The importance of stress (in pronunciation)

Discussion in 'All Languages' started by olives, Nov 20, 2006.

  1. olives Senior Member

    There's something probably fundamental that I've never really understood. Are stresses important? Is it important in a language to know which syllable is stressed or not?
    I'm not speaking about Russian for example where it is crucial to know where the stress is so that you can pronounce the word correctly.
  2. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Not in Irish, I believe.
  3. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    There a many languages where it is important to put the stress in the right place. German, English and Greek are but 3 examples.

    'in-valid and in-'valid are completely different words.

    Because of the tendancy in English for unstressed vowels to become schwa, if you put the stress in the wrong place in hotel or bottle, you won't be understood: ho-tl doesn't exist, and neither does b'tel.

    There is a joke about Madam De Gaulle who was asked at dinner what she wanted most in life, and she reply "A penis".
    The rest of the guests didn't know where to look.
    General De Gaulle corrected her, and said "The English pronounce it app-iness."
    [the word in question: happiness]
  4. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    What does it sound like when stresses are applied to non-stressed languages?
  5. General De Gaulle definitely knew better what was good for her:D.

    In some languages like Chinese or Indo-chinese languages stresses or tones are vital for distinguishing different words. I guess it is of little importance in the languages with fixed stress, like French. Farsi, Turkic languages. So I do not quite know what exactly you mean, Vince.
  6. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    Think about how someone with an (North) American accent would say "do you speak French?" in French:

    PAR-lay-vous FRON-say?

    Now, let's say that the nasal vowels and the glide at the end of "ay" are corrected. Would there still be a foreign accent?
  7. Wella, I think learning stresses is an integral part of learning the language, learning to read and speak. If this North American is studying French, he will to to keep his accent to a minimum, to mind the stresses and imitate the native pronunciation. If he has just picked it out of a phrase-book, well, we all know what happens, and popular jokes and even comedians feed on that with pleasure.
  8. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    hmm the thing is, first-time learners of a foreign language are often not aware that stress is different in other languages.

    My question is, if stresses are added to a non-stressed language, what does that sound like to native speakers? Will they be able to perceive an accent?
  9. Anatoli Senior Member

    Melbourne, Australia
    Native: русский (Russian), home country: English
    Russian word stress is difficult to remember and predict and foreigners are forgiven when making mistakes but ignoring them completely is not acceptable either, you'll get each word pronounced incorrectly.

    Japanese is one example. It's a tonal stress, not a word stress. Foreigners speakers Japanese often make some word stresses.
  10. Ilmo

    Ilmo Member Emeritus

    In Finnish the stress is very regular: it is always on the first syllable. (In long words there may be additional secondary stresses.)
    When I have met foreigners who have learned a little Finnish, I have found out that the erroneous stress is the main obstacle (for them) to make themselves understood.
    There is an old joke in Finnish where a normal word is pronounced stressing completely incorrectly:
    lastenkodinkadulla means simply "in the nursery street" and should be pronounced "lástenkódinkádulla". But if pronounced "lasténkodínkadúlla", with strong tresses on the second syllables of the different parts of this compound word, and besides said at a comparatively fast speed, it becomes an inapprehensible gibberish.
  11. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    According to many authors, Japanese has a pitch accent, as did ancient Greek.
  12. jmx

    jmx Senior Member

    Spain / Spanish
    I remember reading something written by a reputed linguist, along these lines :

    "There is no such thing as an unstressed language, because if it existed, nobody would be able to understand it".

    If I find out who said that, I'll post it.
  13. Lemminkäinen

    Lemminkäinen Senior Member

    Oslo, Norway
    Norwegian (bokmål)
    Wrong stress in Norwegian will make your speech sound weird, but I think you'd be understood most of the time. The northern Norwegian dialect put the stress in other parts of some words and generally have a different speech melody, but it's not hard to understand.

    One thing that is sort of related to this is the two tones we have (I've seen it called pitch-accent and tonal, but let's not take that discussion now ;) ).

    Tone 1: bønder (farmers)
    Tone 2 (sinking): bønner (beans)

    There are quite a few pairs like this, separated only by different tones, and I think it's harder to understand if you mix those up than if you put the stress on the wrong place.
  14. avalon2004 Senior Member

    Merseyside, England
    UK- English/Spanish
    In Spanish, stress is very easy and because people tend to speak very fast you hardly even notice it anyway. However, it is important to stress the correct syllable in verb tenses as it could indicate a difference in meaning.

    In Greek, stress is quite predictable and is easy to remember because every word with more than one syllable is written with an accent over the stressed vowel. The stress matters quite a lot in terms of verb tenses (usually alters) and in noun declensions because it often moves around, e.g. απόφαση [apófasi] --> αποφάσεις [apofáseis]

    In French stress does not alter the meaning of any words and thus it is relatively unimportant.

    As someone has already mentioned, stress is very important in Russian and is quite frankly a nightmare!!

    Brazilian Portuguese doesn't seem to place much importance on stress but perhaps more so than French. I think it has the same rules as Spanish (second to last syllable stressed unless it ends in certain consonants, in which case the last syllable is strssed or an accent indicates otherwise).
  15. Honour Senior Member

    Türkçe, Türkiye
    In turkish it is not usually very important however there are some cases in which the meaning totally changes if the stress is applied on wrong syllable. Though, keeping in the mind that a foreigner talking all natives should be able to understand the correect meaning.

    an example

    me suyu : drinkable water
    içmek: drink, içme: noun form of drink which is shortened from içmek, su: water

    me suyu : don't drink the water
    iç: imperative form of içmek
    me: negation suffix (i.e. go: git, don't go: gitme)
  16. Oh come, not even half of the Serbian nightmare.
  17. sound shift Senior Member

    Derby (central England)
    English - England
    Olives, who started this thread, speaks French, a language which is said by some not to possess word stress (which would make it unique among European languages) and by others to have word stress on the final syllable. If a French speaker speaks English without word stress or with stress on the final syllable I can just about understand him/her, but then I have had the luxury of studying French, and I can well imagine that a non-linguist speaker of English would lose track of what was being said.

    There's also the question of the stress of phrases and sentences. I possess a book called "Colloquial Turkish"*, which states:

    Even if an acceptable articulation of each individual vowel and consonant of Turkish has been acquired, a clear and even an intelligible pronunciation of Turkish will not be achieved so long as the stress-timing of English is carried over into Turkish.

    One wonders how many other languages this applies to.

    *Arin Bayraktaroglu and Sinan Bayraktaroglu, "Colloquial Turkish", Routledge, 1992.
  18. jazyk Senior Member

    Brno, Česká republika
    Brazílie, portugalština
    Of course we do, and it doesn't matter if it's Portuguese Portuguese or Brazilian Portuguese. We have proparoxytones (stress on the third from the last syllable), paroxytones (stress on the second from last syllable) and oxytones (stress on the last syllable).
  19. ronanpoirier

    ronanpoirier Senior Member

    Porto Alegre
    Brazil - Portuguese
    Just completing what you said jazyk, if we didn't pay attention to the stresses we'd make a big confusion between two different tenses! And one is a future tense and the other one a past tense, so it would be like "aaaahhh i can't understand". :)

    I think it's a sensitive thing in a language which there are compund words like Ilmo said about Finnish. You need to know where to place the stress otherwise it gets confusing. Hungarian does that, that's why I know :) But in a simple word the stress always falls on the first syllabe... but I tend to do a second stressed syllabe anyways on the second from last syllabe. :p
  20. Anatoli Senior Member

    Melbourne, Australia
    Native: русский (Russian), home country: English
    Yes, that's right, I couldn't find the correct word.
  21. jimreilly

    jimreilly Senior Member

    American English
    There are different kinds of "stress". The stress can be volume, pitch, or length, and these three types of stress are not mutually exclusive: sometimes louder is combined with shorter, or higher, or lower, etc.

