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Department of Linguistics


The Foot and Word Stress

Jonathan Harrington and Felicity Cox

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Word Stress

In almost all languages, there is a variation in the relative prominence of syllables. This prominence is a function of loudness, pitch, and duration and it is often the change in pitch along with the other factors that is most important. The prominence of syllables is referred to as stress.

Different languages allow for different types of stress patterns. In English the stress pattern of words is fixed to the extent that we can't arbitrarily shift stress around without compromising meaning. The accent falls on the same syllable of the word whenever it occurs (excepting when affixes are added). However, stress placement is also free in that different words can have different stress patterns. This is in contrast to languages like Turkish which has stress on the final syllable of all root forms or Finnish where stress is always on the first syllable. In English, the main accent can be on the first syllable in "answer, sweater, finish, student, photograph", the second in "result, above, around, behind", the third in "understand, politician" or later in words like "articulation, rhoticisation, characteristic".

Word stress and perception

Strong syllables are generally more important for distinguishing between words. For example:

Only 5 out of the 20 Australian English vowel phonemes (/ə, iː, ɪ, ʉː, əʉ/) can occur in weak syllables (see the topic "Broad Transcription of Australian English: Unstressed Syllables" for more information), and of these, schwa occurs with by far the greatest frequency. Therefore, the extent to which unstressed syllables distinguish meaning is considerably reduced compared with stressed syllables.

Compatibly, there is psycholinguistic evidence to show that listeners are much more attuned to/aware of strong syllables (presumably because they are so much more important for understanding what is being said).

Evidence: In reaction time experiments, listeners' responses are much faster to strong syllables.

Word Stress and the Metrical Foot

Words are made up of rhythmic units called feet and these comprise one or more syllables. Feet represent the rhythmic structure of the word and are the units that allow us to describe stress patterns.

In each foot, one of the syllables is more prominent or stronger than the other syllable(s) and it is called the strong syllable. It is the head of the syllable. The other syllables in the foot are the weak syllables. In "party", the first syllable is strong and the second syllable is weak.

There are two kinds of feet; left-dominant and right-dominant. Languages use either one or the other type.

  • Left-dominant feet have a strong first syllable with the following syllables weak.
  • Right-dominant feet have a strong final syllable with preceding syllables weak.

English is a left-dominant language. For example, "consultation" has two feet, /kɔn.səl/ and /tæɪ.ʃən/. In each of these feet, the first or left-most syllable is strong and the second is weak, that is, left-dominant.

In each word, one of the feet is stronger than the other feet. Its head is more prominent because it is assigned intonational tone or extra length. This strong syllable has primary word stress and the heads of the other feet have secondary stress.

In "escalator" /eskəlæɪtə/, there are two left-dominant feet and the first has primary stress. The first syllable of the second foot carries secondary stress. The weak syllables are unstressed.

In English there is a tendency for the first syllable of words to be strong and for words not to have adjacent strong syllables. For example, words like "lantern" (s w) and "halogen" (s w w) are far more common than "arise" (w s) or "apex" (s s).

So within feet we can identify a distinction between strong and weak syllables, and within a word across feet we can identify primary, secondary stress and unstressed syllables.

Metrical theory is principally concerned with the parameters that determine the position of stressed syllables in words. Stress is seen as a strength relationship between different syllables.

Building Feet into Words

English Words are built from three types of feet.

  1. binary (trochaic) containing a strong then a weak syllable, eg "elbow"
  2. ternary containing a strong followed by two weak syllables, eg "oxygen"
  3. non-branching containing a single strong syllable, eg "cat"

Most words in English have one foot. Obviously all monosyllables are one-footed, but so are also the large majority of two syllable ('pattern') and three-syllable ('Pamela') and even many four-syllable words ('America'). However, many words also have two feet: for example, 'imagination', 'orthodox', 'altitude'. One of these feet is always stronger relative to the other and is marked Fs (strong foot) as opposed to Fw (weak foot). The strong foot always includes the primary stressed syllable while the other weak foot (or feet) includes the syllable(s) with secondary stress. In bipedal words, the order of the feet can be either Fs Fw (i.e., with the strong foot first): these include e.g. 'altitude' and 'orthodox') or they can be Fw Fs (e.g., 'chimpanzee', 'latex'; 'imagination'). There are a few long words with three or more feet: these always have the strongest foot as the last foot (e.g., 'reconciliation' which is Fw ('recon'), followed by Fw ('cili') followed by Fs (ation).

