To What Extent is Word Stress Predictable in English?
In many languages word stress is quite predictable: in Czech the first syllable of a word always carries the main stress. In French the ultimate syllable is the most prominent each time. The penultimate syllable is constantly stressed in Polish. As can be seen, there are strict general rules with respect to a word’s stress. In English, however, the stressing of a lexeme appears to be arbitrary rather than following certain stress rules. The spelling does not indicate a word’s pronunciation, let alone its stress. Moreover, the stress may even differ within the same word. Thus, thir 'teen can be stressed on the last syllable, but in an environment of another word, e.g. 'thirteen 'pints, it can also be pronounced with a prominent first syllable in order to keep eurhythmy. Nevertheless, it looks like native speakers have a perceptual ability to say how many syllables a word has and to tell which syllable receives the most stress. Therefore, Carr (1999) considers three trisyllabic non-English words: Gigondas, Zaventem and tavola. The author points out that English speakers always tend to stress the penultimate syllable mispronouncing each of theses words. Why do speakers with English as their mother tongue react in this way? Is this a proof of generalisation and existing stress patterns? In this essay it is discussed whether the primary stress of singular words has to be learned, e.g. like their spelling or the sequence of their phonemes, or if the stressing of a lexeme follows internalized rules (due to a lack of space, secondary stress shall be excluded here). For a more concise analysis of the issue, three main bases concerning primary stress patterns are examined: the syntactic, morphological and phonological information of a word.
Phonologically speaking, a word consists of different phonemes, as Fudge (1984) claims. A string of phonemes builds up a syllable. At least one syllable forms a whole word. Syllables can be phonologically distinguished with regard to their weight. Thus, they can be either heavy or light. In order to mark a syllable as heavy or light it is important to first define both terms. A syllable is considered as heavy if it contains a long vowel, a diphthong and/or a coda. A coda means any consonants following the vowel or diphthong in a syllable making it a so-called closed syllable. On the other hand, short vowels (without a coda consonant) mark a syllable as light, as Davenport and Hannahs point out. Here are some examples in which dots indicate the syllable boundaries:
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In speaker the first syllable is heavy due to its long vowel in the nucleus. The second is light containing a schwa [ə]. In this case, it is the first syllable being stressed. In algebra, the first syllable is a heavy one and simultaneously the most prominent in this word, because it consists of a short vowel followed by a coda. The penultimate and the ultimate syllable, however, are considered as light concerning the definition and, therefore, remain unstressed. In contrast, it is the ultimate syllable in the adverb above that carries the stress, because the first one is light and cannot be emphasized. Moreover, the last syllable contains a short vowel and a coda consonant marking it as heavy regarding its phonological weight.
In general terms, light syllables or syllables with a schwa as its sole nucleus are always unstressed in English. Hence, stressed syllables must be heavy. The latter, however, does not work the other way around, because not every heavy syllable is stressed as in com.pu.ter (first syllable is heavy, but not stressed). Davenport and Hannahs (2005) call languages “[…] for which syllable weight is important in determining stress […]” quantity sensitive. As a consequence of the weight of a syllable, it is predictable which syllables do not carry the stress: the light ones and those containing a schwa as their only nucleus. Nevertheless, it is still not predictable which heavy syllable in a word is the most prominent. With the above stated knowledge in mind, Kreidler (2004) claims that “[t]he place of the stress in particular words depends in part on the nature of the last two syllables, the ult and the penult.” The tendencies, however, differ with respect to the words’ categories, their parts of speech, which will be discussed in the following.
 Mike Davenport and S.J. Hannahs, Introducing Phonetics & Phonology (London:
Hodder, 2005) 80.
 Philip Carr, English Phonetics and Phonology (Malden et al.: Blackwell, 1999) 89.
 Erik Fudge, English Word-Stress (London et al.: George Allen & Unwin, 1984) 19.
 Davenport, 81.
 J. Heinz Giegerich, English Phonology. An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 185.
 Davenport, 82: „Those languages for which syllable weight is irrelevant (i.e. where stress falls on a particular syllable irrespective of its internal structure) are known as quantity insensitive, and include French, Czech and Hungarian.”
 Charles W. Kreidler, The Pronunciation of English. A Course Book (Malden et al.:
Blackwell, 2004) 181.
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- word stress predictable phonology phonological extent linguistics Betonung englisch vorhersagbar nouns verbs adjective Wortbetonung penultimate ultimate