    It's easy to say (wrongly) that a language is unstressed if, for example, you are used to hearing mostly a volume stress and that language uses mostly a length stress; you don't hear the kind of stress you are used to hearing and you won't hear (or notice) the other kind.

    So often it's not only a question of knowing which syllable gets the stress, but what kind of stress it gets. And, yes, if you do it wrong, you will not only have an "accent", but you will sometimes be misunderstood, as has been demonstrated in several languages.
  22. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Are there any languages genuinely devoid of any kind of stress?
  23. suzzzenn Senior Member

    New York
    USA English
    I wondered about this too and looked in my phonology textbooks. There is no discussion of a stressless language. There are languages which have complex stress patterns and other which have simple ones, predictable ones and unpredictable ones, but none that have no stress. The authors claim that stress may be part of "universal grammar", if you believe in that idea. In other words, children are "preprogrammed" to listen for stress patterns.
  24. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Perhaps a robot language would have no stress. "I can feel it... I can feel it, Dave..." ;)
  25. jimreilly

    jimreilly Senior Member

    American English
    If one could imagine a language that would only be written and never spoken, it could be a language with no stress!
  26. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    There's always italics. ;)
  27. suzzzenn Senior Member

    New York
    USA English
    I wonder if sign language has sentence level stress.
  28. Hakro

    Hakro Senior Member

    Helsinki, Finland
    Finnish - Finland
    Any language spoken by a speech synthesizer (at least those that I have heard) has practically no stress.
  29. jimreilly

    jimreilly Senior Member

    American English
    I would imagine that programming a speech synthesizer to have stress would be easier in Finnish where the stress pattern is more predictable than in some languages where it is more "erratic". Do you think so, Hakro and Ilmo?

    As far as italics and some invented written language without stress, my point was the invented laguage wouldn't have stress (by choice of the inventors), not that it couldn't (via italics or some other visual means such as accent marks, colors, size of type). The goal would be to avoid the "universal grammar" posited by some people as requiring stress; this "universal grammar" clearly comes from the study of languages that (I presume) existed as oral before they were written down.

    Even the invention of a language such as Esperanto does not avoid this "universal grammar" because Esperanto was derived from already existing languages. But an entirely new language, invented in written form...certainly beyond me to do it, but I imagine a computer could, or other people more intelligent than I am and with more free time!

    I would also imagine that if such a language began to be spoken some stress would begin to immediately develop, but what kind of stress would depend on the maternal language of the speaker.
  30. Hakro

    Hakro Senior Member

    Helsinki, Finland
    Finnish - Finland
    Yes, Jim, I'm sure you're right. I have once tried to put Finnish words to a speech synthesizer that had obviously "learned" a kind of English stress pattern. It put the stress always on the first syllable in two-syllable words, but in longer words the stress was put in an aleatory way on any syllable. This made especially the compound words more difficult to understand or at least sounding funny.
  31. darnil Member

    Madrid (España - Spain)
    Castillian Spanish
    In fact, the place of the stress is so important in Spanish that not only many but most words can be misunderstood if the stress is badly placed: cántara is a kind of big vase; cantara (stress in the 2nd syllable) is the subjunctive form of to sing; cantará means 'he will sing'. In all of the verbs of the 1st group, the difference is huge: for example, canto (stress on the 1st syllable) is 'I sing', while cantó is 'he sung'; amo 'I love' / amó 'he loved', and so on.

    Even more: in many languages, including Spanish, the main role of the stress is to make it clear if we are saying one word (=one stress) or more than one (=more than one stress). I once heard a joke:

    - ¿Por qué en tu pueblo usáis todos boina?
    - Porque es funda mental.

    (-Why do you all use a beret in your town?
    - Because it is a mental envelope / it is fundamental)

    [fúndamentál] (two stresses: 'mental envelope'; [fundamentál] (one stress): 'fundamental', 'basic'.
  32. Christo Tamarin

    Christo Tamarin Senior Member

    What about Georgian?
  33. MarX Banned

    Indonesian, Indonesia
    In Indonesian the stress is not that important.

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