Topic 9 – The phonological system of the english language III: stress, rhythm and intonation. Comparison with the language of your community

Topic 9 – The phonological system of the english language III: stress, rhythm and intonation. Comparison with the language of your community

I have based this essay on the following sources:

– Roach, P. English Phonetics and Phonology. A Practical Course.

– O’Connor, J. Better English Pronunciation.

– Stockwell. The Sounds of English and Spanish.

In this essay I will deal with the following issues:

Firstly, with the stress: nature of stress, level of stress and placement of stress in words.

Secondly with the rhythm.

Thirdly, with the intonation: tones, functions and tone-units.

To end up comparing the English, the Spanish and Catalan phonological system concerning: stress, rhythm and intonation.


The stress is the degree of force with which a sound or syllable is uttered. Therefore one can make a distinction between strong and weak syllable.

Any strong syllable will have as its centre one of the vowel phonemes, or possibly a triphthong, but not a /∂/. Weak syllables, on the other hand, can only have four types of centre:

· The vowel schwa /∂/. It mid in quality and central.

· A close front unrounded vowel in the general area of /i:/ and /i/: easy /i:zi/.

· A close back rounded vowel in the general area of /u:/ and /u/.

Close front and close back vowels are more like /i:/ and /u:/ when they precede another consonant or pause.

· A syllabic consonant in the centre of the syllable, without the presence of a vowel: bottle /botl/.

In this case a consonant, either l, r, or a nasal stands as the centre of the syllable instead a vowel. It is marked by means of a small mark: /botl/.

Syllabic l is perhaps the most noticeable, it is a dark /l/. Among the nasal consonants m and n are the most found. They can occur as syllabic, but only as a result of processes of assimilation and elision.

Syllabic r is common in some American accents, but it is less common in RP English.

There is a few pair of words, minimal pairs, in which a difference in meaning depends on whether r is syllabic or not.

Hungary /h/\ngri/ hungry /h/\ngri/

It is not very usual to find two syllabic consonants together, but it exits

national /n nl/ literal /litrl/

Comparing weak syllables containing vowels with strong syllable, we find that vowel in a weak syllable tends to be shorter, of lower intensity and different in quality.


Stress is marked by placing a small vertical line ‘ before the stresses syllable. One can study stressed syllable from the point of view of production and of perception. The production of stress is generally believed to depend on the speaker using more muscular energy than the one used for unstressed syllable; whereas from the point of view of perception all stressed syllable have one characteristic in common: the prominence. Factors which make a syllable prominent:

· They are lauder.

· The length

· A prominent syllable implies a prominent pitch.

· A syllable is prominent if it contains a vowel that is different in quality from neighbouring vowels.

Prominence is then produced by four main factors: loudness, length, pitch and quality, but the strongest effect is produced by pitch and length.


There are three main levels of stress:

· Tonic strong or primary stress, resulting from the pitch movement or tone.

· Non-tonic strong or secondary.

· Unstressed. Absence of any recognisable amount of prominence.


In order to decide on the stress placement, it is necessary to make use of the following information:

· Whether the word is morphologically simple or complex.

· The grammatical category.

· The phonological structure of the syllables.



If the second syllable contains a long vowel or diphthong, or if it ends with more than one consonant, the second syllable is stressed.

‘apply’ /∂’plai/ ‘arrive’ /∂’raiv/

If the second syllable contains a short vowel or one or more final consonants, the first syllable is stressed:

‘enter’ /’entar/ ‘open’ /’∂up∂n/

A final syllable is also unstressed if it contains a /u/ sound as in ‘follow’ /’fol∂u/.


They are stressed according to the same rule: ‘lovely’ /’l vli/, ‘even’ /’i:vn/. But there are exceptions as for example

‘honest’ /’onist/ ‘perfect’ /’p fekt/


If the second syllable contains a short vowel, the stress will usually come on the first syllable.

‘money’ /’m ni/ ‘product’ /’prod kt/



If the last syllable contains a short vowel and ends with no more than one consonant, stress will be placed on the penultimate syllable.

‘determine’ /di’te:min/

It the final syllable contains a long vowel of diphthong, or ends with more than consonant, the final syllable will be stressed.

‘entertain’ /ent∂’tein/


If the final syllable contains a short vowel or a /u/, it is unstressed. If the syllable preceding this final syllable contains a long vowel or diphthong, or if it ends with more than one consonant, that middle syllable will be stressed.

‘potato’ /p∂’teit ∂u/ ‘disaster’ /di’za:st∂/

If the final syllable contains a short vowel and the middle syllable also contains a short vowel and ends with one consonant, both final and middle are unstressed.

‘quantity’ /’kwontiti/

‘opportune’ /’op ∂tju:n/


Most English words which have more than one syllable have come from other languages. Complex words are of 2 major types:

· Words made from a basic stem with the addition of an affix, prefix (placed before the stem) or suffix (placed after the stem).

· Compound words which are made of two, occasionally more, independent English words.

Affixes will have one of the three possible effects on word stress:

· The affix receives the primary stress: ‘semicircle’ /’semise:kl/.

Suffixes carrying primary stress: -ain, -ee, -ese, -ette, -esque, -ique.

· The word is stressed just as if the affix was not there ‘unpleasant’ //\m’pleznt/.

Suffixes do not effect stress placement: –able, -age, -al, -en, -ful, -ing, -ish.

· The stress remains in the stem but it is shifted to a different syllable, ‘’magnat-mag’netic’.

Suffixes that influence stress in the stem: –eous, -graphy, -ial, -ic, -ion, -ious, -ity, -ive.

Stress in words with prefixes is governed by the same rules as for words without prefixes.

