Intonation, long/short and stressed/unstressed syllables

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Senior Member
Italia, italiano
Hi! Intonation is one of the most difficult aspects of English language for me.
Because English is a stress-timed language, the time needed to pronounce a sentence is conditioned by the number of stresses, and so (correct me if I am telling something wrong) stressed syllables are pronounced long, and unstressed syllables (and unstressed vowels) are shortened lest they condition the speed of the speech. Also, I have noticed that some of the consonants of unstressed syllables are often omitted, whereas this can’t be done with stressed syllables (always correct me if this is not true).
On the other hand, in English there exist both long and short vowels, so my question is: doesn’t the stress pattern compromise the quality (length) of the vowels (be they long or short)?
Well, usually long syllables are stressed too, so they don’t make such big problem (is it always so, by the way?), but on the other hand, also short vowels are often stressed.
When people speak, is there usually a difference of length between long and short syllables in stressed vowels? What is longer, a long vowel in an unstressed syllable or a short vowel in a stressed syllable?
I know that it may change according to the speaker and the situation, but could anyone give me a general rule?
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    We have a saying in English: You have opened a can of worms. This is a difficult and complicated subject. There are several overlapping systems all working together.

    The first thing is that we have intrinsically long and short vowels, but they almost always go with differences in vowel quality. So for example the words sit and seat have different vowel sounds and different vowel lengths. Coming from Italian, you will probably hear them as the same sound and the same length, unless you already have some good understanding of English sounds. The long vowel is not twice as long as the short one, but speakers obviously don't consciously aim for any particular comparative length.

    On top of this, following voiceless sounds shorten vowels somewhat. Seed and the man's name Sid have the same contrast as seat/sit, but both vowels are somewhat longer. See and seed have a longer vowel than seat, and Sid is longer than sit. So we have at least a three-way contrast: sit then seat or Sid then seed. It is unclear which of Sid and seat, the mid-length vowels, is longer, if either. I am not aware in my own speech of one being much longer: I can only hear a three-way, not four-way, contrast. But there might be a consistent small difference. (And again I can't put numbers on it, but it's nothing so strong as a 1:2:3 ratio.)

    Third, on top of this is an adjustment for stress. In partake or foresee the first syllable has an intrinsically long vowel (in my accent) but does not have (primary) stress, and on the other hand is not reduced to schwa. I'm not sure what the phonetics of this is, but I believe it's counter-intuitive: as natives we 'hear' a long vowel, but if I remember rightly it's actually short. The combination of short, but not reduced to schwa, makes it sound or behave like long. Again, this is not something a native speaker can tell you, but something to be learned by studying spectrograms.

    For a learner, I would recommend just concentrating on the two-way 'phonemic' distinction of sit/seat, and making sure you reduce unstressed vowels to schwa when it's appropriate. These are necessary to correct pronunciation, and the other distinctions are more minor adjustments.

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    Entangledbank has summarised this excellently.

    The key question is perhaps, which of these factors alter meaning? There is a difference in meaning between "Look at that sheet on the bed" and "look at that shit on the bed" which is far more fundamental than the question whether the speaker pronounces "look" with a short vowel (as in the south of England) or a long one (as in Scotland).

    Then there is the meaning conveyed by intonation. This again is more important than mere vowel-length, capable of changing a sentence radically. Compare: "You've come home", "You've come home?" and "You've come home!" The first is a neutral statement, the second a request for information, and the third in all probability a sarcastic reproach. The length of the syllable in question is less important than the amount of energia used; each of these sentences may be pronounced with long or short syllables in any position without changing the fundamental meaning, though some combinations may sound less natural than others.

    And bear in mind that stressing the syllable will in most instances transform it into a diphthong, or emphasise the fact that it already is one. This is I think one of the hardest factors for speakers of languages where the vowels are purer.
    Last edited:


    Senior Member
    Italia, italiano
    Hi! Thank you both for your answers.

    I don't usually have problems to notice and reproduce English sounds, but intonation and stresses are still quite a problem, because stressing the right words in the right way basically means speaking in a non-relaxed way for me. I have still got problems with /æ/ and /ɛ/ sometimes, but /iː/ and /ɪ/, and /uː/ and /ʊ/ are quite clearly different for me.

    Now, Entangledbank gave me quite a good explanation about the length of the words Seed, Sid, Seat, and Sit. Are you anyway sure that it is proper to consider them outside a context? Doesn’t their length change according to the sentence?
    For instance, I believe that Seed and Sid tend to be longer because they are nouns, and usually nouns are stresses rather than verbs, but not always, and if in a sentence there is no noun (but a pronoun) the verb is usually stressed.
    Where is the seed?
    Where did you seat?
    I’d say that both sentences have got only one stress (on the last word) and so seed and seat are equally long? Wouldn’t you agree?
    But on the other hand:
    But Sid is always late. (Stresses on Sid and always)
    But Sid is always late. (Stresses on is, and maybe a minor stress on late)
    Wouldn’t you say that the length of Sid changes according to the stress?
    In other words, doesn’t the length depend on the stress rather than on the word itself?
    Thanks, cheers.


    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    No, other things being equal, seed is longer than seat: for example, in the context 'Where did you put the \__?' they have the main accent and this will lengthen both somewhat compared to in 'I've put the __ over \there'; but within each context, seat is noticeably shorter than seed.

    In fact, it's the length that distinguishes them. We don't put much voice into /d/ - unlike in Italian, where it's fully voiced - and in everyday speech the two words would normally end in the same consonant (or very similar consonants difficult to distinguish). Contrary to native speakers' intuition, it is the vowel, not the consonant, that distinguishes them.


    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    Then there is pitch variation that can be used to emphasize meanings. That's another worm from the same can.

    But Sid IS always late. The IS there may also get a rise in pitch, as well as stress, if someone is comtradicting a previous statement that "Sid is NOT always late."
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