1. Stress:
    1. Prominence (in general)
    2. Why bother?
    3. The realization of stress in English
    4. Hints for learning to hear stress
  2. Intonation
  3. Syllables


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:

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 others.

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.)


Boundary marking

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.

Additional contrasts

In many languages, changing which syllable is stressed can change the meaning of a word. For example,

The realization of stress in English

In English, the three ways to make a syllable more prominent are to make it:
  1. louder
  2. longer
  3. higher pitched (usually)
As well, there are major differences in the articulation of vowels between stressed and unstressed syllables.

E.g., Manitoba
Pitch tracing for 'Manitoba' Pitch
Energy tracing for 'Manitoba' Loudness

English typically uses all three kinds of prominence simultaneously. Other languages might use only one or two of them.

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.

Kermit the Frog pretending he can speak Swedish.
Pitch trace Pitch
Loudness trace Loudness

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 lowest pitch.

You're taking phonetics?!
Pitch trace for '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
Previous: Vowels
Up: Table of Contents