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Accentual structure of the English language

Different syllable in one and the same word are usually pronounced with a different degree of prominence. Such special prominence given to one or more syllables in the same word is called word accent (or word stress). Different linguists define word accent differently.

There exist different ways of making a syllable more prominent. That is why we may speak of different types of word accent:

1) The pronunciation of a syllable may be made more prominent if the syllable is said with greater force. Prof.D.Jones said in this respect stress may be described as the degree of force with which a sound or a syllable is uttered. A strong force of utterance means energetic action of all the articulating organs. This generally gives the objective impression of loudness . Word accent of this type is known as force accent(or dynamic accent).

2) A syllable may become more prominent if it is pronounced at different pitch levels or in different pitch directions. Word accent of this type is called musical accent(or pitch accent).

3) A syllable may become more prominent if its vowel is pronounced longer than the same vowel in an unstressed position. For instance, the /i:/ vowels of the word /θi:s:z/ (theses) are of different lengths. It is longer in a stressed position and shorter in an unstressed one. This type of word accent is known as quantitative accent.

4) A syllable may become more prominent if the vowel is pronounced distinctly and its quality is not obscured. For instance, the /iə/ vowels in /siəriəs/ (serious) are a bit different in quality: the stressed /iə/ is distinct and clear, while the unstressed /iə/ is somewhat obscured. According to Prof.G.P.Torsuyev this type of word accent is qualitative accent.

All existing languages have either the force or the musical type of word accent as leading principle, while the quantitative and the qualitative types play a subsidiary role.

English, Russian, Kazakh, German, French and other European languages belong to the force type of word accent, the only difference being in the degree of the force with which the stressed syllables are pronounced.

To the musical type of word accent belong Swedish, Norwegian, and oriental languages, such as Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean and others. For example, if the syllable /ma/ of Chinese is said with the falling tone, it means scold, but if it is said with the rising tone, then it means hemp (). Another example, from Swedishs if the word Anden is pronounced with

It is a standard and genu1ne joke in linguistic circles that in one Burmese dialect the word /ma/ pronounced in five different tones corresponds to the sentence: Help the horse; a mad dog comes!

British and Soviet phoneticians distinguish three degrees of word accent in English: primary, secondary and weak. The strongest accent is primary, the second strongest is secondary. The syllables with primary and secondary accents are called stressed, while syllables with weak accents are called unstressed.

The primary accent is indicated by Prof.D.Jones by placing a raised stress mark // before the accented syllable, the secondary accent is indicated by a lowered stress mark /, /; the weak accent is not marked in any way.

The American scientists are not unanimous in treating of the degrees of word accent in English. B.Bloch and C.Trager, for instance, distinguish four degrees of word accent and call them: loud, reduced loud; medial and weak.

H.A.Cleason and most American descriptivists also distinguish four degrees of word accent and call them: primary stress /′/, secondary stress /ˆ/, tertiary stress / /, and weak stress / v/.

The difference between secondary and tertiary stresses is not clear enough, and there are no indicators for differentiating between them. This results in different treatments of the same example by American linguists. For instance, according to B.Bloch and G.Trager a free word combination like black bird has secondary-primary stresses /^ ′/; according to H.A.Gleason it has primary-secondary stresses/′ ^/. One more example: such words as examination have tertiary-primary stresses according to American descriptivists; but they have secondary-primary stresses according to British phoneticians.

These examples really prove that it is difficult to say which a secondary stress is and which a tertiary one is.

Prof.V.A.Vassilyev offers two ways of solving this problem. The easiest one is to do away with the tertiary stress altogether and treat it either as a secondary stress or a weak stress and thus follow the accentuation system of the British phoneticians.The second way of solving this problem consists in finding some objective criteria for determining the position of both secondary and tertiary stresses.