There are more than a few words in English that begin with a weak syllable. Since feet are left-dominant, and since every foot has to begin with a strong syllable, this will mean that and word-initial weak syllable is unfooted (not associated with a foot). Examples of such initial weak syllables occur in e.g. the first syllable of 'America', 'medicinal', 'pedestrian').

Words can be built by combining sequentially the above feet, or indeed the feet with themselves. For example, we can have two binary feet ('imagination'), a ternary foot followed by a binary foot ('abracadabra'), a binary foot followed by a non-branching foot ('lemonade'), two non-branching feet ('latex') and so on.

For example (where "(a)" = binary, "(b)" = ternary, and "(c)" = non-branching):-

(a) + (a) "economics"
(b) + (a) "abracadabra"
(a) + (c) "matador"
(c) + (a) rare, but possible: "Nintendo"
(c) + (b) very rare
(c) + (c) + (c) impossible

Because of these constraints and the preference for (a)+(a), strong and weak syllables tend to nearly alternate in English.

This near-alternation of s and w is the basis for our perception of rhythm in English.

Natural speech is highly rhythmic, it tends to have a regular beat. But different languages have different rhythms. In English all feet tend to be of roughly the same length so that feet with more syllables will have relatively shorter syllables than those with fewer syllables. eg abracadabra 2 feet, 1 with three syllables and 1 with 2 but approximately equal duration. 

5 feet, 12 syllables
an-ti dis-est ab-lish-ment a-ri-an is-m
s   w s    w s   w    w s w w s  w

Having said this, its important to note that the stress pattern of natural spoken English is not based on words at all. Phrases like "my dog, the chair, love it", pattern like single words with just one prominent syllable. There is no difference in stress between pairs of words like "arise, a rise" or "ago, a go". Words that begin with unstressed syllables like "above" may have initial unstressed syllable allocated to a preceding foot. eg /IT was a /SIGN from a/BOVE

Stress patterns associated with the foot determine the characteristic rhythm of spoken English. A foot can comprise just a single word or a group of words. In English there are some words that are generally unstressed. They are high frequency, usually monosyllabic function words like "the, a, is, to, and, that". These words can in exceptional circumstances be stressed for particular semantic intent but generally speaking they remain unstressed.

The foot is analogous to the bar in music and spoken utterances consist of a succession of feet in the same way that music consists of a succession of bars. The first syllable of each foot is always strong.

Click here to see an example of the complex relationship between word boundaries, foot boundaries and prosodic phrase boundaries.

Quantity-sensitive Feet

In some languages, the choice of primary stress is related to the number and type of segments in the syllable rhyme and this is called quantity-sensitivity. Syllables are considered to be either heavy or light depending on the segmental constituents of the rhyme.

Heavy and Light syllables

A light syllable is defined as any (C)V syllable where (C) is zero or more consonants, and where the V is one of /ɪ e æ ɐ ʊ ɔ/ (as in 'hid', 'head', 'had', 'hud', 'hood', 'hod') or /ə/. (The simplest way to remember these vowels is to ask yourself whether there are any open monosyllables with such vowels in English - they are also phonetically quite short). A light syllable also includes (C)VC syllables in word-final position - so the last syllable of 'imagine' is light.

All other types of syllables - that is (C)VC syllables which are not word-final, (C)VCC syllables, (C)V: syllables where V: is any other vowel or diphthong not listed above, or (C)V:C syllables all count as heavy.

What kinds of syllables are metrically weak?

In order to be able to work out the prosodic tree structure for any word, it's obviously important to be able to identify which syllables are strong and weak. This is fact quite easy because, apart from all weak syllables necessarily being Light (see above), the very large majority of weak syllables have a /ə/ vowel, or a vowel that can reduce to schwa (for example, the second syllable of 'minimum' which can be either /ɪ/ or /ə/). There are a few other kinds of weak syllables that don't have a /ə/ as their vowel. These are listed below:

