Word Stress

Phonology describes the sound structure of a language; morphology describes the structure of words; and syntax describes the uses of words in phrases and sentences. To explain the place of stressed syllables in different words we need to consider facts about sounds, word forms, and syntactic classes.
1. IS STRESS PREDICTABLE?
In some languages the position of stress in a word is invariable. In Czech and Finnish it is always the first syllable of a word which is most prominent; in Polish the next-to-last syllable is stressed; in French, insofar as there is any stress difference at all, the last syllable is generally the most prominent. In languages like these, where stress is fixed on a particular syllable and therefore predictable, stress cannot differentiate meanings. In contrast, Spanish and Russian have sets of words which differ only in the position of stress. How about English?
English is not like Czech, Finnish, Polish, or French. We have already seen that the stress of a polysyllabic word may be on the first syllable (lcannibal), the second (alrena), the third (afterlnoon), or some later syllable. In a general sense stress is variable in English. To be sure, stress is invariable for any specific word. Although there are dialect differences in stress ( garage is stressed on the second syllable in North America, on the first syllable everywhere else) just as there are dialect differences in vowels (either, half, roof, for example), we are not free to put stress on whatever syllable we want. If a person still learning English as a new language says lbeginner instead of belginner, those who already know the language consider it a mispronunciation, even though the meaning is probably clear enough. In English words stress is not fixed – but does that mean that it is not predictable?
On the other hand stress does not play a large role in differentiating words. Billow and below, reefer and refer are sometimes cited as pairs of words which differ mostly in position of stress, but there are not many such pairs. There are somewhat more pairs like the noun linsult and the verb inlsult, noun labstract, verb and adjective ablstract, a type which we examine later, sets of words which are semantically related but grammatically different.
Every English dictionary uses some kind of key to pronunciation. Following the orthographic form of every word that is listed there is some kind of respelling in the special key to indicate the pronunciation of the word. Such a respelling implies that the usual orthography is not sufficiently regular for us to deduce the pronunciation from the ordinary spelling, and of course there is considerable truth in the implication; the irregularities and inconsistencies of English spelling are well known (though sometimes they are exaggerated).
One part of the respelling, for polysyllabic words, is an indication of stress. For every word of more than one syllable the dictionary’s respelling indicates which is the stressed syllable; for example maintain (m!n.t!nl). Here again there is an obvious implication: that stress is completely unpredictable, that a reader cannot look at a written word and correctly figure out where the stress is. The implication is not entirely accurate; while it is not possible to predict the stress in all English words, there are many which follow general principles.
There are general rules which account for the place of stress in numerous words, though not in all the words of the language. Many of these rules you know already, though not in a completely conscious way. Words which end in –tion, such as constitution, composition, interruption, proclamation, simplification – literally hundreds of words – are stressed on the vowel before this ending. Similarly, words with a final –ity have stress on the vowel before the ending (asininity, humidity, mediocrity, relativity, sentimentality, sentimentality). These are two small generalizations that can be made about stress placement. There are other, more subtle ones which, by and large, are known to speakers of the language. For example, the following words may be new to you (or half-new), but you can probably stress each one of them correctly:
comatula    lobatic             metrify     polyphase    spiriferous
2. STRESS RULES
In the remainder of this chapter we explore the rules – that is, general statements – regarding the place of stress in different groups of words. We will see that there are limits to the rules. Each rule has its particular domain; not everything is predictable.
Stress rules are based on three kinds of information: syntactic, morphological, and phonological.
Syntactic information The place of stress in a word depends partly on what part of speech it is. The noun insult is stressed differently from the verb insult. Similarly, compare the adjective content and the noun contents, the noun present (‘gift’) and the adjective present (‘not absent’) with the verb prelsent. The words we examine here are nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and somewhat different rules app
ly to each of these parts of speech.
