Stress (linguistics)

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In linguistics, stress is the relative emphasis that may be given to certain syllables in a word. The term is also used for similar patterns of phonetic prominence inside syllables. The word accent is sometimes also used with this sense.

The ways stress manifests itself in the speech stream are highly language dependent. In some languages, stressed syllables have a higher or lower pitch than non-stressed syllables — so-called pitch accent (or musical accent). In other languages, they may bear either higher or lower pitch than surrounding syllables (a pitch excursion), depending on the sentence type. There are also dynamic accent (loudness), qualitative accent (full vowels), and quantitative accent (length, known in music theory as agogic accent). Stress may be characterized by more than one of these characteristics. Further, stress may be realized to varying degrees on different words in a sentence; sometimes the difference between the acoustic signals of stressed and unstressed syllables may be minimal.

In English, stress is most dramatically realized on focussed or accented words. For instance, consider the dialogue

"Is it brunch tomorrow?"
"No, it's dinner tomorrow."

In it, the stress-related acoustic differences between the syllables of "tomorrow" would be small compared to the differences between the syllables of "dinner", the emphasized word. In these emphasized words, stressed syllables such as "din" in "dinner" are louder and longer.[1][2][3] They may also have a different fundamental frequency, or other properties. Unstressed syllables typically have a vowel which is closer to a neutral position (the schwa), while stressed vowels are more fully realized. In contrast, stressed and unstressed vowels in Spanish share the same quality—unlike English, the language has no reduced vowels.

(Much literature emphasizes the importance of pitch changes and pitch motions on stressed syllables, but experimental support for this idea is weak. Nevertheless, most experiments do not directly address the pitch of speech, which is a subjective perceived quantity. Experiments typically measure the speech fundamental frequency which is objectively measurable, and strongly correlated with pitch, but not quite the same thing.)

The possibilities for stress in tone languages is an area of ongoing research, but stress-like patterns have been observed in Mandarin Chinese.[4] They are realized as alternations between syllables where the tones are carefully realized with a relatively large swing in fundamental frequency, and syllables where they are realized "sloppily" with typically a small swing.

Stressed syllables are often perceived as being more forceful than non-stressed syllables. Research has shown, however, that although dynamic stress is accompanied by greater respiratory force, it does not mean a more forceful articulation in the vocal tract.

Timing and placement

English is a stress-timed language; that is, stressed syllables appear at a roughly constant rate, and non-stressed syllables are shortened to accommodate this. Other languages have syllable timing (e.g. Spanish) or mora timing (e.g. Japanese), where syllables or morae are spoken at a roughly constant rate regardless of stress.

Some languages have fixed stress. That is, stress is placed always on a given syllable, as in Finnish and Hungarian (stress always on the first syllable) or Quechua and Polish (stress always on the penult: one syllable before the last) or on third syllable counting backwards (the antepenult), as in Macedonian (see: Stress in Macedonian language). Other languages have stress placed on different syllables but in a predictable way, as in Latin (where stress is conditioned by the structure of the penultimate syllable). They are said to have a regular stress rule.

French words are sometimes said to be stressed on the final syllable, but actually French has no word stress at all. Rather, it has a prosody whereby the final or next-to-final syllable of a string of words is stressed. This string may be equivalent to a clause or a phrase. However, when a word is said alone, it receives the full prosody and therefore the stress as well.

There are also languages like English, Italian and Spanish, where stress is (at least partly) unpredictable. Rather, it is lexical: it comes as part of the word and must be memorized, although orthography can make stress unambiguous for a reader, as is the case in Spanish and Portuguese. In such languages, otherwise homophonous words may differ only by the position of the stress, and therefore it is possible to use stress as a grammatical device.

English does this to some extent with noun-verb pairs such as a récord vs. to recórd, where the verb is stressed on the last syllable and the related noun is stressed on the first; record also hyphenates differently: a réc-ord vs. to re-córd. The German language does this with certain prefixes - for example úm-schrei-ben (to rewrite) vs. um-schréi-ben (to paraphrase, outline) - and in Russian this phenomenon often occurs with different cases of certain nouns (земли́/zemli (genitive case of the Earth, land or soil) and зе́мли (soils or lands - plural form)).

It is common for dialects to differ in their stress placement, as in British English and American English.

Historical effects of stress

It is common for stressed and unstressed syllables to behave differently as a language evolves. For example, in the Romance languages, the original Latin short vowels /e/ and /o/ have generally become diphthongs when stressed. Since stress takes part in verb conjugation, this has produced verbs with vowel alternation in the Romance languages. For example, the Spanish verb volver has the form volví in the past but vuelvo in the present (see Spanish irregular verbs). Italian shows the same phenomenon, but with /o/ alternating with /uo/ instead. This behaviour is not confined to verbs; for example, Spanish viento "wind" vs. ventilación "ventilation", from Latin ventum.