  • /iː/ in 'city', 'happy', 'very'. These are metrically weak because in many accents (not Australian) they can be reduced to quite a central vowel. But a clearer indication is given by the realisation of /t/ in words like 'city': certainly in American English, and increasingly in Australian English, it can be produced as an alveolar flap which is voiced and unaspirated (and weakly contacted with the roof of the mouth). And since alveolar flaps can only ever occur in unstressed syllables in English, the syllable in these words is likely to be metrically weak.
  • /əʉ/ in words like 'rainbow', 'shadow', 'window'. Word-final /əʉ/ is metrically weak for the same reason as the /iː/ in words like 'city' and 'happy' above. /əʉ/ is often reduced to a centralised monophthong and /t/ can be produced as a flap preceding word final /əʉ/ in words like 'ditto' and 'potato' in some accents.
  • /iː/ or /ɪ/ when it precedes /ə/ in words like 'Daniel', 'pedestrian'. This is certainly metrically weak both because it is quite short in duration, and because it can often be produced as a glide /j/, thus, /dænjəl/ is certainly a possible two-syllable production of this word.
  • /ʉː/ or /ʊ/ when it precedes /ə/in words like 'annual' and for the same reason as above: these vowels are very short in duration and can even be deleted resulting in a range of productions from three-syllable /ænjʉːəl/ to two syllable /ænjəl/.

English words of Latin origin (and Latin and Germanic languages) have quantity-sensitive feet. i.e. The phonemic structure of the rhyme contributes to the determination of stress.

For English, non-final syllables with heavy rhymes prefer to be strong.

  • Non-final: the syllable is not at the end of the word
  • Heavy rhyme: a VC (short vowel + consonant) or V: (long vowel) rhyme
  • Light rhyme: a V (short vowel)
These (H) are non-final heavy rhymes and they are strong

Morphology and word stress

English word stress is dependent on:

  • origin (Latin and Greek origin have different stress patterns)
  • rhythmic factors (as we have seen: In Latin base words non-final heavy syllables like to be strong)

Morphological Factors

The position of lexical stress serves to distinguish noun from verb in words like conduct, insert, reject, abstract, convict, object, subject. Stress is on the first syllable of the noun and the second of the verb. For some words stress can also be said to fall on the root word despite the addition of suffixes and prefixes. Board, aboard, boarder; rise, arise, arisen.

However, some suffixes shift stress. Consider:

The suffixes -ion, -ity, -ic, -ify, -ible, -igible, -ish, require stress to be on the preceding syllable

  • 'edit, e'dition ('nation, 'ration, ma'gician)
  • 'quality, natio'nality
  • 'drama, dra'matic, (em'phatic, pho'netic)
  • 'terrify, 'justify, i'dentify
  • in'credible, 'terrible
  • 'negligible, in'telligible
  • 'publish, 'finish,'flourish

Words of three or more syllables ending in -ate throw the main accent back 2 syllables eg negotiate, indicate dedicate, whereas words of two syllables ending in ate place the accent on -ate eg translate, dictate, debate.

English word stress parameters: summary

Adequate accounts of English word stress must recognise three relevant factors:

  1. is largely trochaic (left-dominant) feet
  2. is quantity-sensitive ie is influenced by the phonemic structure of the rhyme
  3. is influenced by morphology

There can also be:

  1. Languages with iambic (right-dominant) feet. The w syllable leads: e.g. an American Indian language Seminole = w s w s, two iambic feet
  2. Many quantity-insensitive languages. E.g., Warlpiri, an indigenous Australian language, takes no account of whether the rhyme is heavy or light in assigning stress
  3. Languages like French in which morphology does not influence stress.

Building a Prosodic Word Tree

Here are two examples of how to build a prosodic word for the words 'Turramurra' and 'pedestrian'.

Example 1: "Turramurra"

(1) Begin by identifying whether there are any syllables that are schwa vowels, or which can reduce to schwa, because these have to be metrically weak: for this word, this applies to the second and fourth syllables. Confirm that the other syllables cannot reduce to schwa. If this is the case, they are likely to be metrically strong. We therefore have four syllables which are s w s w.

(2) Join a foot node to each strong syllable. This gives:

(3) Associate any weak syllables with the foot that precedes them. As a result of this, we get two binary feet:

(4) If there is more than one syllable, one of the feet has to marked strong, and the other(s) as weak. The foot that is marked strong is the one that dominates the primary stressed syllable (the third syllable in this example). So the first foot is weak. We therefore arrive at:

(5) Join up the feet to form word tree. If there is an initial weak syllable (doesn't apply in this case, but it would in e.g. 'asparagus') join that to the word level. We therefore have the following with the transcription included:

Example 2: "Pedestrian"

Draw a prosodic word tree for 'pedestrian'. Following through the above five steps.

(1) 'pedestrian' = w s w w


(i.e. a ternary foot)

(4) This won't apply because there's only one foot.