- Prominence (in general)
- Why bother?
- The realization of stress in English
- Hints for learning to hear stress
The term suprasegmental refers to those properties of an
utterance which aren't properties of any single segment.
The following are usually considered suprasegmental properties:
What we've seen so far:
- organization of segments into syllables
- primary stress in marked with a raised vertical line
- secondary (or medium) stress is marked with lowered vertical line
- Both marks come at the beginning of the stress syllable --
they apply to the entire syllable, not to any single segment.
What does it mean for a syllable to be stressed?
It would have been logically possible for every syllable to have
exactly the same loudness, pitch, and so on. (Some early
attempts at speech synthesizers sounded like this.) But human
languages have ways to make some syllables more prominent than
A syllable might be more prominent by differing from the
surrounding syllables in terms of:
NB: Prominence is relative to the surrounding syllables, not
absolute. (A stressed syllable that is nearly whispered will be
quieter than an unstressed syllable that is shouted.)
In normal speech, words and phrases simply don't have little
pauses between them. Prominence can help indicate where the
boundaries are, making life easier for the listener.
In many languages, changing which syllable is stressed can change
the meaning of a word. For example,
- French usually gives prominence to the syllable at the end of
a word or phrase.
- Many other languages give prominence to the initial syllables
of words (e.g., Icelandic, Hungarian).
There seems to be a bias for English listeners to interpret a
stressed syllable as the beginning of a new word.
- Children will delete unstressed initial syllables more
often than unstressed final syllables. (['næn] is more common
In English, the three ways to make a syllable more prominent are
to make it:
término, 'end' (noun)
termíno, 'I'm finishing'
terminó, 'she/he finished'
As well, there are major differences in the articulation of
vowels between stressed and unstressed syllables.
- higher pitched (usually)
English typically uses all three kinds of prominence
simultaneously. Other languages might use only one or two of
The cues can also be used differently is other languages. In
Swedish, stressed syllables are usually lower in pitch --
one of the most noticeable features of a Swedish accent.
Frog pretending he can speak Swedish.
Even in English, stress doesn't always mean higher pitch. In one
of the intonation contours used to convey surprised disbelief,
the most strongly stressed syllable of the utterance has the
You're taking phonetics?!
In English, vowels in unstressed syllables are systematically
reduced. English speakers will not try to control the position
of the tongue body during the vowel of an unstressed syllable.
Instead, the tongue body will reach whatever point is convenient
in getting from the preceding consonant to the following
consonant. The average position reached is mid-central schwa.
Failing to reduce unstressed vowels is one of the major
contributors to an accent in non-native speakers of English.
Reducing vowels inappropriately is one of the major contributors
to an English accent in other languages.
In general, the differences between stressed and unstressed
syllables are more extreme in English than in most languages.
Next: Hints for learning to hear stress
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