Tema 51- El sistema fonológico de la lengua inglesa (4): variedades. Acento, ritmo y entonación. Formas fuertes y débiles

Tema 51- El sistema fonológico de la lengua inglesa (4): variedades. Acento, ritmo y entonación. Formas fuertes y débiles

Suprasegmental or prosodic features:

Suprasegmental or prosodic features are those superimposed on segments and include accentuation, rhythm and intonation.


When we speak we give more emphasis to some parts of an utterance than to others. We can make a syllable stand out with respect to its neighbouring syllables in a word, and some words stand out with respect to the rest of the words in a longer utterance. Those elements that produce prominence at syllable level are: pitch, quality, quantity and stress.


When a syllable is a starter of pitch movement or has the natural potential to be one we say it is accented. When any of the elements causing prominence are present, but the syllable is incapable of acting as a pitch movement initiator, we say it is prominent.

To sum up, all accented syllables are prominent, but not all prominent syllables are accented.

Types of accent:



Accentuation in simple words:

By simple words we mean those made up of roots alone or with the addition of affixes (suffixes and prefixes). It is difficult to establish rules for the accentuation of simple words in English, so students should learn the accentual pattern of each new word.

Accentuation of compound words:

By compound we mean words made up of 2 or less frequently three roots and certain collocations.

  1. Single-accented compounds:

    1. The largest group is formed by the combination of 2 nouns.

– The second noun indicates the performer of the action:

– `baby-sitter

– The resulting compound may be a noun or an adjective:

– `time-consuming

– The first noun delimits the meaning of the second by stating what type of thing it is.

– `school-bag

    1. Formed by the combination of adjectives and nouns. Normally when a noun is preceded by an adjective both are accented. However, when this combination constitutes a specific, long-established compound, the first component tends to carry the primary accent

– `blackboard

cases where the adjective is an –ing form

– `driving licence

    1. Verbs and nouns sometimes combine

– `pickpocket

    1. Many two-word verbs give origin to nouns

– A `hold-up

  1. Double-accented compounds:

A. Compounds made of nouns may be double-accented in the following cases:

– The first noun indicates the position of the second one

– ‘Country-`house

– The second noun is made of the first one:

– ‘plum `pudding

B. Formed by nouns and adjectives:

– Adjective + noun: ‘civil `war

– Noun + adjective: ‘world `wide

C. Participles make up some common compounds:

– ‘absent `minded

The distinctive function of accent:

We can distinguish between pairs of words of identical spelling and identical or similar phonemic pattern.

In the case of simple words the tendency is for nouns and /or adjectives to be accented on the first syllable and verbs on the last:

  1. In most verbs the unaccented syllables contain a weak vowel, but this tendency is not so strong in the case of nouns: / `aebstraekt/ adj. and noun and /Ə b`straekt/ verb. Similarly: progress, contrast, protest, abject, permit, export, record
  1. In a few cases it is only the accentual pattern which distinguishes between noun and verb as in increase: noun / `inkris/ and verb / in`kris/. Similarly: import, transport, insult, discount, digest, dictate
  1. There are a few cases where accent does not function distinctively, f. i: verbs and nouns/ adjectives have the same phonemic and accentual forms: ex`press, `process, de`posit, `comment, ad`dress.

Accentuation in connected speech:

In connected speech we make some words stand out with respect to others, according to the amount and type of information they carry.

In general content words are likely to be accented in an utterance: nouns, principal verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Structural words tend to be unaccented: auxiliary verbs, personal, reflexive and relative pronouns, prepositions, articles, possessive adjectives and conjunctions.

There is, however, a group of structural words which are frequently accented: demonstrative and possessive pronouns, interrogative words and negative anomalous finites.


It is the process of phonemic changes which consists that the majority of unaccented syllables contain either a vowel of a centralized quality /Ə, i, u, iƏ, uƏ/ or none at all.

Gradation is very evident in words which exist on their own (man, board) and at the same part form part of compounds: cupboard /`kΛbƏd/, gentleman /`ʤentlmƏn/. Many English place names provide further examples of this process: Scotland /`skotlƏnd/, Oxford /`oksfƏd/.

Weak-form words:

A group of about 50 structural words presenting a very high frequency of occurrence in the English language are also subject to gradation. The group of structural words which can undergo gradation present different phonemic patterns depending on accentuation or prominence and in some cases position in the utterance.

These structural words which we call weak-form words are said to have one or more weak forms, which will always be unaccented or non-prominent in an utterance and a strong form, which will always be accented or prominent.

Since structural words are seldom accented or prominent or used in isolation, the weak forms are the most frequent pronunciations of these words.

Weak-form words are characterized by obscuration towards a centralized vowel quality and/or elision of a vowel or consonant.

The essential weak-forms:

  1. The seven adjectival words:






Used before consonant sounds and semivowels



Used before vowels



Used before consonant sounds and semivowels



Used when it means “an indefinite quantity of”. The strong form /sΛm/ is used when contrasted with the other(s) and when used as a pronoun.


/iz /

Not used after a pause or as a pronoun



Not used after a pause


/ sn˛t/

Only used before names

  1. The six pronouns:






Not used after a pause



Also in himself



Also in herself




1.Used after let in suggestions, but not with the meaning of allow. 2. Not used after let with the meaning of suggestion.



Also in themselves



Used anticipatorily before he verb to be, but never as an adverb of place.