Morphological information We have seen that the suffixes +tion and +ity have a role in the location of stress. Every word has a morphological composition. A word may be simple, consisting of a single base: for example, arm, baby, circle, fat, manage. Some words, like armchair, babysit, ice-cold, square dance are compounds, consisting of two bases together (whether our orthographic conventions prefer them written as a single word, or with a hyphen, or with a space between the parts). Finally, some words are complex, consisting of a prefixplus a base (disarm, encircle, mismanage, renew) or a base plus a suffix (babyish, fatten, happiness, management). A word may contain prefix + base + suffix (mismanagement, unhappiness), base + base + suffix (babysitting, square dancer), base + suffix + suffix ( fattening, sharpener), and so forth. The morphological composition has a role in determining stress. We will see that different kinds of suffixes, especially, are important in determining the place of stress. Strictly speaking, a prefix or a suffix must have a meaning or a function, as in the examples above. For the purpose of locating the stressed syllable in a word we consider certain elements which occur at the beginning of numerous words, ‘prefixes,’ and elements which often occur in final place, ‘suffixes.’
Phonological information The place of stress in particular words depends in part on the nature of the last two syllables, the ult and penult. We need to consider whether a syllable has a free vowel or not and the number of consonants, if any, which close the syllable. Since phonological facts interact with syntactic and morphological facts, we shall see that rules about vowels and consonants are different for nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
To review, a free vowel is one which can occur at the end of a one-syllable word. Free vowels are illustrated in these words:
see, seat                 sue, suit           spa, calm
bay, bait                 go, goat            law, laud
by, bite                  cow,scout       toy, void
Notice that in each of the following words the last syllable, the ult, has a free vowel:
agree   remain     rely     destroy     cellophane     anecdote
And in each of the next words the next-to-last syllable, the penult, has a free vowel:
Arena     aroma    diploma     hiatus     horizon
In the next group of words the penult ends with a consonant – the syllable division is between two consonants:
enigma    veranda      parental     detergent     amalgam
But in the following words the penult does not end with a consonant and does not have a free vowel:
abacus     cinema      generous     melody      evident
In the rest of this chapter we will be weaving in and out among the three kinds of phenomena, syntactic, morphological, and phonological.
3. NEUTRAL SUFFIXES
It was noted that when a suffix of Old English origin is added to a word, stress does not change; e.g. lneighbor, lneighborly, lneighborliness, lneighborhood. We say that suffixes of Old English origin (and a few others) are neutral: they are added to independent words and have no effect on the stress. For example, the words ablsorbing, linteresting, prelvailing, and lterrifying have the same stressed syllables as ablsorb, linterest, prelvail, and lterrify, respectively. This #ing is a neutral suffix, and so are #hood, #ly, and #ness, illustrated above. (A neutral suffix will be marked with the boundary symbol # before it.) Although most neutral suffixes are of Old English origin, this does not mean that the words to which they are added are necessarily of Old English origin.
4. TONIC ENDINGS
Nouns which end in –oon typically have stress on the ending: balloon, raccoon, macaroon, saloon, etc. An ending like this is a tonic ending. Most words that have tonic endings have been borrowed from Modern French, but not all. Some, like absentee, have been formed in English with a suffix of French origin.
debonaire, millionaire
refugee, internee
Congolese, Vietnamese
brunette, kitchenette
antique, technique
5. THE BASIC STRESS RULE FOR VERBS
Once we have recognized the neutral suffixes and the tonic endings we are ready for more general statements about stress. Let’s consider the following sets of verbs:
1a                    2a                    3
agree                diagnose          abolish
delay                exercise            consider
exclude            intimidate        develop
cajole               monopolize      imagine
invite               persecute         remember
pronounce       ridicule            solicit
1b                    2b
attract              compliment
consist                         gallivant
depend             manifest
exempt
involve
reverse
Note that in groups 1a and 1b the last syllable, the ult, is stressed; in 2a and 2b the third syllable from the end, the antepenult, is stressed; and in group 3 the penult, the next-to-last syllable, is the stressed syllable. Why?
The verbs in group 1 have what we may call a stressable ult: either the ult has a free vowel (1a) or it ends with at least two consonants (1b). Furthermore, each verb in the group consists of just two syllables. The ult is stressed.
In group 2 also each verb has a heavy ult, because of the free vowel (2a) or because of the cluster of consonants at the end (2b). These verbs have three or more syllables. The antepenult is stressed. (In centuries past they were stressed on the ult. Even today, in Scotland and in the Caribbean, one may hear diagnose or dominate stressed on the ult.)

