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Accentual Structure of English Words

1. Types of Word Stress.

2. Degrees of Word Stress. Fixed and Free Word Stress

3. The main Accentuation Tendencies (the Recessive, Rhythmic and Retentive).


A word as a meaningful unit has a definite phonetic structure. The phonetic structure of a word comprises not only sounds that the word is composed of and not only the syllabic structure that these sound form; it also has a definite stress pattern. The auditory impression of stress is that of prominence. And if a wood contains more than a syll., the relative prominence of those syllables differs. There may be one prominent syll in a word as compared to the rest of syllables of the same word (as in “im'portant”). There may be 2 equally prominent syllables (as in “'misbe'have”), 2 unequally prominent syllables (as in “e,xami'nation”) or more prominent syllables (as in “'unre,lia'bility”). And this correlation of degrees of prominence of the syllables in a word forms the stress pattern of the word, which is often called the accentual structure of a word.

The stress patterns of different words may coincide with “mother”, “table”, __ __. The stress pattern of these words differs from that of “prominent”, “analyze”, “syllable” __ __ __. The stress pattern of words is generally perceived without difficulty. We easily distinguish between “'subject” and “sub'ject”.

The stress pattern of a word is altered in connected speech. Cf. 'un'happy. She was 'so un`happy. He re'membered those 'unhappy `days. Word stress belongs to the word when said in isolation, whereas utterance stress belongs to the utterance.

As stated above, the auditory impression of stress is that of prominence. So a stressed syll. on the auditory level is a syll. that has special prominence. The effect of prominence may be produced by a greater degree of loudness, greater length of the stressed syll., some modifications in its pitch and quality.

Acoustic analysis shows that the perception of prominence may be due to definite variations of the following acoustic parameters: intensity, duration, frequency, formant structure. All these parameters generally interact to produce the effect of prominence.

In different languages stress may be achieved by various combinations of these parameters. Depending upon which parameter is the principal one on producing the effect of stress, word stress in languages may be of different types.

There are languages with dynamic word stress. Stress on such languages is mainly achieved by a greater force of articulation which results in greater loudness, on the auditory level and greater intensity on the acoustic level. The stressed syllables are louder than the unstressed ones. All the other parameters play a less important role in producing the effect of stress in such languages.

In languages with musical word stress prominence is mainly achieved by variations in pitch level, the main acoustic parameter being fundamental frequency. Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese are languages with musical word stress (or tonic word stress). The meaning of the words in those languages depends on the pitch levels of their syllables.

Swedish word stress is characterized as dynamic and musical, because both loudness and pitch variations are relevant factors in producing prominence.

In languages with quantitative word stress the effect of stress is mainly based on the quantity of the sound. i.e. length. In such languages vowels in the stressed syll-es are always longer than vowels in unstressed ones.

Russian word stress is considered to be mainly quantitative though it has been proved that duration is not the only parameter that produces the effect of stress in Russian.

Besides those types of word stress, linguists distinguish qualitative word stress, as in many languages the quality of vowels on stressed syllables is unobscured and consequently differs greatly from the quality of vowels in unstressed syllables. Until recently, English word stress was considered to be dynamic, as stress was generally correlated with loudness. But numerous investigations of the acoustic nature of English word stress have made it clear that stress in English does not depend on intensity alone and that English w-s is of a complex nature.

Thus, D. Fry synthesized pairs of words ('object – ob'ject) on monotones and varied the relative durations and intensities of the two vowels. His experiment showed that as long as duration and intensity were increased together, reinforcing each other, there was agreement on which of the syllables was the most prominent one but, when increased separately, duration appeared to be more important than intensity.

D. Bolinger’s experiments have shown that pitch movement in English is also one of the most important cues for prominence. But it is not the pitch direction that is significant in English, it is the pitch contrast.

A. Gimson notes that if a synthesized nonsense word / i l l e l / is presented to English listeners, with no pitch, intensity or length variations but with vowels of different quality, the vowels which are the most sonorous (i.e. the most open vowels) will be judged most prominent. In this word / / & / / are usually judged as the points of the greatest prominence. This shows what an important role the inherent quality of a vowel plays in producing the effect of prominence.

We consider that English word stress is created by an interaction of 4 parameters: intensity, fundamental frequency, duration and format structure.

As for Russian word-stress it is considered to be primary quantitative and, secondly it is qualitative and dynamic.


Degrees of word-stress

Instrumental investigations show that a polysyllabic word has as many degrees of prominence as there are syllables in it. D. Jones indicated the degrees of prominence in the word “Opportunity”. But not all these degrees of prom are linguistically relevant. The problem is to determine which of these degrees are linguistically relevant. There are 2 views of the matter. Some (e.g. D. Jones, R. Kingdon, V. Vassilyev consider that there are 3 degrees or W-s in English: primary, secondary (partial stress) and weak (unstressed). Secondary stress is chiefly needed to define the stress pattern of words. E.g. “e,xami'nation”, “,qualifi'cation”, “'hair-,dresser”.


All these degrees stress are linguistically relevant as there are words in English the meanings of which depend on the occurrence of either of the 3 degrees in their stress patterns. E.g. 'import - im'port,,certifi'cation - cer,tifi'cation =certificate.

Some American linguists (G. Trager, A. Hill) distinguish 4 degrees of W-s:

- Primary (as in “cupboard”) / ¢ /

- Secondary (as in “discrimination) / ^ /

- Tertiary (as in “analyze”)

Weak stress (as in “cupboard”), but very often the weakly stressed syllable is left unmarked. /v/

American phoneticians consider that secondary stress generally occurs before the primary stress (as in examination), while tertiary stress occurs the primary stress (as in handbook, specialize).

Linguistically, tertiary word-stress can be taken for a variant of secondary w-s, as there are no words in English the meanings of which depend on whether their stress patterns is characterized by either secondary of tertiary stress.


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