  1. The five conjunctions:






1.Generally used after vowels 2. Generally used after /t, d/ and all fricatives












Also used as a relative pronoun, but never as a demonstrative

  1. The five prepositions:



















When any of the 5 prepositions occur finally in a clause, they take the strong form:

– What are you looking at? /aet/

Before unaccented personal pronouns, they may also take the strong form

  1. The fifteen anomalous finites:





1. /m/ 2./Əm/

1.Only used after I 2. used before I



Used after vowels sounds and after voiced consonants except the sibilants. Not used after a pause











1./v/ 2. /Əv/ 3. /hƏv/

1. Used after I, we, you, they and generally after vowels sounds 2. Used elsewhere 3. Only used after a pause


1./z/ 2. /Əz/ 3. /hƏz/

1. Used after vowels sounds and after voiced consonants except the sibilants. Not used after a pause 2. Only used after the sibilants 3. Only used after a pause


1./d/ 2. /Əd/ 3. /hƏd/

1. Used after I, he, she, we, you, they and generally after vowels sounds 2. Used elsewhere 3. Only used after a pause



Used before consonant sounds









Not used after a pause. After /l/ it becomes /Əl/






Not usual before unstressed have



Used after I, he, she, we, you, they

When any of the 15 anomalous finites occur in final position, as in short answers, they take the strong-form, whether accented or not. They also take the strong-form when used as main verbs, as opposed to auxiliaries. The only exception is the verb to be.

General points to remember:

  1. Weak forms consisting of a single consonant sound like those in which /h/ has been dropped, are not to be used at the beginning of sentences or after pauses.
  2. It is convenient to consider our as having only the pronunciation /a:/ (the compressed form)
  3. Some of the weak forms given may suffer further reduction as we move towards the informal extreme of the scale of pronunciation styles: than /đn˛/, that /đt˛/, was /wz˛/.
  4. Some of them can also undergo assimilation: and /Əm, Əŋ/

Other weak forms:

Apart from the list of essential weak forms, there exist others which are optional and others which are typical of the colloquial style of pronunciation.

The first group includes words such as could, should, would which can be pronounced with either /Ə/ or /u/. Among the weak forms typical of informal speech are I /Ə/, on /Ən/, till /tl˛/


One of the basic principles governing English rhythm is the fact that the accented syllables tend to be separated from each other by unaccented ones.

In actual speech the accented syllables are separated from each other by equal units of time, that is, the rhythmic beats are isochronous. English rhythm shows a tendency towards isochrony.

Each accented syllable constitutes the peak of prominence in a rhythmic group which may or may not include other unaccented syllables. Sometimes unaccented syllables could be equally attributed to the end of one group or the beginning of the next.

The foot is the unit of English rhythm, each foot always starting with an accented syllable.

Stress-timed vs. syllable-timed rhythm:

English has a stress-timed rhythm because the accented syllables tend to occur at fairly regular intervals. When 2 accented syllables are separated by unaccented syllables, these tend to be compressed and quickened, so that the time between each beat will be approximately the same as the time taken by 2 consecutive accented syllables.

Spanish can be said to have a syllable-timed rhythm because it is the syllables, either accented or unaccented, which tend to occur at more or less regular intervals.


It is the rises and falls of the voice in speech.

The intonation system of English:

The English intonation system can be conveniently described in terms of 8 basic tones:

  1. High level: syllable at a high, sustained pitch

  1. Low level: syllable at a low, sustained pitch

  1. Mid high: syllable begins at a mid pitch and rises to a high pitch.

  1. High mid: syllable begins at a high pitch and falls to a mid pitch.

  1. Low high: syllable begins at a low pitch and rises to a high pitch.

  1. High low: syllable begins at a high pitch and falls to a low pitch.

  1. Low mid: syllable begins at a low pitch and rises to a mid pitch.

  1. Mid low: syllable begins at a mid pitch and falls to a low pitch.

Structure of the intonation unit:

  1. Nucleus: It is the essential element of an intonation unit, which is the last accented syllable acting as pitch movement initiator in the intonation unit and the tone on that syllable is called nuclear tone

  1. Tail: It often happens that the nucleus is followed by one or more unaccented syllables forming the tail of the unit. There can be no accented syllables in the tail, but only prominent ones.

  1. Head: Apart from the accented syllable constituting the nucleus, there may be (an)other accented words preceding it and forming the head of the intonation unit. A head can be as short as one monosyllabic word.

  1. Prehead: It consists of any unaccented and usually non-prominent syllables preceding a head or nucleus. Preheads are normally said quickly on a low variety of mid pitch an are left unmarked.

The meaning of an intonation unit depends on which words are made to stand out by means of accent, because they carry most important information. Tonicity is the location of the nuclear syllable.

Four syntactic classes for intonation:

  1. Statements: Neutral conclusive statements take a falling tone:

– It´s ‘starting to `rain.

Non-conclusive statements take some kind of rising tone:


Enumerations take a rise on each element to indicate that the list is incomplete, and a fall on the final element to indicate conclusiveness.


A falling-rising nucleus indicates some kind of implication

Apologies take a divided falling-rising tone


Awe and astonishment are expressed by means of rising-falling tone

– There were ^hundreds of them!

  1. Questions:

a) Wh- questions: They normally take a falling intonation

– ´Where are my `gloves?

b) Yes/No questions: They are normally said on a rising tone


c) Question tags: When expressing doubts they are said on a rising tone

– I `told you about it


When seeking confirmation of what has been said they take a falling intonation

– She is ‘ quite `pretty,` isn´ t she?

d) Alternative questions: They take rising intonation on the first element of choice and a falling intonation on the second


e) Echo questions: They are used to express incredulity or to ask for a repetition you have misheard. They take a rising tone

– They´ve `won.

– ´Really?

This tone is used if the listener has not heard

– ´Pardon?

  1. Commands: They take a verb in the imperative mood and take a falling intonation

– `Stop it!

Command may change from sharp orders to polite requests by the use of a fall plus rise.


A warning takes a falling-rising tone


  1. Exclamations: They consist of a what or how phrase and take a falling intonation