Phonetics - Unit Four - Lesson No. 21


Stress

Trask (1996: 336) defines stress as a certain type of prominence which, in some languages, is present upon certain syllables. Stress is variously associated with greater loudness, higher pitch and greater duration, any of which may be most important in a given case, and sometimes also with vowel quality.

Stress in linguistics is the relative prominence of one syllable in comparison to other syllables. It is part of a language’s prosody and helps to break up the speech stream into smaller units. Stressed syllables are either louder, higher and/or longer than unstressed syllables and more resistant to reduction processes (Nancy C. Kula et al (Editors) 2011: 95).

Phonetic aspects of stress

Stress manifests phonetically with one or more correlates. Auditory or perceptually speaking, these are length, loudness, pitch and vowel quality. Acoustically speaking, the correlates are reflected in duration, intensity, or amplitude, fundamental frequency and spectral structure. The use of these correlates is language-specific. English, for one, is said to have pitch as a stress correlate, combined with a preservation of vowel quality in unstressed syllable and a strong tendency to reduce vowels in unstressed syllables. In Modern Greek, …, stress is characterized by a combination of intensity and duration. In German, duration/length seem to be the main cue for word stress (Kula et al 2011: 96).

In order to highlight the phonetic aspects of stress, we will take English as an example. Collin & Mees argue that, in English, four phonetic variables appear most significant as indicators of stress: intensity, pitch variation, vowel quality and vowel duration.

  • Intensity in physiological terms is the greater breath effort and muscular energy associated with stressed syllables. It is closely related to that is perceived by the listener as loudness.
  • Pitch variation appears to be, as far as English is concerned, the most important single factor in determining stress. In English, higher pitch tends to be associated with strong stress.
  • Vowel quality, i.e. whether a vowel is central or peripheral also determines stress. Take the English vowel in the noun present /ˈprez.ənt/ as opposed to the verb (to) present /prɪˈzent/. The stressed syllable contains the peripheral vowel /e/ as in DRESS, whereas the unstressed syllable has the central vowel /ə/. The peripheral vowel in the unstressed syllable is actually replaced by another phoneme – most commonly by /ə/, sometimes by /ı/or /Ʊ/, or even by a syllabic consonant, e.g. attention /əˈten.t ʃən/. This effect is termed vowel reduction and it is one of the most characteristic features of the English language system.
  • Duration of vowels is an important factor in indicating stress. In English, vowels are shorter in unstressed than stressed syllables, cf. English sarcasm [ˈsɑː.kæz.əm] , sarcastic [sɑːˈkæs.tɪk] , TV [ˌtiːˈviː]
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