Tuesday, March 24, 2009

English Stress Shift

Though English stress is normally on the first syllable of the word, it can in fact appear on any syllable. It is rather difficult to predict as is also the case in languages such as Russian, German and Portuguese. Sometimes it appears on the final syllable as in "technique", "expertise", "remark" and "unique". In other instances the stress is penultimate as in "transportation", "banana", "tomato" and "establish". Antepenultimate stress occurs in "undoubtedly", "coordinate", "regrettable" and "informative". English stress is thus largely unpredictable.

In many cases, though, affixation produces what can be termed English stress shift. Many roots have a shift in stress when a suffix is attached to them. Though the stress shifts to the following syllable, the position of the stressed syllable in relation to the final syllable remains the same.

To illustrate, the word "economy" consists of four syllables in which the third to last syllable is stressed. The third to last syllable is commonly referred to as the antepenultimate syllable. In the adjective "economical" five syllables are present. Now it is the third syllable which is stressed and not the second as in "economy". However, in both "economy" and "economical", it is the antepenultimate syllable which is stressed.

This same pattern is present in the following words:

statistics, statistician
politics, political
technology, technological
biology, biological
geography, geographical
mathematics, mathematician
comedy, comedian
psychology, psychological
philosophy, philosophical

In each of the examples, the adjective consists of an additional syllable because of the addition of the suffix. The result is that the stress shifts to the following syllable. However, in relation to the final syllable of the word, the stress pattern remains the same. It is antepenultimate. This rule does not work in all cases, however. For example, the words "behaviour" and "behavioural" do not follow this pattern. However, the stress shift can be observed in many instances.

Stress in English can undoubtedly be difficult to predict as is the case in other languages. Nevertheless, it is true that most English words are stressed on the first syllable and that the English stress shift occurs with a large number of words. It is often the case that the derivation of an adjective from a root by suffixation is subject to the stress shift in which the stress in the adjective shifts to the following syllable but as in the root remains antepenultimate.


May28K said...

That was perfect, thank you

Les Zsoldos said...

You're welcome.

Yuwen said...

This is really interesting. May I ask why 1 syllable to the right? In cases like 'prefer/preference' the main stress relocate to the left instead. Thanks for your reply. Jen

Les Zsoldos said...

In prefer/preference it's true that the main stress of the noun is on the first syllable and on the verb it's on the second. This shows that stress in English isn't regular. Look at depend/dependence. Here the stress is on the second syllable in both cases. But refer/reference has the same pattern as prefer/preference. We have to conclude that stress in English is quite variable.

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