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Degrees of word stress

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Phonetic prominence of a syllable in a word is relative, i.e. compared with the preceding one. But the speaker of a particular language is capable of categorizing the actual phonetic differences and distinguishing the phonologically relevant ones while ignoring those which are not relevant for word recognition. Much of stress perception is done as expected, that is in anticipation of regular rhythmic beats or in analogy with other similar words.

The English word indivisibility illustrates different degrees of syllable prominence with an identical vowel [i]. Phonetically, there are, in fact, as many degrees of prominence as there are syllables in the word, namely, seven. However, phonologically, there are only three degrees: only one primarystress on Ы, two secondarystresses — in, vi — and the rest of the syllables are termed as having a weakstress, which might also be called unstressed. Some authors also distinguish tertiarystress, which is as weak as secondary but has a different distribution: it follows the primary stress, while the secondary stress precedes it. LPD defines tertiary stress as the location of a potential rhythmic beat either after the primary stress, or between the secondary and the primary (as in indivisibility). Tertiary stress is usually associated with American English words like 'laboratory, 'dictionary.

According to A.C. Gimson, "there are four degrees of prominence in English:

a) primary accent,marked by the last major pitch change in a word (or longer utterance);

b) secondary accent,marked by a non-final pitch change in a word (or longer utterance);

c) a minor prominenceproduced by the occurrence of a full vowel but containing no pitch change;

d) a non-prominentsyllable containing no pitch change and one of the vowels /i, о, з/" {Gimson 1972, Cruttenden 2003).

We can easily correlate the above classification with primary, secondary, tertiaryand weak stresses.However, this point of view of the British linguists is not shared by all linguists.

P. Ladefoged, the leading American phonetitian, does not consider it useful to think of stress in terms of a multilevel system. He argues that "descriptions of this sort do not accord with the phonological facts." The author regards stress as something that either does or does not occur on a syllable in English, and views vowel reduction and intonation as separate processes {Ladefoged 2003).

P. Ladefoged argues: "...it might seem as if there is more than one degree of stress. For example, say the word multiplication and try to tap on the stressed syllables. You will find that you can tap on the first and the fourth syllables of multiplication. The fourth syllable seems to have a higher degree of stress. The same is true of other long words such as magnification and psycholinguistics. But this apparently higher degree of stress of the later syllable only occurs when the word is said in isolation or at the end of a phrase. Try saying a sentence like The 'psycholin'guistics 'course was'fun. If you tap on each stressed syllable, you will find that there is no difference between the first and the fourth syllables of psycholinguistics. If you have a higher degree of stress on the fourth syllable of the word psycholinguistics, this word will be given a special emphasis, as though you were contrasting some other psychology course with a psycholinguistics course...

Why does it seem that there are two degrees of stress in a word when it occurs at the end of a phrase or when it is said alone - which is, of course, at the end of a phrase? The answer is that in these circumstances another factor is present... the last stressed syllable in a phrase often accompanies a peak in the intonation. In longer words containing two stresses, the apparent difference in the levels of the first and the second stress is really due to the superimposition of an intonation pattern. When these words occur within a sentence where there are no intonation effects, then there are no differences in the stress levels" (Ladefoged2003:94-95).

A lower level of stress may also seem to occur in some English words. Compare the words in the following columns:

'multiply 'multiple

'regulate 'regular

'copulate 'copula

The words in both columns have stress on the first syllable. The words in the first column might seem to have a second, weaker stress on the last syllable as well, but this is not so. The words in the first column differ from those in the second by having a full vowel in the final syllable. This vowel is always longer than the reduced vowel - usually /э/ - in the final syllable of the words in the second column. The result is that there is a difference in the rhythm of the two sets of words. This is due to the difference in the vowels that are present; it is not a difference in stress. There is not a strong increase in respiratory activity on the last syllable of the words in the first column. Both sets of words have increases in respiratory activity only on the first syllable.

In summary, we can note that the syllables in an utterance vary in their degrees of prominence,but these variations are not all associated with what we want to call stress.A syllable may be especially prominent because it accompanies a peak in the intonation. We will say that syllables of this kind have a tonic (nuclear) stress.Given this, we can note that English syllables are either stressed or unstressed. If they are stressed, they may or may not be the tonic stress syllables that carry the major pitch change in the tone group. If they are unstressed, they may or may not have a reduced vowel.

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