Assignment of Phonology

Sentence-Stress and Rhythm

1. Stress in groups of words

In the sentence I am glad to see you, there are normally two sentences: on glad and see. Since these are words of only one syllable, they have no word-stress, but the emphasis that is put on them is in any ways the same as that put on the first syllable of history / histāri /. It is sometimes convenient, however, to distinguish between word-stress (history) and sentence-stress (I am glad to see you).

When sentence-stress falls on a word of more than one syllable, it always falls on the syllable which normally receives word-stress; “I’ll meet you tomorrow.”

In the lesson 3 it was pointed out that there is a great deal more differences between stressed and unstressed syllable in English than in most other languages; this is a true of sentence-stress as of word-stress. To an English-speaking person the rhythm of many other tongues (particularly Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Tagalog) sounds mechanically regular-a series of little bursts of sound all of about the same size and force, like machine-gun fire. English pronounced with such a rhythm would probably not be understood. If asked to draw a picture representing the rhythm of the syllables in Spanish, the speaker of English might produce a lien of soldiers of very much the same size and following one another at rather regular intervals.

In a language like French or Spanish, a line of poetry is usually determined by counting the total number of syllables, stressed, and unstressed alike. Lines containing the same number of syllables are felt to be of the same length. In a line of English poetry the number of sentence-stresses is more important than the number of syllables. Here are two lines from Temryson which are considered to be perfectly matched and of the same length.

“Break, break, break

on thy cold gray stones, O Sea!”

The unstressed syllables are so unimportant, rhythmically speaking that it is not even necessary to count them. When a person recites those lines, it takes him as long to say the first as the second, even though the first contain only three syllables and the second is made up of seven.

This leads to a significant observation regarding English pronunciation:


The more unstressed syllable there are between accents, the more rapidly and indistinctly, they are pronounced. This is true to a large extent of prose.

Have your teacher or a native speaker of English pronounce these two sentence for you at normal speed:

The boy is interested in enlarging his vocabulary

Great progress is made daily.

Note how he unconsciously crushes together the unstressed syllables of the first sentence in order to get them said in time and how he lengthens somewhat the stressed syllables of the second to compensate for the back of intervening unstressed syllable. If we were to illustrate these two sentence as suggested above.

The problem of acquiring a good English speech rhythm may be divided into five parts:

1.      Giving proper emphasis to stressed syllables, and making them recur rather regularly within a thought group.

2.      Weakening unstressed words and syllables, and obscuring the vowels in most of them.

3.      Organizing word properly into thought groups by means of pauses.

4.      Blending the final sound of each word and syllable with the initial sound of the one following within the same thought groups.

5.      Fitting the entire sentence into a normal intonation pattern.

II. Which Word Should Be Stressed?

Grammarians sometimes divide all words into two classes; (1) content words, which have meaning in themselves, like mother, forget, and tomorrow; and (2) function words, which have little or no meaning other than the grammatical idea they express, such as the, of and will. In general content words are stressed, but function words are left unstressed, unless the speaker wishes to call special attention in them.

Content words, usually stressed, include

1.      Nouns.

2.      Verbs (with the few exceptions listed under function words).

3.      Adjectives.

4.      Adverbs.

5.      Demonstratives: this, that these, those.

6.      Interrogatives: who, when, why, etc.