Syllable, Stress & Accent







IN THIS SECTION:   >>>             STRESS

>>>         PROMINENCE

>>>             ACCENT






First of all, let us read the entries on stress and prominence in the Little Encyclopaedia of Phonetics:


Stress is a large topic and despite the fact that it has been extensively studied for a very long time there remain many areas of disagreement or lack of understanding. To begin with a basic point, it is almost certainly true that in all languages some syllables are in some sense stronger than other syllables; these are syllables that have the potential to be described as stressed. It is also probably true that the difference between strong and weak syllables is of some linguistic importance in every language – strong and weak syllables do not occur at random. However, languages differ in the linguistic function of such differences: in English, for example, the position of stress can change the meaning of a word, as in the case of ‘import’ (noun) and ‘import’ (verb), and so forms part of the phonological composition of the word. However, it is usually claimed that in the case of French there is no possibility of moving the stress to different syllables except in cases of special emphasis or contrast, since stress (if there is any that can be detected) always falls on the last syllable of a word. In tone languages it is often difficult or impossible for someone who is not a native speaker of the language to identify stress functioning separately from tone: syllables may sound stronger or weaker according to the tone they bear.

It is necessary to consider what factors make a syllable count as stressed. It seems likely that stressed syllables are produced with greater effort than unstressed, and that this effort is manifested in the air pressure generated in the lungs for producing the syllable and also in the articulatory movements in the vocal tract. These effects of stress produce in turn various audible results: one is pitch prominence, in which the stressed syllable stands out from its context (for example, being higher if its unstressed neighbours are low in pitch, or lower if those neighbours are high; often a pitch glide such as a fall or rise is used to give greater pitch prominence); another effect of stress is that stressed syllables tend to be longer – this is very noticeable in English, less so in some other languages; also, stressed syllables tend to be louder than unstressed, though experiments have shown that differences in loudness alone are not very noticeable to most listeners. It has been suggested by many writers that the term accent should be used to refer to some of the manifestations of stress (particularly pitch prominence), but the word, though widely used, never seems to have acquired a distinct meaning of its own.

One of the areas in which there is little agreement is that of levels of stress: some descriptions of languages manage with just two levels (stressed and unstressed), while others use more. In English, one can argue that if one takes the word 'indicator' as an example, the first syllable is the most strongly stressed, the third syllable is the next most strongly stressed and the second and fourth syllables are weakly stressed, or unstressed. This gives us three levels: it is possible to argue for more, though this rarely seems to give any practical benefit. (…)

(Roach, 2002: ‘stress’; emphasis added)



Stress” or “accentuation” depends crucially on the speaker’s ability  to make  certain  syllables more noticeable than others. A syllable which “stands out” in this way is a prominent syllable. An important thing about prominence, at least in English, is the fact that there are many ways in which a syllable can be made prominent: experiments have shown that prominence is associated with greater length, greater loudness, pitch prominence (i.e. having a pitch level or movement that makes a syllable stand out from its context) and with “full” vowels and diphthongs (whereas the vowel /ə/ – “schwa” – and syllabic consonants are only found in unstressed syllables and /ɪ/ and /ʊ/ are found in both stressed and unstressed). Despite the complexity of this set of interrelated factors it seems that the listener simply hears syllables as more prominent or less prominent.

(Roach, 2002: ‘prominence’; emphasis added)


Now go on to our page on ACCENT AND STRESS.


For a phonological discussion of stress and stress assignment, read John Hutton’s pages on the metrical structure. (Make sure you read the next page as well.)


Now you may wish to read a page on stress in Optimality Theory, accompanied by a case study for Indonesian and some final remarks.




·      Roach, P. 2002. A Little Encyclopaedia of Phonetics:
Roach, P. 1992. Introducing Phonetics. London: Penguin)