Phonetics - Unit Four - Lesson No. 23

Word Stress and Sentence Stress

Another distinction between types of stress is that of word stress vs. sentence stress.

Word stress

In certain languages, stress always falls on a single syllable in a particular position in the word; we shall term this language invariable stress (or fixed stress). For example, in Czech and Slovak, stress is always on the first syllable; in Italian, Welsh and Polish, stress is on the penultimate (last but one); other languages, such as Farsi, have word final stress (Collins & Mees: 111).

Such kind of stress is predictable. Languages with particular stress assign it by phonological principles, for instance to a certain position in the word. In Finnish, for instance, the words are stressed initially as shown in (1) (taken from Continuum Companion to Phonology 2011: 97) in which the stress is indicated by an acute accent:

1. Finnish
  1. vápaa ‘free’
  2. hélsinki ‘Helsinki’
  3. érgonòmia ‘ergonomics’

In Turkish, stress is for the most part final. No matter how many suffixes are attached, stress is usually on the ultimate syllable as shown in (2); examples are from Sezer, 1983 cited in the Continuum Campion to Phonology 2011: 97):

2. Turkish
  1. tani-dík ‘acquaintance’
  2. tani-dik-lár ‘acquaintances’
  3. tani-dik-lar-ím ‘my acquaintances’

In English and many other languages (e.g. German, Russian, Danish, Dutch), stress not only can occur at any point in the word but, crucially, is fixed for each word; this we may term lexically designated stress (Collins & Moor: 111). Lexical stress systems are also referred to as free stress systems. Kula et al (2011: 97-98) cites Russian as an example of languages with unpredictable stress patterns. In Russian, stems and affixes can be inherently (‘lexically’) marked for stress, and words with marked stems have stress on the stem-syllable (3a and 3b), whereas words with unmarked stems have stress on the affix (if that is lexically marked: 3c) or on the initial syllable (in case no morpheme is marked for stress: 3d):

3. Russian:
  1. rabót+á = rabóta ‘work-Nom.Sg.’
  2. rabót+y = rabóty ‘work-Nom.Pl.’
  3. borod+á = borodá ‘beard-Nom.Sg.’
  4. borod+y = bórody ‘beard-Nom.Pl.’

One more thing to say about word stress is that it is usual to treat each word, when said on its own, as having just one primary (i.e. strongest) stress; if it is a monosyllabic word (such as cat, cut, kit), then of course there is no more to say. If the word contains more than one syllable, then other syllables will have other level of stress, and secondary stress is often found in words like ˌoverˈwhelming (with primary word stress on the ‘whelm’ syllable and secondary stress on the first syllable, Roach 2009: 100-101).

Sentence stress

Many of the potential stresses of word stress are lost in connected speech (i.e. sentence stress). The general pattern is that words which are likely to lose stress completely are those which convey relatively little information. These are the words important for the structure of the sentence, i.e. the function words (articles, auxiliary verbs, verb be, prepositions, pronouns, and conjunctions). The content words (nouns, main verbs, adjectives, most adverbs) which carry a high information load are normally stressed. Example:

I’ve ˈheard that ˈJack and ˈJane ˈspent their ˈholidays in Jaˈmaica.

We see that stress is placed on only the content words and that function words have lost their stress.

There are certain exceptions to the pattern stated above:

  1. Two sets of function words frequently receive stress.
    • wh-words where these form questions;
    • demonstratives, e.g. this, that, these, those
  2. Function words, especially prepositions normally receive stress when they indicate a contrast, for example, I said I gave ˈher a kiss, not ˈhim.
  3. In a conversation,
    • Would you call yourself a jazz lover?
    • Actually, I know little aˈbout jazz. I prefer classical music.
  4. At more rapid tempo, the number of unstressed syllables will increase, and more lexical words will be unstressed, e.g. I’ve heard that ˈJack and ˈJane spent their holidays in Jaˈmaica.

One final mark about stress is that the question of where to position a stress in a sentence is still a controversy among linguists. The general pattern stated above is only one standpoint. Some other linguists hold the view that the sentence stress tends to be placed on the word which is most important to the meaning of the sentence, while others say that the placement of stress is determined by the underlying syntactic structures.

Many other languages seem to exhibit very similar use of stress, but it is not possible in the present state of knowledge to say whether there are universal tendencies in all languages to position stress in predictable ways.

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