Monday, October 27, 2008

More on Word Stress and Vowels

The biggest difference between English and most other languages is the timing. In many languages stress is evenly place on each syllable of a word. Except for Chinese where each word is only 1 syllable, but this results in the same rhythm issues when speaking in English. It is hard to know where to stress a mufti-syllabic word when you have no experience with mulch-syllabic words.

English is called a stress timed language. An undescriptive term if there ever was one. It does nothing to help draw a clear picture of how the timing is different.

Other languages that stress specific syllables use accents or they use predictable patterns. For example French always stresses the final syllable.

American English uses what is known as alternating stress pattern. In a word we give primary stress to one syllable. Depending on the word we may have secondary stress, and always one syllable that is unstressed.

Look at the word banana. There are three "a"'s in this word. But only the second "a" gets a full pronunciation. The other two "a"s are reduced to a short quick schwa (uh) sound. The second "a" is longer and gets a full "a" production.

This is how we alternate stress in mulch-syllabic words. When this alternation is either placed on the wrong syllable or not made at all it has a tremendous effect on intelligibility.

Primary stress of a syllable is carried on the vowel. The vowel maybe lengthened, made longer or produced with a pitch change.

Lets look at another example "pajamas" again three "a"'s with 2 being produced as the short schwa or "uh" sound and the middle "a" getting the full pronunciation.

The verb/noun contrast can illustrate this well in this Accent Master video

Keep listening for good examples of spoken English, try to note how they are using alternating stress patterns in their speech. Can you mimic their rhythm? Try to mimic the beat in your first language and see if it feels different from your normal rhythm. This is the "feel" of spoken American English!

Lynn founder of Accent Master

No comments: