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Degrees of word stress

Phonetic prominence of a syllable in a word is relative, i.e. compared with the preceding one. But
the speaker of a particular language is capable of categorizing the actual phonetic differences
and distinguishing the phonologically relevant ones while ignoring those which are not relevant
for word recognition. Much of stress perception is done as expected, that is in anticipation of
regular rhythmic beats or in analogy with other similar words.

The English word indivisibility illustrates different degrees of syllable prominence with an
identical vowel [i]. Phonetically, there are, in fact, as many degrees of prominence as there are
syllables in the word, namely, seven. However, phonologically, there are only three degrees: only
one primarystress on , two secondarystresses in, vi and the rest of the syllables are
termed as having a weakstress, which might also be called unstressed. Some authors also
distinguish tertiarystress, which is as weak as secondary but has a different distribution: it
follows the primary stress, while the secondary stress precedes it. LPD defines tertiary stress as
the location of a potential rhythmic beat either after the primary stress, or between the
secondary and the primary (as in indivisibility). Tertiary stress is usually associated with
American English words like 'laboratory, 'dictionary.
According to A.C. Gimson, "there are four degrees of prominence in English:
a) primary accent,marked by the last major pitch change in a word (or longer utterance);
b) secondary accent,marked by a non-final pitch change in a word (or longer utterance);
c) a minor prominenceproduced by the occurrence of a full vowel but containing no pitch
d) a non-prominentsyllable containing no pitch change and one of the vowels /i, , /" {Gimson
1972, Cruttenden 2003).

We can easily correlate the above classification with primary, secondary, tertiaryand weak
stresses.However, this point of view of the British linguists is not shared by all linguists.

P. Ladefoged, the leading American phonetitian, does not consider it useful to think of stress in
terms of a multilevel system. He argues that "descriptions of this sort do not accord with the
phonological facts." The author regards stress as something that either does or does not occur
on a syllable in English, and views vowel reduction and intonation as separate processes
{Ladefoged 2003).

P. Ladefoged argues: " might seem as if there is more than one degree of stress. For example,
say the word multiplication and try to tap on the stressed syllables. You will find that you can tap
on the first and the fourth syllables of multiplication. The fourth syllable seems to have a higher
degree of stress. The same is true of other long words such as magnification and
psycholinguistics. But this apparently higher degree of stress of the later syllable only occurs
when the word is said in isolation or at the end of a phrase. Try saying a sentence like The
'psycholin'guistics 'course was'fun. If you tap on each stressed syllable, you will find that there is
no difference between the first and the fourth syllables of psycholinguistics. If you have a higher
degree of stress on the fourth syllable of the word psycholinguistics, this word will be given a
special emphasis, as though you were contrasting some other psychology course with a
psycholinguistics course...
Why does it seem that there are two degrees of stress in a word when it occurs at the end of a
phrase or when it is said alone - which is, of course, at the end of a phrase? The answer is that in

these circumstances another factor is present... the last stressed syllable in a phrase often
accompanies a peak in the intonation. In longer words containing two stresses, the apparent
difference in the levels of the first and the second stress is really due to the superimposition of
an intonation pattern. When these words occur within a sentence where there are no intonation
effects, then there are no differences in the stress levels" (Ladefoged2003:94-95).
A lower level of stress may also seem to occur in some English words. Compare the words in the
following columns:

'multiply 'multiple
'regulate 'regular
'copulate 'copula
The words in both columns have stress on the first syllable. The words in the first column might
seem to have a second, weaker stress on the last syllable as well, but this is not so. The words in
the first column differ from those in the second by having a full vowel in the final syllable. This
vowel is always longer than the reduced vowel - usually // - in the final syllable of the words in
the second column. The result is that there is a difference in the rhythm of the two sets of words.
This is due to the difference in the vowels that are present; it is not a difference in stress. There
is not a strong increase in respiratory activity on the last syllable of the words in the first column.
Both sets of words have increases in respiratory activity only on the first syllable.
In summary, we can note that the syllables in an utterance vary in their degrees of
prominence,but these variations are not all associated with what we want to call stress.A syllable
may be especially prominent because it accompanies a peak in the intonation. We will say that
syllables of this kind have a tonic (nuclear) stress.Given this, we can note that English syllables
are either stressed or unstressed. If they are stressed, they may or may not be the tonic stress
syllables that carry the major pitch change in the tone group. If they are unstressed, they may or
may not have a reduced vowel.
In determining the number of degrees of stress in a language one should first of
all distinguish between the physical and linguistic aspects of the problem. In order to
get a clearer understanding of the problem the chief interest is to be concentrated
upon its linguistic aspect.
When we speak about the degree of stress or of the physical side the degree
of acoustic energy of the syllable it seems reasonable to assume that each syllable
in speech (stressed as well as unstressed) is always characterised by some amount of
energy and if the degree of energy is treated from the physical point of view, there
may be distinguished as many degrees of stress in the word, as there are syllables in
When we speak about the degrees of word stress in the given language we have
to take into consideration, as it has been mentioned above, the number of functionally
opposed degrees of energy within the word. In this case we speak about the
functional or linguistic aspect of word stress.
Structurally, from a linguistic point of view, in every language there exists a

