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Topic 9 – The phonological system of the english language III: stress, rhythm and intonation. Comparison with the language of your community

In this topic about the English phonological system, I will deal with stress, rhythm and intonation and I will make a comparison with the Spanish system.

Before concentrating on stress, I would like to establish a difference between segmental and suprasegmental features. Linguists refer to the inventory of vowels and consonants of a language as the segmental features of that language. Suprasegmental features, on the other hand, involve those phenomena that extend over more than one sound segment. Taking these into account, we can say that stress, rhythm and intonation are suprasegmental features.

Now this is clear, let’s analyse stress. The dictionary definition is “a phonological feature by which a syllable is heard as more prominent than others”. In other words, it could be described as the relative strength with which syllables are pronounced. In speech, some parts of English words and sentences sound much louder than others. For this reason, first, I will look at stress within individual words, then in compounds, and finally in units larger than the word.

As for stress in simple words, it can be studied from two different perspectives. One is to consider what the speaker does in producing stressed syllables, whereas the other is to consider what characteristics of sound make a syllable seem to a listener to be stressed. In other words, stress can be studied from the point of view of production and of perception.

The production of stress is generally believed to depend on the speaker using more muscular energy than is used for unstressed syllables. As for the perception, it is clear that different sound characteristics are important in making a syllable stressed. From the perceptual point of view, all stressed syllables have one characteristic in common: prominence. Stressed syllables are more prominent than unstressed syllables. There are at least 4 different factors which make a syllable prominent:

· Most people seem to feel that stressed syllables are louder than unstressed; in other words, loudness is a component of prominence.

· The length of syllables. If one of the syllables is made longer than the others, there is quite a strong tendency for that syllable to be heard as stressed.

· Every voiced syllable is said on some pitch; pitch in speech is closely related to the frequency of vibration of the vocal folds and to the musical notion of low – and high – pitched notes. For example, if all syllables are said with low pitch except for one said with high pitch, that will be heard as stressed and the others as unstressed.

· A syllable will tend to be prominent if it contains a vowel that is different in quality from neighbouring vowels.

Prominence is then produced by loudness, length, pitch and quality. Generally these four factors work together in combination, although syllables may sometimes be made prominent by means of only one or two of them. Experimental work has shown that the strongest effect is produced by pitch, and that length is also a powerful factor. Loudness and quality have much less effect.

Now, I will deal with the different levels of stress. Three levels of stress are generally recognized: primary stress (marked with a raised vertical line ´) and secondary stress (marked with a low vertical line), syllables without stress go unmarked. Examples: tele´vision inter´national. The designation primary makes reference to those syllables taking the tonic or nuclear accent and, therefore, which sound with more force than the rest. Secondary refers to the stressed syllables with pre-tonic accent which are not as strong as the primary stress. Finally, the designation tertiary refers to unstressed syllables. Unstressed syllables nearly always have one of these 2 vowels: / / or /i/.


Now I come to a question that causes a great deal of difficulty, particularly to foreign learners: the placement of stress within a word. As is well known, English is not one of those languages where word stress can be decided simply in relation to the syllables of the word. Many writers have said that it is so difficult to predict that it is best to treat stress placement as a property of the individual word, to be learned when the word itself is learned. In spite of this, the following summary of ideas on stress placement is an attempt to present a few rules in the simplest possible form. Nevertheless, practically all the rules have exceptions. Factors that influence stress placement include the historical origin of a word, affixation, and the word’s grammatical function in an utterance.

In utterances longer than a word, speakers have considerable freedom. However, within words, English is quite strict to such as extent that deviant word stress makes it difficult for the hearer to understand. For instance the word im´portant, if pronounced ´important, could easily be confused with impotent.

Stresses are normally in a fixed position but there is no single position where the primary stress of a word can be expected to fall, for example it may be on the first syllable (‘yellow), fourth syllable (famili´arity), and so on.

Therefore, I can conclude that the stress pattern of each polysyllabic word needs to be learned separately; although knowledge of some generalisations can prove valuable.

For words of Germanic origin, the first syllable of the base form of a word is typically stressed (‘father). Moreover, some words that enter English through other languages are assimilated to that pattern (‘music).

It is important to take into account that there are a number of words that may function as noun or adjectives and also as verbs: what distinguishes one use from another is a difference in stress: noun: ‘present, adjective: ‘present, verb: pre’sent.

The main characteristic of compound words is that they can be analysed into two words, both of which can exist independently as English words. As a general rule, compound nouns have a primary stress on the first element and a secondary stress on the second: ´living,room or ´hand,bag. In fact, this is how noun phrases are distinguished from compounds: ´black,board, ,black´board. If this type of compound is used to form another compound, the primary and secondary stress are distributed in a different way so as to maintain the same rhythm: ´camp,site, ´campsite,owner. There are a few compounds that do not have primary stress on the first element but which receive stress instead on the second element, among them are: ,back´fire, ,vice´chancellor.