Degrees of stress

Primary and secondary stress are distinguished in some languages. English is commonly believed to have two levels of stress, as in the words cóunterfòil [ˈkaʊntɚˌfɔɪl] and còunterintélligence [ˌkaʊntɚ.ɪnˈtɛlɪdʒəns], and in some treatments has even been described as having four levels, primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary, but these treatments often disagree with each other.

Phoneticians such as Peter Ladefoged believe these multiple levels are mere phonetic detail and not true phonemic stress. They report that often the alleged secondary stress is not characterized by the increase in respiratory activity normally associated with stress. In their analysis, an English syllable may be either stressed or unstressed, and if unstressed, the vowel may be either full or reduced. This is all that is required for a phonemic treatment. In addition, the last stressed syllable in a normal (default) intonation unit receives additional intonational or "tonic" stress. (The intonational stress may occur elsewhere to mark contrast or other prosodic effects.) This combination of lexical stress, phrase- or clause-final prosody, and the reduction of some unstressed vowels conspires to create the impression of multiple levels of phonetic stress:

  • Lexical stress
1. Plus tonic stress: A syllable with both lexical and prosodic stress in Ladefoged's account corresponds to primary stress in the traditional account.
2. Without tonic stress: A syllable with only lexical stress corresponds to secondary stress in the traditional account.
  • No stress
3. On a full vowel: An unstressed syllable with a full vowel also corresponds to secondary stress in the traditional account, and to tertiary stress in the fuller account.
4. On a reduced vowel: An unstressed syllable with a reduced vowel is said be unstressed or to have quaternary stress.

Therefore, in a phonemic transcription of English words that indicates reduced vowels like schwa, only a single symbol for stress is required. For example, cóunterfòil is only stressed on the first syllable, /ˈkaʊntɚ.fɔɪl/; the last syllable is an unstressed but unreduced vowel. (Unstressed oi does not normally reduce in English.) In còunterintélligence both marked syllables are stressed, /ˈkaʊntɚ.ɪnˈtɛlɪdʒəns/. The apparent differences in stress are due to prosody and appear when the words are said alone in citation, as, ironically, they are when being sounded out for transcription. They disappear when the words are moved to non-final position, for example in counterintelligence operations are going well, where only well has "primary" stress. (For some speakers, the first syllable of counterintelligence may be unstressed but unreduced, /kaʊntɚ.ɪnˈtɛlɪdʒəns/. Unstressed ou/ow does not normally reduce in English.)


Different systems exist for indicating syllabification and stress.

  • In IPA, primary stress is indicated by a high vertical line before the syllable, secondary stress by a low vertical line. Example: [sɪˌlæbəfɪˈkeɪʃən] or /sɪˌlæbəfɪˈkeɪʃən/.
  • In English dictionaries which do not use IPA, stress is typically marked with a prime mark placed after the stressed syllable: /si-lab′-ə-fi-kay′-shən/.
  • In ad hoc pronunciation guides, stress is often indicated using a combination of bold text and capital letters. Example: si-lab-if-i-KAY-shun or si-LAB-if-i-KAY-shun
  • In Russian dictionaries, stress is indicated with an acute accent on a syllable's vowel. Example: вимовля́ння.
  • In Dutch, ad hoc indication of stress is usually marked by an acute accent on the vowel (or, in the case of a diphthong, the first two vowels) of the stressed syllable. Compare achterúítgang (deterioration) and áchteruitgang (back exit).
  • In Modern Greek, all polysyllables are written with an acute accent over the vowel in the stressed syllable. (The acute accent is also used to distinguish some monosyllables in order to distinguish homographs (eg, η ("the") and ή ("or")); here the stress of the two words is of course the same).


  1. M. E. Beckman, Stress and Non-Stress Accent, Dordrecht: Foris (1986) ISBN 90-6765-243-1
  2. R. Silipo and S. Greenberg, Automatic Transcription of Prosodic Stress for Spontaneous English Discourse, Proceedings of the XIVth International Congress of Phonetic Sciences (ICPhS99), San Francisco, CA, August 1999, pages 2351-2354
  3. G. Kochanski, E. Grabe, J. Coleman and B. Rosner, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, volume 118, number 2, pages 1038-1054, doi:10.1121/1.1923349
  4. Kochanski, G., Shih, C., Jing, H.; Quantitative Measurement of Prosodic Strength in Mandarin, Speech Communication 41(4), November 2003, DOI: 10.1016/S0167-6393(03)00100-6

See also

br:Taol-mouezh bg:Ударение cs:Přízvuk da:Accent (tryk) de:Akzent (Linguistik) el:Τόνος (γραφή) ia:Accento kk:Екпін he:הטעמה it:Accento (linguistica) nl:Klemtoon nn:fonologisk trykk sl:Naglas sv:Betoning (språk) fiu-vro:Rasõhus