functional discrimination of definite degrees of stress, the number of which may be

different in different languages.
To understand the question one should take into consideration those stressed
syllables which are phonologically opposed to unstressed syllables of the word and
may therefore be said to be stressed.
Degrees of stress may be opposed to each other in case of primary and
secondary stress as a stressed syllable to another stressed syllable.
The linguistic explanation of the existence of three degrees of stress can be
found in the above-mentioned scientific works by G.P. Torsuyev, M.A. Sokolova and
others. The majority of English phoneticians assert that there are three degrees of
stress in English: primary, secondary and unstressed, e.g.
The degree of total acoustic energy of unstressed syllables is considerably
smaller than that of stressed syllables and depends upon the position of the syllables
in the word.
The first unstressed syllables are stronger than all the others unstressed
syllables in the word. The final unstressed syllables are weaker than the first ones, but
stronger than the second unstressed syllable from the end. The following examples
illustrate the accentual structure of the polysyllabic words. The biggest degree of
acoustic energy is marked by number 1 (primary stress). The secondary stress is
marked by number 2. The increasing row of numbers represents the decreasing
acoustic force of the unstressed syllables. The bigger the number is above the
syllable, the weaker its acoustic energy is, e.g.
encyclopedia [InsaIklq'pJdIq];
responsibility [rIspPnsq'bIlqtI];
satisfactory [sxtIs'fxktqrI].
The existence of a primary and a secondary word stress in English polysyllabic
words of four and more syllables is explained by the rhythmic tendency which is the
result of a great number of short notional words, consisting of one, two or rarely three
syllables and numerous unstressed form words between them, which facilitate
rhythmic tendencies of alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables in speech

( .., 1950).
Some linguists tried to solve the question of degrees of stress from a physical
viewpoint and found a different number of degrees of stress in English.
Thus, D. Jones speaks about several degrees of stress, treating the problem
from the physical point of view (Jones D., 1962).
Four degrees of stress (primary, secondary, tertiary, weak), corresponding to
four degrees of loudness are mentioned by G.L. Trager and H.L. Smith in 1957.
Consequently, there exists a phonological opposition between three degrees of
word stress primary, secondary stress and unstressed syllables in English
polysyllabic words and two degrees of stress in two- and three-syllable words, which
have only one stressed syllable.
In polysyllabic words the primary stress usually falls on the second or third
syllable from the end in most cases. The secondary stress falls on initial or second
syllable of the word more often.
Primary stress is characterised by the biggest degree of energy. The secondary
stress is also strong, but weaker than the primary stress.
Most words with prefixes and suffixes in English have two primary stresses
the first primary stress falls on the root of the word, the second primary stress falls on
the suffix or prefix.
In the Ukrainian language stressed syllables are weaker in than in English.
Stressed and unstressed syllables are not so vividly opposed by the degree of total
acoustic energy in Ukrainian as in English. It is explained not only by a weaker
energy of Ukrainian stressed syllables and a stronger acoustic force of unstressed
syllables but by the absence of reduction of unstressed syllables in Ukrainian, which
is typical of English. Besides, due to the peculiarities of the Ukrainian grammatical
structure, the form words are not so numerous and consequently, a regular rhythmic
alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables is not observed in Ukrainian.
Nearly all polysyllabic Ukrainian words have two degrees of word stress
stressed and unstressed. Three degrees of word stress are sometimes used for the sake
of emphasis in compound words or words with prefixes. Two strong stresses in multisyllable
words are met more often.