COMPOUNDS are written in two different ways: as a single word ‘football’, or as two words separated by a hyphen ‘fruit-cake’ or a space ‘desk lamp’.

When the first part is adjectival, the stress is placed on the second element. If the first element is a noun the stress is placed on the first element.


Some pairs of two-syllable words with identical spelling differ in stress placement according to the word class:

-‘abstract (N) ab’tract (V)

– ‘object (N) ob’ject (V).

Concerning the WEAK FORMS there are certain contexts where only the strong form is acceptable and others where the weak form is normally pronounced.

the, a-an, and, but, that, than, his-her, your, he-she, me, you, them, us, at, for, from, of, to, as, some.

There are also all auxiliary verbs, which in their negative and short reply form they are strong forms: can, could, do, does, did, am, is, are, was, were, have, had, must, shall, should.


It involves some noticeable event happening at regular intervals of time. English speech is rhythmical. The stressed-time rhythm theory states that the times from each stressed syllable to the next will tend to be the same.

Some writers have developed theories of English rhythm in which a unit of rhythm, the foot, begins with a stressed syllable and includes all following unstressed syllables up to the following stressed syllable. All feet are supposed to have the same duration. Experiments have shown that we tend to hear speech as more rhythmical than it actually is. In spoken English we can vary the rhythm. Sometimes we can speak arhythmically, when hesitant or nervous.

Stressed-time rhythm is characteristic of one style of speaking not of English speech as a whole. One always speaks with some degree of rhythmically.


The pitch of the voice plays an important part. In very unusual situations we speak with fixed unvarying pitch, individual speakers have control over it.

The shortest piece looking at intonation is the syllable. A continuous piece of speech begins and ends with a clear pause: an utterance. Two very common syllable utterance are: yes / no.

A one-syllable word can be said with either a level tone or a moving tone. ‘Yes / no’ in final position have a falling tone. In a questioning manner we say it with a rising tone.

There are three possibilities for the intonation used in pronouncing the one-word utterance ‘yes / no’: level (-), fall (\), rise (/).

· The LEVEL can be: high (־yes) and low (_yes).

· The TONE. Apart from rise and fall, there are other possibilities:

Fall-rise (۷) pitch goes down and then up.

Rise-fall (۸) pitch goes up and then down.

Some FUNCTIONS of the English tones are:

· Fall (\). It is more or less neutral. It gives an impression of finality.

· Rise (/). It gives the impression that something more is to follow. It invites to continue.

· Fall-rise (\/). Limited agreement or response with reservation.

· Rise-fall (/\). To convey rather strong feelings of approval, disapproval or surprise.

· Level (-). It always conveys a feeling of saying something uninteresting, boring.

For purposes of analysing intonation, a unit generally greater in size than the syllable is needed and this unit is called tome unit. The syllable that carries the stress is called tonic syllable. It carries the tone and also a type of stress that will be called tonic stress.

Speech consists of a number of utterances. Each utterance consists of one or more tone-units, each tone-unit consists of one or more syllables, each syllable consists of one or more phonemes.

The structure of the tone-unit can be simple: one tonic-syllable, or compound and it has the following PARTS:

· HEAD: it extends from the first stressed syllable up to the tonic syllable. If there is no stressed syllable before the tonic syllable, there is no head (H).

· PREHEAD: (PH) It is composed of all the unstressed syllables in a tone-unit preceding the first stressed syllable. They are found in two main environments:

When there is no head.

When there is a head.

THE TAIL: (T) Any syllables between the tonic syllable and the end of the tone-unit are called tail. When it is necessary t mark stress in a tail, we use a special symbol (\ /)

When we analyse longer stretches of speech, it is necessary to mark the places where tone-unit boundaries occur, that is, where one tone-unit ends and another begins. Pause-type boundaries can be marked by double vertical lines and non-pause boundaries with a single line.

clip_image001clip_image001[1]clip_image001[2]clip_image001[3]clip_image001[4] PH H TS PH TS

and then nearer to the ‘front on the ‘left

clip_image002clip_image003 PH H TS T H

there’s a ‘bit of ‘fo rest ‘coming ‘down to the

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‘wa terside and then a ‘bit of a ‘bay


Stress, intonation and rhythm change in Spanish and Catalan compared to English.

Romance languages like Spanish and Catalan are syllable-timed languages, whereas English is a stress-timed language. A stress-timed language like English organizes the muscle movements to be regularly spaced, while syllabic-timed languages organize the expulsion of air to be regularly spaced, so that every syllable occupies more or less the same amount of time.

In English the length of a sentence depends on the number of stress it has, but in Spanish and Catalan the length of a sentence depends on the number of syllables it has.

As far as RHYTHM is concerned, in Spanish and Catalan the sounds are mechanically regular. For instance, in poetry we count syllables (stressed and unstressed alike). Spanish rhythm is defined as ‘sillabicamente acomposado’.

In English the sounds are mechanically irregular. In poetry the number of stress is more important than the number of syllables. English rhythm can be defined as ‘acentualmente acomposado’.

Concerning INTONATION, in general, Spanish and Catalan use the rising tone much more often than English does in questions and the fall-rise pattern is rarely used in both, Spanish and Catalan.

In terms of foreign language instruction students may have problems dealing with stress the affixes, those words that have the same spelling and change meaning depending on the stress placement (object n./v.), and the weak and strong forms of the auxiliary verbs, pronouns, etc.

Another problem may be that learners of English make every syllable count, and thus cannot find the typical English rhythm. Something similar happens with intonation, for example the production of the falling question tag. We should provide our students with meaningful practice in all these aspects to master also the phonology of the studied language.