‘billow — below.

Word stress in a language performs the following functions:

1. The CONSTITUTIVE function: it organizes the syllables of a word into
language unit having a defmite accentual structure, i.e. a pattern of
relationship among th syllables. The word does not exist as a lexica’
unit without word stress.

J. Layer holds the view that lexical stress shows a culminative
function: being characteristic property of the word, it is thought to
help the listener to judge how many individual words the speaker has
produced in a given utterance.

2. The IDENTIFICATORY function: correct lexical stress enables the
listener to decode the information in verbal conimuriication adequately,
while misplaced word stresses prevent understanding.

3. The DISTINCTI YE/CONTRAST WE function: word stress alone is capable
of differentiating the meanings of words or their forms. It should be
mentioned though that most words in most languages that use word stress
linguistically do not possess minimal pairs based on stress. But still
there are about 135 pairs of words of identical orthography in English
which could occur either as nouns (with stress on the penultimate
syllable) or as verbs (with stress on the final syllable), with a very
small number of cases the location of lexical stress alone being the
differentiating factor: import (noun) — import (verb), ‘insult (noun) —
in’sult (verb).[4;130]

V. Variation in word stress

The stress patterns of some English words are liable to variations of
different kinds. There is free variation of stress location due to some
rhythmic and analogical pressures, both of which entail in addition
considerable changes of sound pattern in words[3;182], e.g.

1) in some words of three syllables, there is variation
between’—and-‘—patterns: deficit, integral (adj), exquisite.

2) similarly, in words of four syllables, there is variation between
first and secon syllable stressing: hospitable, formidable, despicable.

Pronunciation patterns of such words due to the variation in stress
placement have the status of alternative pronunciation forms which occur
in educated usage.

Cases of variable stress placement caused by the context is known as
‘stressshift’. When a word of several syllables has a stress near the
end of thc word, and is followed by another word with stress near its
beginning, there is a tendency for the stress in the first word to move
nearer the beginning if it contains a syllable that is capable of
receiving stress, e.g. the word academic in isolation usually has the
stress or the penultimate syllable /-dem-/. However, when the word year
follows, the stress often found to move to the first syllable /k-/; the
whole phrase ‘academic year’ will have the primary stress on the word
year, so the resulting stress pattern will be ‘academic ‘year. In
isolation, we say fundamental and Japanese with primary stress on -ment
and -nese, in connected speech these words may have a different pattern:
greater stress on fund- and Jap-.

VI. English Word Stress – Does It Really Matter?

Yes and No.

Yes, if you are a non-native speaker speaking to a native English

No, if you are a non-native English speaker speaking to another
non-native speaker.

English language teaching theory has traditionally been based on native
English forms, more specifically British and American English varieties.
In today’s international community however, where more than 1 billion
non-native English speakers use English as a lingua franca, teaching
theory is changing to focus on English as an International Language

According to linguist Jennifer Jenkins’ research on the English
language, there are certain factors in English pronunciation that can
influence the degree of intelligibility between a speaker and listener.
Word stress is one of these factors if you are speaking with a native
English speaker, but Jenkins has found that when two non-native speakers
interact in EIL, word stress has little influence on intelligibility.

So why are native speakers so stressed about word stress?

Stress indicates identity

Anyone who has ever zapped between BBC and CNN has probably noticed the
differences between standard British and standard American word stress.
It has caused quite a CONtroversy (US), or should I say, “conTROVersy”

To a native English speaker, a certain word stress is considered
appropriate or inappropriate depending on where the person is from.
“Inappropriate” word stress can really rub listeners the wrong way
because it deviates from their norm and indicates that the speaker is an
“other” – an outsider. This can be quite FRUStrating (US)/frusTRATing
(UK) for the non-native speaker who is just trying to get his point

After hours spent in a language LABoratory (US), or laBORatory (UK) if
you prefer, non-native English speakers are still at a loss when it
comes to speaking to native speakers internationally.

“So which variety is correct?” This is the most common question. Answer:
“It depends who you ask!” Stress indicates different meanings of
identical words

In one case however, word stress can cause problems whether you are a
native speaker or non-native speaker of English: words which are spelled
the same, but have different meanings (and different word stress).

Word stress can also differentiate a word’s part of speech – more
specifically whether the word is a noun or a verb. There are many
examples of words which in their noun form take their stress on the
first syllable, but in the verb form are stressed on the second
syllable. Say the following words out loud: PROgress – proGRESS, OBject
– obJECT, REcord – reCORD.

We would never say, “She wants to REcord a REcord one day,” but rather,
“reCORD a REcord.” Unfortunately this isn’t a blanket rule, and there
are plenty of English words which sound the same both as verbs and as
nouns: travel, picture, promise and visit are a few examples.

So what is the non-native English speaker to do? Sticking to the form
you are most comfortable with.

Communication is a two-way street with compromise and understanding at
both ends. If you meet people who can’t accept the way you speak, then
they’re probably not worth speaking with anyway!


Stressed words are the key to excellent pronunciation and understanding
of English. Word stress is not an optional extra that you can add to the
English language if you want. It is part of the language! English
speakers use word stress to communicate rapidly and accurately, even in
difficult conditions. If, for example, you do not hear a word clearly,
you can still understand the word because of the position of the stress.


1.Левицький А.Е.,Гарощук Л.А. Поглиблений курс теоретичної фонетики
англійської мови.- Вінниця:ППФоліант,2005.-71с.

2.Леонтьева С. Ф. Теоретическая фонетика английского языка: Учеб. для
студентов вечер.и заоч. отд. педвузов.2-е изд.,испр.и

3.В. Ю. Паращук Теоретична фонетика англійської мови:навчальний посібник
для студентів факультетів іноземних мов. —Вінниця. НОВА КНИГА, 2009.—
232 с.

4. Теоретическая фонетика английского языка: Учебник для студ. ин-тов и

иностр. яз./М. А. Соколова, К. П. Гiнтовт, И. С. Тихонова, Р. М.
Тихонова. — Гуманит. изд. центр ВЛАДОС, 1996. — С. 247—256.

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