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Speak English Like a Native: The Importance of Word Stress

Updated on March 25, 2014

Word Stress

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Forty or Fourteen?

Read these two phrases out loud.

Fourteen nights.

Forty nights.

They sound rather similar don’t they? One might even argue that the pronunciation is absolutely identical. In fact, here are those phrases written in the international phonetic alphabet as an American native English speaker would say these phrases:

fɔrtinaɪts fɔrtinaɪts

The Importance of Word Stress

One could argue, of course, that the first could be written fɔrtinnaɪts, making a very slight difference in sound between the two. Honestly, however, even with an extra n, you would have to be listening very hard to hear the difference.

So is this a curiosity of English? That the two phrases meaning very different numbers sound the same? Well, no. Because they don’t, in fact, sound the same. If a native English speaker were to say these phrases to another native speaker, nine times out of ten they would be understood perfectly.

The reason is an oft overlooked part of English pronunciation: word stress.

Stress. If you ask an average native English speaker what stress is, he or she would likely start going on about a difficult job or screaming children. If you specify word stress, you might hear something about emphasizing a word in a sentence. Most native speakers don’t think about how we stress words. It’s just something we do.

Fourteen VS Forty

Unicorns.  Good at math.  Bad at English.
Unicorns. Good at math. Bad at English. | Source

What is Word Stress?

Stress is the reason that forty nights and fourteen nights sound different to a native English speaker. It’s FORty NIGHTS, and fourTEEN NIGHTS. That’s the reason that non-native speakers often don't sound right, even when their pronunciation is perfect.

Every word in English that is longer than one syllable has word stress. Stress is the emphasis on one syllable in the word. This means one vowel sound. The vowel sound might be combined with consonants. Fourteen and forty both have two syllables: four-teen, for-ty. When you stress a syllable, several things happen.

You enunciate. You lengthen the sound. You raise your voice. All of this together creates word stress. Here’s more detail below.

Step 1 of Word Stress: Enunciate

When stressing a syllable, you enunciate clearly. Have you ever heard of this phonetic letter: ə ? It looks like an upside down e. In the phonetic alphabet, it’s called a schwa, and the sound it makes is ‘uh’. The sort of sound a person makes when they are confused, and just making noise to show it. It’s like a lazy vowel when you don’t want to bother saying it properly. It’s basically the most common sound in the English language. ‘Uh’ is what happens to short vowel sounds when they are not stressed.

Note: sometimes a long vowel is unstressed, as in the word angry. The second syllable, 'ry' isn't stressed, but it still sounds like a long ee.

So if unstressed vowels get ‘lazy’ and turn into schwas, what happens to consonants? They have their own way of being ‘lazy’. Let’s look at the ‘forty’ and ‘fourteen’ again. They both end with a ‘tee’ sound. ‘Ee’ is a long vowel sound, so, unlike short vowel sounds, it stays the same whether stressed or unstressed. Instead of looking at the vowel, this time let’s look at the consonant.

The ‘teen’ of ‘fourteen’ is stressed. The ‘ty’ of ‘forty’ is not. A stressed ‘t’ is an aspirated ‘t’. This means it has a bit of force behind it. Say the word ‘in’. Now say the word ‘hen’. It takes a bit of effort to make the ‘h’ sound. It’s the same idea with ‘t’. An aspirated ‘t’ has a bit of effort behind it, like you’re saying t-h (but not th; that’s a different sound entirely). A non-aspirated ‘t’ does not have a force behind it. In fact, it sounds a lot like a ‘d’.

Note: Of course, the English language is nothing if not complex. If a word starts with an unstressed syllable, the first letter consonant is still aspirated. At least slightly. The beginning of a word is ALWAYS aspirated.

Here’s a chart to help you out:

How to Stress English Vowels

Sound
Stressed
Unstressed
short vowel (a, e, i, o, u)
Stays a short vowel: cat, egg, sit, hot, cut
Becomes ə or i: a in about, e in exact, i in tropic, o in lesson, u in understood
Long vowel (a, e, i, o, u, -y)
stays a long vowel: ate, feet, high, boat, lute
stays a long vowel: second a in mandate, y in angry, first i in itinerary, o in hippo, first o in zoology (Exceptions: the o in 'to' can become a ə in everyday speech)
diphthongs (oi, ou, ew, ai(r), ea(r)
stays long: oil, loud, fuel, air, ear
stays long: ow in however
consonants (b, c, d, f, etc.)
Aspirated
slightly aspirated at the beginning of words, not aspirated at the end.

Step 2 of Word Stress: Find the Beat

Read this word: antidisestablishmentarianism.

This is one of the longest words in the English language. It’s twenty-eight letters long. It has twelve syllables. It should take a long time to say. It doesn't. Give this word to a native English speaker, and they seem to delight in rushing through the sounds as quickly as humanly possible. It’s like the word is some sort of contest or race, and the fastest speaker wins.

In fact, there is a real reason we speed up, or slow down, when we speak. We do this with sentences and we do this with words. English is a stress timed language. Sentence stress is separate from word stress, and if you want to know more you can read about it here, but basically everything an English speaker says, long or short, has a rhythm.

Think of it like music. Where we stress words is the beat. The beat always takes the same amount of time to say. We slow down when we hit the beat, speak more carefully, raise our voices. Everything that isn't stressed speeds up to fit inside the space between beats. Now, once again, look at antidisestablishmentarianism. It has twelve syllables. How many of them are stressed? One.

All words of more than one syllable have one stressed syllable. This is a rule of word stress. At this point, some readers will be protesting. Surely, they will be saying, this word has three. In fact, the word has two secondary stressed syllables, but only one actual stressed syllable. Secondary stressed syllables do not hold the full punch of a stressed syllable, but they are enunciated fully and the voice does tend to go up slightly on them. For those who are wondering, here is the word with the stressed syllable in bold, and the secondary stressed syllables in italics:

Antidisestablishmentarianism

So what does it mean to have such a long word with only one beat? It means it sounds fast, even when the speaker isn't trying. This is because the unstressed syllables always sound faster than the stressed syllables, and there are a lot of unstressed syllables to get through.

Go up!
Go up! | Source

Step 3 of Word Stress: Raise Your Voice

If you listen to the noise of English, rather than the meaning, you will hear voices rising and falling. This is the natural beat of English speech. Stressed syllables pack more punch than unstressed syllables. The consonants are aspirated. The vowels lengthen. The natural consequence is that the voice becomes slightly louder. The voice also goes up slightly in pitch.

The difference isn't huge. English speakers don’t shout the stressed parts of words while whispering the unstressed syllables. They don’t sing words like an opera singer, with high notes and low notes. Still, if an English speaker’s voice doesn't rise and fall, the listener likely will think their voice sounds robotic and unnatural. The rise and fall of English speech is what puts emotion into our sentences. It asks questions. If this doesn't come naturally to you or your students, you might try practicing it with extremes. Do, in fact, whisper the unstressed syllables and shout the stressed ones. Sing the word, with low notes for unstressed syllables and high notes for stressed syllables. Get into the habit of altering your speech pattern. If nothing else, it might be a fun way to relieve some stress.

Conclusion

Word stress is important. Every English teacher should know about it and include it in their lessons. Every English student should learn it. It can be the difference between sounding like a foreigner and sounding like a native. It can mean the difference between whether or not you are understood. Word stress should be included with every vocabulary lesson.

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