In this section, it is necessary to deal with double stress. Double stress refers to a compound having equal stress on both components of it. For instance in compounds composed of two nouns, the first indicating the material of which the second is made: gold-watch, glass-case or in many compound adjectives, the second element being a participle: old-fashioned, hard-working…

Just as the distribution of stresses in the word is subject to rule, distribution of stresses in units higher than the word is too, despite the considerable freedom referred to earlier. Where the head of a noun phrase is the last item in the phrase there is a heavier stress (shown by a double vertical line /’’/): A rea´listic ,little ,toy ‘’factory. Post-modified noun-phrases normally have the primary stress on the last stressable item in the post-modification, which is usually an open class lexical item: The ,toy´factory he ´got for his ´´birthday. Often a non-contrastive stress falls on the main verb, or on the following particle if the head is a phrasal verb, or on the operator in an elliptical verb phrase: ´Will he have ´´ gone? ´Yes, he ´´will. He’s ´washing ´´up. In these examples the verb phrase is in end position where a climax of prominence is expected, usually occurring on the last word if it is not a pronoun or preposition: She ´saw the ´´dog She ´´saw it. ´This is who I ´sent the ´´flowers to.

Contrastive stress refers to the placing of stress on a particular word in order to highlight it. The existence of the two forms means that when the strong form is used it is to contrast. For example: ´What do you ´´want? ´What´´do you ´want? The normal accentuation of a single word can also be changed in order to produce contrast: A: The bed was comfortable. B: Really? I thought it was ´´uncomfortable. The stress would normally be on the second syllable ´un´comfortable.

After analysing stress, I am going to move on to my second section, dealing with rhythm. The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines rhythm as “the measured flow of words and phrases in verse or prose as determined by the relation of long and short or stressed and unstressed syllables”. It is the word used for the way stressed and unstressed syllables make patterns in speech. The notion of rhythm involves some noticeable event happening at regular intervals of time; one can detect the rhythm of a heart-beat or of a piece of music. It has often been claimed that English speech is rhythmical.

Many linguists feel that the rhythm of spoken English is based on a regular pattern of stressed syllables. These follow each other at roughly regular intervals, and are pronounced more slowly and clearly. Unstressed syllables are pronounced more quickly and less clearly, and are fitted in between the regular stressed syllables. English is characterised by having a stress-timed rhythm (or isochronous) based on the use of stressed syllables which occur at regular intervals in the stream of speech whether they are separated by unstressed syllables or not. This theory states that the time from each stressed syllable to the next will tend to be the same. It contrasts with Spanish for example which is syllable-time, where the syllables have equal force, giving a marked rat-a-tat-a-tat effect. Contrastive stress apart, connected speech in English has stresses on open-class words whereas closed class words do not and this marks the rhythm of the sentence. The other unstressed words are apocopated and pronounced rapidly. English has a regular beat as the basis of its natural rhythm, giving approximately equal intervals of time between the stresses. For emphasis, when a speaker intends something to be accepted without argument or to express irritation or sarcasm, emphasis is given to equal intervals between the stresses: You will ´never…´take…´anything…from…my…desk…a´gain.

As can be seen, rhythm is a difficult matter for foreign speakers. So for those who are learning English it can be helpful to practise repeating strongly rhythmical utterances since this forces the speaker to concentrate on making unstressed syllables weak.

Finally, let’s deal with intonation. Intonation is the variation in the pitch of the voice in connected speech. It is the word for the ‘melody’ of spoken language: the way the musical pitch of the voice rises and falls. Languages may be classed as intonation languages or tone languages: English is the former. In spoken language, it forms part of the structure of sentences and serves to emphasise the relative prominence of words and sequences, mark the divisions between different sequences in an utterance and signal attitudes.

The pitch of the voice plays the most important part in the definition of intonation. Only in very unusual situations do we speak with fixed, unvarying pitch, and when we speak normally the pitch of our voice is constantly changing. Pitch is defined as the relative highness or lowness of the voice, and is described in terms of high and low and will vary from person to person. If I take two speakers at random I will find that one speaker typically speaks with lower pitch than the other; the difference between them is not linguistically significant because their habitual pitch level is determined by their physical structure. But an individual speaker does have control over his or her own pitch, and may choose to speak with a higher than normal pitch; this is of linguistic significance. For pitch differences to be linguistically significant, it is a necessary condition that they should be under the speaker’s control. Another necessary condition is that a pitch difference must be perceptible. Together with this it is also important that in looking for linguistically significant aspect of speech, contrasts must always be looked for.

