Word Stress – An Introduction   


Word stress is a linguistic term for the natural patterns of stress and emphasis within a spoken language. English is one of the universal means of communication between people across the globe these days on daily basis. It is used in its different modes (reading, writing, and speaking) by both native as well as non-native speakers. Remember for a non-native English speaker – English is just a secondary language for them.

What is Important when Two persons Communicate?

When two persons speak to each other, it is imperative that the communication is clear and easily understandable for each one involved. Let us consider this communication between two persons that can take place using the English language as a mode of communication. The communication may be clear and understandable if both the persons involved are native speakers of English. However, things may go awry when the persons involved are either both non-native speakers or one native speaker and the other non-native speaker.

The end result is that the communication is not clear and understandable. Just imagine the heck of a job that a call center agent, non-native English speaker, performs when he/she speaks especially to a native English speaker. This is where the word stress plays its role and helps in the clear communication between persons involved.

It’s just Word Stress, Folks!

Let me start with a gentle introduction to this concept of word stress. To begin with I’ll like to say that the English Language follows ‘one word with one stressed syllable’ rule. Speaking simply, it means one word has only one stressed syllable in it.

Do you know word stress is the magic wand to make communication clear and understandable even between native speakers of English? This magic wand tool comes so naturally to both native English speakers and scores of non-native English language speakers, who speak pretty good English, that it makes their communication clear, precise and easily understandable automatically. Word stress is so natural to them that they may not know they use it. Their spoken words and phrases get punctuated by an array of beautiful word stresses that make their English speaking capability simply impeccable.

However, with most English speakers, who are non-native, word stress does not come to them naturally. This is the kind of an unknown problem or a known problem that gets brushed under the carpet. These non-native English speakers appear full of fear. They treat every word they speak as if it may spit and fizz. Simply saying, they spook and encounter the following two major problems.

  • It is impossible for them to follow and understand native English speakers especially those speaking fast.
  • The conversion, by all possible means, turns to create confusion pushing the ‘understand’ part of conversation further to the fringes.

Levels of Stress in the English Language

Let’s take a peek now at the levels of stress in the English Language. There are two levels of stress in the English Language. These are:

  • Word stress where each word has a particular stress pattern.
  • Sentence stress which is used to highlight certain words in a sentence.

The most pertinent base of pronunciation is the word stress, and without any further ado, I’d like to focus on it.

Is the Word Stress difficult?

It is certainly not an easy nut to crack. None of the languages, we speak here in India, have a stress rule technique something in line with the English Language. Therefore, each language has its own stress rule patterns followed by its speakers. English word stress is complex because the stress which is emphasized can occur on any syllable. However, the English Language has always a fixed position of stress within the same word.

Sometimes even words that are closely related may have different stress patterns. For example, this group of closely related words legal, legality and legalization and the other group such as final, finality and finalization. Just observe these two groups of closely related words. Each of these groups has originated from the same root word.

But the form of the word, the meaning of the word, and the pronunciation of the word differs. Adding to it is the regional influence and because of regional influence, some words can have the primary stress on either of the two syllables and still be pronounced correctly.

Stress Switch – The Meaning and its Context

English Language rules declare that some words change their stressed syllable depending on their part of speech. Incorrect stresses in word pronunciation are a common cause of misunderstanding. Here are the reasons why –

Stressing the wrong syllable in a word can make the word very difficult to hear and understand. For example, try speaking the following words:

Absent   |  Perfect  |   Minute

When word ‘Absent’ is adverb the first syllable receives the primary stress (AB: Sent). For example, why is Sachin always (AB:Sent)? When the word ‘Absent’ is a verb the last syllable receives the primary stress (ab:SENT). For example, Don’t (ab:SENT) yourself from Sunday class.

When word ‘Perfect’ is an adjective, it means “flawless” and the first syllable is stressed (PER: fect). For example, Sarah speaks (PER:fect) English. When the word ‘Perfect’ is a verb, it means “to make flawless” and the second syllable is stressed (per-FECT). For example,  Tim is trying to (per- FECT) his English.

When word ‘Minute’ is a noun meaning “a period of time”. The primary stress is on the first syllable (MIN:it) and it rhymes with “spin it”. When the word ‘Minute’ is an adjective meaning very small, the last syllable receives the primary stress (my:NUTE).

Foreign Accent Syndrome. Who are You?

We all desire to be a foreigner, traveling to different locations of the world, at least in the language speaking sense. Don’t we? The stress placed on the wrong syllable will ruin such a desire and push that wish further to the corner. So wake up, invigorate your desire and start placing the correct stress on their corresponding correct syllables.

Don’t you want to create a Hi-voltage influence of yourself?

Don’t you want to create a niche for yourself in today’s era when English-speaking will earn you a better job, a reward at your workplace, a study opportunity abroad, power and influence to your personality, etc. All you need to do is to master word stress.

From Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau to our very own Shashi Tharoor – one thing is common and similar in the spoken language standard is the Word Stress application.

Readers, Here are your takeaways –

  • The pitch is one of the most important components of a stressed word or syllable.
  • The simple rule to master Word stress is to start paying close attention to the native English speakers.

Isn’t it this simple?

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