Each word in group 3 has an unstressable ult: the ult contains a checked vowel followed by not more than one consonant. The penult is stressed. This general statement, or rule, for what we have observed for verbs can be put into the form of a decision tree:

a. Exercise with verbs
All of the verbs below follow this basic rule. Note which syllable is stressed in each one and mark it 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, or 3, according to the scheme above. (There aren’t many examples of group 2b here because there aren’t many such verbs in the language.)
adopt               exonerate         produce
answer                         furnish             remark
covet               inhabit            substitute
dehumidify      mechanize       supplement
exhaust            offend              transcribe
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6. THE BASIC STRESS RULE FOR NOUNS
The first question to ask about verbs when determining the position of stress is: ‘Is the ult stressable or not?’ Nouns are different. The first question to ask about a noun is: ‘How many syllables does the noun have?’ The next question is: ‘Does the ult have a free vowel or not?’ It doesn’t matter how many consonants occur in final position. Examine these sets of nouns.
1a                    2                      3a
alcove              appetite           affidavit
membrane        hypotenuse      aroma
statute                         institute           horizon
termite                         porcupine        hypnosis
textile              vicissitude       papyrus
1b                                            3b
cavern                                      appendix
focus                                        intestine
menace                                    memorandum
premise                                    synopsis
ticket                                       veranda
3c
camera
citizen
deficit
gelatin
pelican
Note, first, that eac
h noun of groups 1a and 1b has just two syllables. The penult is stressed whether the ult vowel is free (1a) or not (1b) – but see the note at the end of this chapter. If there are more than two syllables in the noun, it makes a difference whether the ult has a free vowel or not. If the ult vowel is free, as in group 2, the antepenult is stressed. If the ult vowel is not a free vowel, as in group 3, we ask if the penult is stressable. The penult is stressable if it has a free vowel (3a) or ends with a consonant (3b). If the penult is not stressable, the antepenult is stressed (3c).
The basic noun rule can be summarized in this decision tree:

b. Exercise with nouns
Note the stress in the following nouns and mark each one as 1a, 1b, 2, 3a, 3b, or 3c, according to how it fits the classification above.
javelin              closet               diploma
idea                  satellite            veteran
bonanza           opera               platinum
harmonica        hypothesis       neuritis
tabloid                         formaldehyde   vestibule
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7. RULES FOR ADJECTIVES
We do not need a new rule for the stress of adjectives. There are essentially two types of adjectives, so far as the place of stress is concerned: one type follows the stress rule for verbs, the other the stress rule for nouns.
Type I Observe these sets of adjectives:
(1a)      contrite            (2a) asinine      (3) academic
inane                      bellicose         decrepit
obscene                 erudite      
     intrepid
serene                    grandiose       periodic
(1b)      absurd              (2b) difficult
correct                               manifest
distinct                  moribund
Note that these are exactly parallel to the grouping of verbs in section 11.5. Group 1 adjectives have two syllables and the ult is stressable, either because of the free vowel (1a) or the final cluster of consonants (1b); the ult is stressed. Group 2 adjectives have more than two syllables and a stressable ult, because of the free vowel (2a) or the final consonant cluster (2b); the antepenult is stressed. Group 3 contains adjectives with an unstressable ult (almost always –ic or –id or –it); the penult is stressed.
Type II adjectives end with one of these suffixes: +al, +ar, +ant/ent, or +ous. Note that these suffixes are all monosyllabic, do not have a free vowel, and the vowel is initial in the suffix. We refer to these as weak suffixes. In adjectives with these suffixes either the penult or the antepenult is stressed, depending on the nature of the penult. The following exercise will help you to determine the general rule.
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c. Exercise with nouns
11c Exercise with adjectives
(a) Mark the stress in each of these words:
fatal global polar stellar cogent decent dormant nervous
General statement: If an adjective has a weak suffix preceded by a base of
just one syllable, stress is on the ________.