According to Prof.V.A.Vassilyev a tertiary stress is post-tonic. It occurs in words after the primary stress. There are several groups of words of primary-tertiary type having the following pitch pattern. They are:

- a large group of compound nouns of the blackbirdtype: black-ball, blackbook, blackcap, black-cock, blackguard, black-head, black Jack, blackleg, black-list, blackmail, black sheep, blacksmith, class-room, class-book, class-fellow, book-case, hair-pin, door-mat, playhouse, greenhouse, green-room, dancing-girl, missing-list, street-cleaner, etc;

- polysyllabic verbs ending in ate, -ise(-ize), -fy(-py), etc., as in: occupy, demonstrate, situate, emphasize, satisfy, memorize, articulate, colonize, negotiate, etc;

-polysyllabic words in General American English ending in ary(-ory, -ery), -ony(-oly), etc., as in: secretary, testimony, etc;

According to Prof.V.A.Vassilyev a secondary stress is pre-tonic. It occurs in words before the primary stress. There are several groups of secondary-primary type which have the following pitch pattern. They are:

-a large group of polysyllabic nouns ending In the suffix tion(-sion, -cian), as in: assimilation, realization, modification, participation, consideration, investigation, simplification, testification, colonization, representation, qualification, phonetician, academician, etc.;

-a group of polysyllabic abstract nouns ending in the suffix ity, as in: possibility, impossibility, peculiarity, credibility, theatricality, muscularity, permissibility, perfectibility, regularity, etc.;

-a fairly large group of polysyllabic adjectives ending in the suffixes al, -ic(-ical), as in: experimental, aristocratic, continental, democratic, arithmetic(al), mathematic(el), economic(al), horizontal, incidental, categoric(al),etc. There may be distinguished some other groups of words belonging to a secondary-primary type too.

Languages may also be classified according to the position of word accent in disyllabic and polysyllabic words. From this point of view languages have either free word accent or fixed word accent.

To the fixed type of word accent belong French and Kazakh (the final syllable is accented), Polish (the penultimate syllable is accented).

English and Russian belong to the so-called free word accent. It means that the main accent may fall in different words on a syllable occupying any position. The position of the stress in each particular word remains unchanged, or fixed. In Russian and English there are words in which the main stress falls either on the first, or the second, or the third, etc. syllable in a word,

Accent is called shifting if it changes its position from one morpheme to another in different derivatives and grammatical forms of the word. For example:

in Russiant: , , ;

in English: accent, to acent, accentuation, accentuate; subject, subjective, subjectivity, etc.

In languages with free word accent it is extremely difficult to determine the position of the stress in every word. Such is the case with the Russian language. Its accentuation system must be learnt individually.

The accentual system of English is also free. But it is easier to learn the English accent than the Russian one due to a number of reasons. There exist in English certain tendencies which make the occurrence of word accent more predictable than in Russian. Prof.V.A.Vasailyev describes them as follows: the recessive tendency, the rhythmic tendency, the retentive tendency, and the semantic factor.

These four help learners to determine the position of word accent in most English words.

The recessive tendency which is the oldest one is characteristic of all the Germanic languages. According to this t tendency most native words in English received a stress either on the initial syllable (e.g. father, mother, husband, wonder, etc.) or on the root morpheme in words with prefixes that have lost their meaning (e.g. among, before, forget, become, begin).

The recessive tendency has always been very strong throughout the historical development of the English language. Its strong character is reflected in the fact that most French words which were borrowed into English before the 15th century underwent accentual assimilation. For example: reason, marriage, colour etc. (the initial syllable is stressed); conduct, compose, surprise, produce, remain, depend, etc. (the root morpheme is stressed).

English speech is characterized by rhythmic alternations of stressed and unstressed syllables, in which stressed notional words alternate with short unstressed form words. This feature has caused the development of the so-called rhythmic tendency in the English word accentuation system.

Two types of rhythmical stress are distinguished in English:

1) historically rhythmical;

2) synchronically rhythmical stress.

We speak of historically rhythmical stress in case of French words which were borrowed before the 15th century. In present-day English such borrowed words as family, opinion, colony, radical, etc. have a recessive stress on the first syllable. But during the development of the language these words underwent rhythmic changes. Formerly they had a fixed stress on the final syllable, as all French words. Under the influence of a strong recessive tendency they also received a stress on the initial syllable as well. For some time such words had two stresses: on the initial and on the final syllables with an unstressed syllable in-between. That is why this type of stress is called historically rhythmical because it is rhythmical only in its origin.

In English there is a fairly large group of words with genuinely rhythmical stress. Such type of stress existing in present-day English is called synchronically rhythmical. This group of words are achieved by the alternation of a secondary and a primary stress.

To this group belong polysyllabic nouns with the suffixes -tion(-sion, -cian), -ity; also polysyllabic adjectives with the suffixes -al, -ic(-ical); polysyllabic verbs, etc. For instance:

population, punctuation, mathematician, derivation, delegation, arithmetician, decoration, etc.

contiguity, continuity, desirability, temporality, removability, etc.

deferential, demagogic, energetic, enthusiastic, etymologic-(al), etc.

represent, underline, recommend, reproduce, understand, recollect, etc.

