Syllables and Stress in Language

by Zandyne - Date: 2007-05-30 - Word Count: 495 Share This!

Syllables that are stressed can present another complication when trying to learn a language. Not all languages use stress like English does. In French there is no stress for individual words, although there is intonation (changing the tone of voice) when you are asking a question, which is a different topic altogether.

The rules for assigning stress in English are quite complex. Stress in English is lexical, that is, it comes with a word and usually has to be memorized. Similar words often have similar stress patterns, but this is not always true.

Even words that appear similar can have completely different stress rules. This can really confuse people that are just learning English language.

Take the following two words:


Notice that these 2 words are very similar (same root word) and will even appear in the dictionary as one entry. The stressed syllable is different in each case. For photograph, stress the 1st syllable. For photographer, the 2nd syllable is stressed. Even if you stress the wrong syllable (or stress no syllables at all), most English speakers will still know what you mean, although the word may sound a bit unusual. There are a lot of other English words like this which change their stress patterns completely even though a simple suffix (like -er) is added.

Is there an easy rule for determining which syllables are stressed in English? Some languages have predictable stress rules. For instance, in Polish, stress is always on the penultimate (second to the last) syllable. In English, stress and syllable accent is unpredictable. When one learns a new English word, the stress patterns that the word has must be memorized in addition to the definition of the word.

Product naming and pronunciation

In product naming and branding, this is a blessing and a curse: Would you know the correct pronunciation of a name you haven't encountered yet? The intuitive thing to do would be to look for names that are similar to it, but even this technique can throw you for a loop.

Here's an example:
If you never saw the name Verizon before, how do you think it would be pronounced? You would probably look for a similar word. But is it more like Amazon or horizon? In both cases the stressed syllables are different! A few years ago, I've met some people that would pronounce Verizon (VER-iz-on) with the accent on the first syllable (like the first syllable in the word "very") so that it would rhyme with Amazon. You would eventually find out (through commercials or whatnot) that the proper pronunciation is (ver-EYE-zin) with the accent on the second syllable, rhyming with horizon.

Stress variation and homographs

A word's meaning can vary depending on which syllable is stressed, these fall into the category of homographs. This was discussed here: homophones/homographs/homonyms.

There are also words that can be pronounced in different ways, with each of them being acceptable (different stressed syllables).


These are not considered homographs since the words have the same meaning no matter which way you say them.

Related Tags: stress, education, learning, language, words, naming, pronunciation, linguistics, accent, syllables

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