Chapter 3: Phonetics

3.11 Stress

The phonetics of stressed syllables

As an organization unit, syllables play a role in the overall rhythm and flow of language, especially by having some syllables be stressed, which gives them more prominence in the linguistic signal. In spoken languages, stressed syllables are often articulated with some combination of increased loudness, longer duration, and/or higher pitch. To the extent that signed languages have syllables, they also seem to have stressed syllables, which are typically articulated with greater muscular tension, quicker movements, and/or longer holds (Supalla and Newport 1978, Klima and Bellugi 1979). However, languages can vary quite a lot in exactly which phonetic properties are used for stressed syllables.

Spoken languages are sometimes classified based on whether they are “stress-timed” or “syllable-timed”, which means that roughly the same amount of time passes between stresses or between syllables, respectively. Despite widespread belief in this classification among non-linguists, it does not in fact appear to have any phonetic validity, so it is best avoided.

Degrees of stress

Stress in signed languages is still under-researched, but since signs typically only have one or two syllables, there is not much room for complex stress patterns in signed languages. However, in spoken languages, words can easily have many syllables, such as the English word internationalization, which has eight syllables, or the German word Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung ‘motor vehicle indemnity insurance’, which clocks in at nine syllables. Even with just three or four syllables, there is room for multiple degrees of stress within a single word. In most spoken languages, usually only one syllable per word has the highest degree of stress, which is called primary stress and is marked in the IPA with a preceding upper tick mark [ˈ].

All other stressed syllables can be said to have secondary stress, which marked in the IPA with a preceding lower tick mark [ˌ] (note that this is distinct from the syllabic diacritic [ˌ] which always goes under a symbol, whereas the secondary stress mark [ˌ] goes before a symbol). The remaining syllables are unstressed, which has no dedicated IPA symbol.

We can see all three levels of stress in the word [ˈbʌ.niˌhʌɡ] bunny hug, which is used in Saskatchewan to refer to a hoodie. Note that the stress marks are used at syllable boundaries, so no [.] is needed to mark a syllable boundary in a position where [ˈ] or [ˌ] are used.

Stress is commonly marked instead with non-IPA diacritics, with accent marks over the nucleus (or over σ when discussing stress patterns across syllables generally): acute [ˊ] for primary and grave [ˋ] for secondary, and sometimes also breve [ ̆] for unstressed, if it needs to be explicitly marked. Using this system, bunny hug could be transcribed as [bʌ́nihʌɡ] or [bʌ́nĭhʌɡ]. However, since these diacritics have other uses in the IPA (see Section 3.12), they must be used carefully to avoid ambiguity.

Lexical versus predictable stress

Many spoken languages have lexical stress, which means that the placement of stress is mostly unpredictable and must be memorized for each word. This can create minimal pairs, such as [ˈtɑɾu] ‘fast runner’ versus [tɑˈɾu] ‘batter’ and [ˈbɛɫu] ‘basket’ versus [bɛˈɫu] ‘flute’ in Khowar, a Dardic language of the Indo-European family, spoken in Pakistan (Liljegren and Khan 2017).

In other spoken languages, stress is fully predictable based on the structure of the syllables in a word, so that two words with the same syllable structures but different phones would also have the same stress pattern. In such languages, the rules governing stress assignment can be quite complicated, and a full analysis is beyond the scope of this textbook. However, there are a few broad patterns for spoken languages with predictable stress.

First, although most words usually have one and only one primary stress, short function words like prepositions or conjunctions might normally only be unstressed, while compound words might have multiple syllables with roughly equal stress.

Second, primary stress is nearly always on one of the first two or the last two syllables in a word. Stress on the first syllable is called initial stress, stress on the second syllable is called peninitial stress, stress on the final syllable is called ultimate stress, and stress on the second syllable from the end is called penultimate stress. In some languages, primary stress may even be antepenultimate, on the third syllable from the end, but interestingly, we do not find the equivalent of third stress from the beginning, suggesting that there is something special about the behaviour of the end of the word versus the beginning with respect to whatever role stress plays.

Finally, secondary stress in longer words often occurs in a regular rhythm, skipping every other syllable, so that stressed syllables and unstressed generally alternate with each other. However, there is a great deal of complexity across the world’s spoken languages in how secondary stress is assigned.

But despite all the complexity, there are still some consistent generalizations. We do not seem to find spoken languages that have primary stress on, say, the middle syllable or the fifth syllable of the word, or languages that consistently alternate two stressed syllables with two unstressed syllables throughout every word. This suggests that there are deeper underlying principles that govern how stress is assigned, perhaps relating to the purpose of stress.

For example, stress might help with processing of the linguistic signal, so it should be relatively regular (to be more easily recognizable) and anchored to the boundaries of words (which are otherwise hard to determine in running conversation). In other words, not all computationally imaginable stress patterns are possible. Instead, there seems to be a small set of very specific restrictions on how stress works.

Check your understanding

Coming soon!


Klima, Edward S. and Ursula Bellugi. 1979. The signs of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Liljegren, Henrik and Afsar Ali Khan. 2017. Khowar. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 47(2): 219–229.

Supalla, Ted, and Elissa Newport. 1978. How many seats in a chair? The derivation of nouns and verbs in American Sign Language. In Understanding language through sign language research. Perspectives in Neurolinguistics and Psycholinguistics. Edited by Patricia Siple. New York: Academic Press. 91–133.


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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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