The so-called retentive tendency consists in retaining the accent (either primary or secondary) in derivatives on the same syllable as in the original word. The difference between retentive accent and constant accent lies in the following: constant accent remains on the same syllable in all the derivatives and grammatical forms of the word; retentive accent in one group of derivatives falls on the same syllable, while in another it may be shifted. For example:

retentive accent: converse, conversable, conversant, but: conversation, conversational;

expect, expectancy, expectant, expectative,but: expectation,

(Cf. constant accent: begin, begins, began, begun, beginner, beginners, beginning, etc.).

The accentuation structure of some English words is determined by the semantic factor. The influence of the semantic factor upon the word accent may be commonly observed in compound words. Most of them have two equally strong accents. Both elements of such compound words are considered to be semantically important.

We can distinguish the following groups of double stressed words in English the accentual structure of which is determined by the semantic factor:

a) words with strong prefixes (which have definite meaning of their own), as in: anti-fascist, arch-enemy, disbelieve, ex-president, half-price, indooro, interconnect, vice-chairman, etc.;

b) compound adjectives, as: well-bred, ill-tempered, light-blue, timber-headed, good-looking, dark-green, etc.;

c) compound verbs with postverbal adverbs, such as: come in, go out, put on, put off, switch on, turn on, turn off, etc.;

d) simple numerals from 13 to 19. Each word of a compound numeral is stressed, e.g. nineteen, -thirteen, fifty-seven, etc.;

e) a small group of compound nouns in which both elements are semantically important. They have two primary stresses, as in: ice-cream, gas-stove, arm-chair, eye-witness, absent-mindedness, etc.

The great majority of English compound nouns belong to the blackbird type.

As Prof.V.A.Vassilyev states the accentual system of present-day English is a product of the combined action of all the three tendencies (recessive, rhythmic, retentive) end the semantic factor as well.

The accentual structure of English words may also be analysed from the phonological point of view. The accentual structure fulfils three main functional constitutive, distinctive, recognitive.

The constitutive function of the accentual structure is proved by the fact that all the words when pronounced in isolation have word accent irrespective of the number of syllables in them. We cannot pronounce any word without making it prominent. Even monosyllabic words pronounced as vocabulary items have word accent.

The distinctive function may be observed in phonological oppositions: presence of stress vs. absence of stress. In English word accent is capable of differentiating one word from another word,

e.g. conduct (n) - conduct (v),

local (adj) - local (n),

billow (n) -. below (adv),

insight (n) - incite (v),

abstract (a) - abstract (v),

increase (n) - increase (v),

perfume (n) - perfume (v), etc.

In Russian accentual structure fulfils word-differentiating function, as in , ́- ́

In Russian this kind of opposition (i.e. stressed syllable vs. unstressed syllable) is the only possible one. In English oppositions may also be based on primary stress vs. tertiary stress. Free word combinations are opposed to compound nouns by this principle. For example:

(a) black bird - (a) blackbird;

(to) play house - (a) playhouses

(keep the) street cleaner - (a) street-cleaner; (a) strong hold - (a) strong-hold; birds nest - (the) birds nest; (a) dancing girl - (a) dancing-girl, etc.

The recognitive function of the accentual structure consists in the correct accentuation of words which makes it easier to understand speech. Wrong accentuation may produce two kinds of mistakes: phonological and phonetic.

If the correct accentuation pattern of a word is substituted by another accentual pattern of the same word (also existent in the language) we have a phonological mistake. For examples


2- Phonological mistakes

Correct accentuation Wrong accentuation
contrast (n) /kontræst/ /kəntræst/
protest (v) /prətest/ /proutest/


If the correct accentual pattern of a word is substituted by an accentual pattern non-existent in the language we get a phonetic mistake. For examples,


3- Phonetic mistakes

Correct accentuation Wrong accentuation
situate /sitjueit/ /sitjueit/
phoneme /founi:m/ /founi:m/


Phonetic mistakes violate the recognitive function of the accentual structure.

The violation of the recognitive function of the accentual structure results in the following: 1) wrong accentuation of words produces a strong foreign accent; 2) it produces a comic impression upon the listener; 3) wrong accentuation of words hampers the communication.



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