Accent in simple and complex words of English

Seminar Paper, 2004

18 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Accent, Stress and Prominence
2.1 The four aspects of Prominence
2.2 The four degrees of Prominence

3. Accent in grammatically simple words

4. Accent in grammatically complex words
4.1 Affixes
4.1.1 Suffixes
4.1.2 Prefixes
4.2 Compounds
4.2.1 Compounds functioning as nouns
4.2.2 Compounds functioning as adjectives and verbs
4.2.3 Pseudo-compounds

5. Variations in accentual patterns
5.1 Accentual distinction in word-class pairs
5.2 Stress-shift in connected speech
5.3 Other discrepancies

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Word accent is a largely discussed field in modern linguistics. If one looks up the combination of the expressions ‘word’ and ‘accent’ in an Internet search engine like “Google”, one receives thousands of different websites concerning this issue.

In this Hausarbeit, I want to put together all the important facts of accent in English words and at the same time try to avoid a too complex view on the many details of the topic.

In this attempt, I will focus on words in isolation and will only take a small outlook on accent in connected speech.

2. Accent, Stress and Prominence

The first problem one encounters when dealing with word accent is the ambiguity in some crucial terms of Phonetics or Phonology respectively. I will try to differentiate between these terms as much as possible.

As it is, ‘accent’ and ‘stress’ are often used synonymously in linguistics to point out syllables that are more prominent than others, i.e. syllables that are pronounced in a recognizably stronger way than other syllables in an individual word.

This is quite understandable because both expressions are concerned with the phonetic aspect mentioned above. However, one has to know that ‘stress’ is also usually referred to when it comes to the physical muscular activity within an actual speech act. ‘Accent’ on the other hand is also often used for indicating pitch-change as an important element of intonation within a word. In the diverse literature on this subject, it seems to be just a matter of personal preference for one or the other term, stress maybe having the more narrow definition. Generally both terms should be acceptable when used to describe the phenomenon of ‘word-stress’ or ‘prominence’.

2.1 The four aspects of Prominence

Prominence, as already mentioned above, indicates the “strength” of syllables in a word. A prominent syllable is noticeably different from the other syllables through at least four aspects, which Gimson identifies as pitch, loudness, quality, and quantity (222-224):

1. Pitch:

Pitch-change seems to be the most important part of prominence, as it is the most clearly distinguishable feature of a spoken word. In order not to enter the subject of intonation too much, I will follow Roach’s description of pitch (English Phonetics and Phonology 94):

Every voiced syllable is said on some pitch; pitch in speech is closely related to the frequency of vibration of the vocal folds […]. It is essentially a perceptual characteristic of speech. If one syllable […] is said with a pitch that is noticeably different from that of the others, this will have a strong tendency to produce the effect of prominence. For example, if all syllables are said with low pitch except for one said with a high pitch, then the high-pitched syllable will be heard as stressed and the others as unstressed. To place some movement of pitch (e.g. rising or falling) on a syllable is even more effective.

2. Loudness:

This aspect already implies its function in its name. A syllable, which is spoken more loudly than others in a word, is more easily recognized as a prominent one.

But Gimson (223) as well as Roach (English Phonetics and Phonology 94) point out that it is very difficult to pronounce a syllable louder than another without at the same time changing one of the other aspects.

3. Vowel Quality:

This one and the following aspect deal with the actual sounds within a syllable. Vowels occurring in a syllable can be monophthongs or diphthongs, the former being stable, the latter having a shift in vowel quality. This shift increases the tendency of prominence of the respective syllable.

4. Vowel Quantity (or length):

The quantity of diphthongs is naturally relatively long (because of the shifting from one to another vowel), whereas monophthongs need to be put into two to three groups concerning their length. These groups can roughly be separated into long vowels (e.g. /Aù/ in father), short vowels (e.g. /Ã/ in but), and sometimes reduced vowels as a sublevel of short vowels (/I,U,«/), which represent the least prominent ones.

As to the importance of these four aspects, both Gimson (223) and Roach (English Phonetics and Phonology 94-95) see pitch as the most important one, while quality is mentioned as a minor prominence factor. However, they differ in the importance of loudness and quantity. While Gimson gives a greater account to loudness, Roach postulates that length is the more important aspect.

2.2 The four degrees of prominence

In general, the four aspects mentioned in the previous chapter take effect on syllables in combination. In spite of that, pitch-change is the aspect on which one should look first, when one tries to separate prominence into several levels or degrees, as it is the most reliable one.

Depending on the usage of the term “minor prominence” or “tertiary stress” as a further distinction, one can differentiate between three or four levels of word-stress.

Roach is taking a more general and practical way of description by distinguishing only three levels (English Phonetics and Phonology 95-96):

Let us begin by looking at the word ‘around’ «ÈraUnd, where the stress always falls clearly on the last syllable and the first syllable is always weak. From the point of view of stress, the most important fact about the way we pronounce this word is that on the second syllable the pitch of the voice does not remain level, but usually falls from a higher to a lower pitch. […] The prominence that results from this pitch movement, or tone, gives the strongest type of stress; this is called primary stress.

In some words, we can observe a type of stress that is weaker than primary stress but stronger than that of the first syllable of ‘around’; for example, in the first [syllable] of the [word] ‘photographic’ […] The stress in these words is called secondary stress. […] Çf«Ut«ÈgrQfIk. […]

We have now identified two levels of stress: primary and secondary; this also implies a third level which can be called unstressed and is regarded as being the absence of any recognisable amount of prominence.

He only shortly mentions the phenomenon of a minor prominence triggered by vowels:

However, it is worth noting that unstressed syllables containing « , I , i or u, a syllabic consonant will sound less prominent than an unstressed syllable containing some other vowel. […] This could be used as a basis for a further division of stress levels, giving us a third (“tertiary”) and fourth level.

Gimson (224) gives another distinction between the different degrees of prominence:


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Accent in simple and complex words of English
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (Institute for Anglistics/ American Studies)
PS English Sounds and Letters - Past and Present
1 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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500 KB
Accent, English, Sounds, Letters, Past, Present
Quote paper
Christian Cronauer (Author), 2004, Accent in simple and complex words of English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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