We should ask ourselves “What is the form of intonation?” and “What is the function of intonation?” Two One-syllable utterances will be used to exemplify the form of intonation: ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The word I will use for the overall behaviour of the pitch in these examples is tone. I may utter these words with a level tone, that is, unchanging, or a moving tone. Speakers use moving tones more frequently than level ones. Moving tone refers to the tone moving higher or lower, at which point we can summarise and say that the three simple tones in English are level, fall, and rise. A falling tone is the one which descends from a higher to a lower pitch. A rising tone is the one in which the movement is from a lower pitch to a higher one. Other more complex tones are also used. A frequently complex tone is the fall-rise, where the pitch drops and then rises again; less frequent is the reverse pattern, rise-fall. When a person is speaking ordinarily they tend to use the lower part of the speaker’s pitch range; however, when strong feelings are expressed a higher pitch is used. This brings us to the functions of English intonation. Speakers are said to select from a choice of tones according to how they want the utterance to be heard, and it is implied that the listener will hear one-syllable utterances said with different tones as sounding different in some way.

Now, I am going to take a look at the different functions of intonation.

Level – a level tone always conveys something is routine, boring, or uninteresting. A falling tone, the most common one, is considered more or less neutral but giving an impression of finality. It is used in statements and yes/no questions. A rising tone conveys that there is more to follow or an invitation to someone to continue. A fall-rise (\/) is very common in English and has some special functions such as limited agreement or a response with reservations or hesitation. “What a lovely painting¡” “`´Yes”. It is especially common with initial adverbials: “F`´inally we decided no to The opposite, rise-fall, is used to convey strong feelings of approval, disapproval or surprise. “You didn’t accept, did you? “`´No”. A fall-plus-rise pattern is used to contradict what a previous speaker has said or to contrast two items found in the same information unit: A: Caledonio seemed happy. B: Caledonio seemed unhappy to ´me (you thought the contrary).

When considering the function of intonation in language use, it is perhaps easier to imagine what would be lost if people were to speak without intonation. Intonation in fact helps us to understand what a speaker wants to convey.

Four different functions can be distinguished in intonation, although they often overlap: attitudinal, accentual, grammatical and discourse. The attitudinal function is how we express emotions and attitudes when we speak, for example, a level tone indicating boredom. The accentual function helps to produce prominence on syllables and especially the placing of tonic stress to indicate which word is the most important. The grammatical one is how differences are highlighted between questions and statements by means of intonation features (such as placement of boundaries between phrases, clauses or sentences) subordination can also be indicated. Finally, the discourse function of it is the way in which new information and information already given are distinguished and signalled to the listener.

After analysing stress, rhythm and intonation in English Phonological System, I am going to make a comparison with the Spanish phonological system. Spanish is a syllable-timed language, not a stress-timed one. Every syllable of speech is produced by an expulsion of air from the lungs. Muscles may or may not move. When they do, it gives more emphasis to the syllable.

A stress-timed language like English organizes the muscles movements to be regularly spaced, while syllable-timed languages organize the expulsion of air to be regularly spaced, so that every syllable occupies more or less the same amount of time; the distance between the stressed syllables depends on the number of syllables that intervene. A consequence of this opposition is that Spanish learners of English make every syllable count, and thus cannot find the typical English rhythm, whereas English learners of Spanish pronounce unstressed syllables too fast and fail to give the sounds their full value, often blurring or weakening and de-stressing words, something that does not happen in Spanish.

Word stress in English is not necessarily as predictable as it is in other languages, nor does English indicate regularly placed stress patterns through stress or accents marks in the spelling, which is the case of Spanish. Learners need to understand that a basic characteristic of every English word containing more than one syllable is its stress pattern. Thus, our first step as teachers is to clarify the systematicity of stress placement in words.

English and Spanish intonation patterns are quite different, and learners need to understand that incorrect placement of stress can cause misunderstanding. In general, Spanish uses the rising tune much more often than English does, and this can lead to problem of understanding English speakers who transfer their native patterns to Spanish, or the other way around. Spanish often associate question exclusively with rising intonation, and as a result, they have difficulties when producing wh-questions, which typically have falling intonation in English. Tag questions are also difficult for Spanish.

The main difference between English and Spanish intonation relies on the way Spanish produces the melodic tone, that is, with a narrower angle, making the English intonation of learners sound somewhat flat, bored and disinterested. Non-native speakers are often misinterpreted as rude, abrupt or disinterested mainly because their speech sounds choppy and with an unnatural rhythm, sometimes with flat intonation.

To sum up, in this topic I have analysed three features of the English phonological system: stress, rhythm and intonation, providing a background for establishing a comparison of this aspect with the Spanish phonological system.

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