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Summary Details

Query:   A Definition of Stress
Author:  Vadim Cherny
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Historical Linguistics

Summary:   Perhaps we may formulate the following observations as generally true about accents.
The original accent was a pitch accent. Anthropologically, this is only natural, since animals?and primitive people?lacking well-defined speech sounds, necessarily relied on variations in the frequency of the sounds they were producing.
That the same proto-Semitic vowels evolved into different Hebrew vowels depending on the syllable? type also points to pitch variance.
Traces of the former pitch accent may be still evident even in the languages which have practically lost it in everyday speech. Thus, the Hebrew tradition of semi-singing the Torah may be a rudiment of a former pitch accent.

Quite probably, the pitch accent included not only increase in the frequency of sounds but also minor variations in pronunciation. This is illustrated by variations among similar consonants such as t, th, and teth in classical Hebrew, or pi, pei, and fei in the Tiberian dialect.

Just why languages developed a stress accent remains debatable. Avoiding monotony of speech sounds, though obvious, is perhaps not the most important reason.
In opera and liturgy, where one is concerned with rationing the flow of air from the lungs in order to avoid audible heavy gasping for breath, the stress accent often loses its prominence; the same happens in fast speech. Perhaps stress is a means of exhaling superfluous air.
Proto-Semitic words possibly followed the pattern CCVC. When a second vowel was added to make pronunciation easier, turning the word into CVCVC, the interpolated vowel was naturally weaker than the main vowel. That created a word with one syllable pronounced louder than the rest. Later, the habit developed of placing such a stress in every word of more than one syllable.

The stress accent tends to fall toward the end of a word in Semitic languages. It is generally free in modern languages. This difference may be explained by the Semitic languages lacking redundancy. Thus, a proto-Hebrew word generally had only a single unnecessary sound. That is, the change of a single sound would change the meaning of the word. Therefore, each sound had to be pronounced correctly. But the sounds after a stress are commonly simplified and lose some of their distinction, either through a shortage of breath or, more probably, after relaxing the muscular tension that accompanied the stress. Positioning the stress at the end of a word allows the best chance for the correct pronunciation of each sound.
Modern languages generally have a high level of redundancy, and hence the simplification of even several sounds usually allows the listener to recognize the meaning. Thus, nothing prevents the stress accent from appearing anywhere in the word.

The stress accent in most modern languages manifests itself in loudness, probably since with the rise of linguistic redundancy speakers lost their former sensitivity to pitch and became less fluent in producing and reacting to complicated vocalization.

Stress based on frequency (pitch) and on amplitude (loudness) both involve prominence of the vowel (all the commenters agree on this), since both cases require increasing muscular tension.

Amplitudal stress often results in phonetic elongation of the vowel. This is graphically evident, since increasing the height (that is, amplitude) of the graphic representation of the sound graph necessarily increases its duration to preserve the visual form that depicts the sound.
There is a somewhat artificial difference between phonetic and phonological length (Steven McCartney, Bruce Moren). That is, in a similar location within a word a stressed long vowel will be longer than a stressed short one. I doubt this distinction, and believe it only holds true for vowels with different pitch. Empirically, both long and short vowels when stressed in the same position within a word are pronounced with about the same length. The difference supposedly existed in Old Latin, but it is not clear to me how we could be sure of this, especially since Latin is syllable-timed, and so the syllable length is more or less fixed.
There is a good argument that short vowels under the amplitudal stress become phonetically long (Steven McCartney, Bruce Moren). This is not necessarily so with the pitch accent, where a high-pitch vowel may still remain short, thus saving breath for clear pronunciation of the other sounds. This may be yet another reason for the ancient preference for the pitch accent.

Stressed vowels may also actually be longer than others without sounding noticeably louder. This is evident in whispering, where the stressed vowels, though limited in their relative loudness, are still perceptibly longer.

There seems to be a tendency of the stress accent moving toward beginning of a word. Thus Latin regularly accents the first syllable of two-syllable words. Likewise, some speakers of Modern English pronounce ci.g:Ar as cEE.gar making pronunciation easier, although at the expense of clarity and distinctness of the speech sounds following the stress.
This tendency attracts stress especially to the CV syllables, turning them in effect into CVV, with a phonetically super-long vowel acting as two vowels. Apparently, such pronunciation is easy and smooth.

When stress falls on a CVC syllable, it tends to become CCVC which, it may be surmised, is similar in weight to CVV because one vowel can be approximated in length to two consonants.
Consider a cvccvc word. It can be pronounced thus:
- cVV.ccvc with stress on the first long vowel leading to its phonetic super-elongation; the second vowel turns almost into a shwa. This tendency is sometimes obscured by non-aspirated plosives (mOt-ley, vs. mO-thley), vowels of highly different strength, and other factors.
- cvc.cvc with no explicit stress, such as in liturgical singing
- c[v].ccVc with stress on the second vowel; the first vowel phonetically shortens.
Thus, syllable is the function of stress, not vice versa.
The tendency of the stress accent to attract more weight into the stressed syllable may be likened to a piece of dough: the harder one pulls in the middle, the more dough is lifted.

There is also what can be termed ?consonantal stress,? as in the Hebrew mappiq: an especially clear pronunciation of the last consonant, making it louder. This was apparently important in short vowelless suffixes.

There is also syntactical stress generally placed on the top of the ?normal? stress, and elongating the vowel into the super-long variety to impart the questioning intonation: students arrived, vs. had the students arrIIved?

I would like to thank the participants for offering their opinions on the exact nature of the stress accent in language (in the order of the letters received):
Steven McCartney
Jorge Gurlekian
Bart van Bezooijen
Martin Weikmann
Justin Barker
Susannah V. Levi
Bruce Moren
Roger Lass
George Aubin
Neil Salmond
Stanley Whitley
Peter T. Daniels

LL Issue: 15.2897
Date Posted: 14-Oct-2004
Original Query: Read original query


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