(b) Each of the words below has a base of more than one syllable. Do three
things:
1.      If the vowel of the penult is a free vowel, put a macron over the vowel letter, e.g. complacent;
2.      If the vowel of the penult is followed by two consonants (a consonant cluster which cannot occur in word-initial position), draw a line between the two consonant letters, e.g. abun|dant;
3.      Use the tick to show whether the penult or the antepenult is stressed, e.g. comlplacent, relluctant, ladamant.
ac   ci   den    tal          re     luc    tant        pe   ri     phe    ral
e     ter  nal    mag      ni     fi      cent        a     na    lo      gous
vi    gi   lant                 bar   ba                 rous       a     bun  dant
ma
  lig  nant                 ge     ne    rous        a     nec  do     tal
We note that the penult is stressed if it meets either of these conditions:
(1)
(2)
If the penult meets neither of these conditions, the antepenult is stressed.
Adjectives of this type are just like nouns which have a checked vowel in the ult. In fact, the weak suffix +ant/ent appears in nouns as well as adjectives; compare detergent, occupant, participant.
To go a bit farther, we may consider the following noun endings also weak suffixes:
+a              mica, aroma, enigma, cinema
+ance/ence hindrance, reluctance, evidence
+is                         thesis, neurosis, synopsis, emphasis
+on            nylon, skeleton
+um           fulcrum, platinum
+us            circus, hiatus
8. EXTENDING THE BASIC STRESS RULES
Consider these verbs and adjectives:
copy     envy     marry   worry   easy     happy   ugly
argue    continue          issue   rescue
borrow      follow         swallow           hollow   narrow      yellow
The words in the three lines end with vowels that we have written, respectively, as /i/, /u/, and /o/. Are these free vowels? that different speakers give different answers to this question. In final position there is no contrast between a free vowel /ii/ and a checked /c/, a free /uu/ and a checked /m/, nor between /ou/ and /o/. For the stress rules these three vowels in final position act like checked vowels. The ult is not stressable and therefore stress falls on the penult, just as it does in such verbs and adjectives as consider, deposit, comic, valid.
Similarly, in nouns the ult is light if it contains one of these three vowels without a consonant following, as in the following examples:
albino        macaroni   commando    jujitsu     avenue         revenue
In the first four of these words the penult is stressable, because it has a free vowel or is a closed syllable, and so receives the stress. If the ult were strong, the antepenult would be stressed. In the last two words neither ult nor penult is stressable; the antepenult is stressed.
Rule: Final /i u o/ count as checked vowels, making the ult unstressable.
A word with one of these vowels in final position has stress on the penult or antepenult according to the usual rules.
9. MIXED ENDINGS
Neutral suffixes are mostly of Old
English origin. Other suffixes have generally entered English from French, Latin, or Greek, originally as parts of words borrowed from those languages. But often these suffixes have come to have a life of their own in English and are used to form new English words. So it happens that some suffixes behave like heavy endings in words of foreign origin but act like neutral suffixes in words which have been created in English. Notice the following sets of words:
(a)        agreement                    (b)  compliment
encouragement                  implement
confinement                      document
development                      impediment
punishment                        monument
In set (a) –ment is a neutral suffix. It is added to words which stand alone; stress in each suffixed word is on the same syllable as in the independent word to which the suffix is added. The words in set (b) are regularly stressed, but by a different principle: stress is on the antepenult of each word. In effect, these are two different suffixes, and they should be labeled differently. We might refer to them as –ment1 and –ment2, but these labels do not tell what the suffixes have to do with the position of stress. A better way is to use different symbols for different kinds of suffixes. So we write #ment and +ment, where ‘#’ indicates that what follows is a neutral suffix and ‘+’ marks a suffix (or a special ending) which is not neutral.
The following groups of words illustrate three apparent suffixes which, like –ment, turn out to be three pairs of suffixes. In each pair one suffix is neutral and the other is a strong ult.
(a)        materialize       (b)  apologize
naturalize               antagonize
characterize           mechanize
Americanize          monopolize
popularize              hypothesize
(a)        federalist          (b)  anarchist
industrialist            botanist
modernist              ornithologist
revolutionist          protagonist
violinist                 scientist
(a)        nationalism      (b)  ostracism
imperialism            recidivism
parallelism             somnambulism
radicalism              syllogism
secularism              ventriloquism




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