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Stress is not only Limited to Finals

Consider the following sentence:

“If you subject learned, content people to conduct befitting a convict, you will incense them and they will object, rebel against and eventually desert you.”

A native speaker of English should have little problem stressing the correct syllables in each of the italicized heteronyms above.[1] However, those unfamiliar with our somewhat illogically constructed language may pronounce nearly every important word in that sentence incorrectly, even changing the meanings of those words and causing others not to understand their intention.

This illustrates the power of stress, the definitive placement of emphasis somewhere within a word, and how it alternates the meanings of those words throughout countless languages spoken on this planet. Let’s begin by speaking about stress in English and other related European languages. We will then address stress in Hebrew and related languages, and finally spend a minute amount of time on the stress-related similarities between English, Hebrew and several other languages.

Modern English is a Germanic language at its core, generously doused with elements of Latin and Romance[2] languages. This is why someone learning English for the first time is not quite sure what to expect when it comes to, well, anything. Spelling, stress, pronunciation – all these and more are seemingly governed by more exceptions than rules because of the way that the language we speak has selectively chosen, say, Germanic spellings but Latin pronunciation. The word “light,” for example, is spelled that way because of the original pronunciation, “licht.”[3]

Yet when it comes to stress there are some straightforward rules that most native English speakers do not even know exist. For example, there is a rule stating that two-syllable nouns are usually stressed on the penultimate[4] syllable (e.g., PRE-sent, EX-port, IN-cense, COM-pound) while two-syllable verbs are usually stressed on the ultimate[5] syllable (pre-SENT, ex-PORT, in-CENSE, com-POUND).  Another rule claims that words ending in “-cy”, “-gy”, “-phy” and “-ty” will be stressed on the antepenultimate[6] syllable (“the-O-cra-cy,” “ge-ne-A-lo-gy,” “car-TO-gra-phy,” “ca-pa-BI-li-ty”). Still another rule maintains that the stress of a word will always be on the syllable immediately preceding “-ic” (GRA-phic, ar-TIS-tic, an-TARC-tic-a, etc); a similar rule claims the same for “-sion” and “-tion” (ge-ne-RA-tion, MIS-sion, etc), but it is not always reliable.[7] Just knowing the above few rules can help a foreigner pronounce hundreds of words correctly.

Other related languages exhibit largely set stress points as well. To clarify, many[8] Indo-European languages spoken in Europe follow what is known as the “three-syllable-window” and place the stress in words on one of the final three syllables. For example, in a word such as “aristocrat,”[9] the accent can be on the “RIS” (as in English, “a-RIS-to-crat”), on the “TO,” or on the “CRAT” (as in Danish, “a-ris-to-CRAT”) but generally not on the “A”.[10] Most Romance language verbs[11] generally carry the stress on the ultimate, penultimate, or antepenultimate syllable as well. Within the family of Germanic languages, however, the difficult but melodious Icelandic[12] consistently places the stress in most words on the first syllable, irrespective of the number of syllables in the word.[13] This is because much of the grammar of Icelandic is governed directly by Old Norse and Proto-Germanic, as opposed to other Germanic languages (such as German, Dutch, Swedish and, of course, English), whose phonology has been heavily influenced by its Romance counterparts.

We should also make note of the fact that there are languages spoken in Europe that are not of Indo-European origin, such as Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Basque, and—perhaps depending on one’s definition of European countries--Turkish. These languages are known as “agglutinate” languages, which means that they can contain a very large number of syllables per word. The stress rules in these languages are unlike those found in Germanic, Semitic, or Romance languages. An example of this would be the first, disturbingly long word[14] in the Turkish sentence “Çekoslovakyalılaştırabildiklerimizden miydiniz,” translated as “Are you one of those people whom we couldn't make resemble those from Czechoslovakia?”[15]  In Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian, the stress is ordinarily on the first syllable, or seemingly divided equally among every syllable, leading to the languages’ characterization by some listeners as monotonous.  In Turkish, the stress is primarily on the last syllable.[16]

Stress rules are relatively straightforward when it comes to Biblical Hebrew. The stress is generally placed on the ultimate syllable, with several very specific groups of exceptions, which are all penultimately stressed. Two of these groups are: past tense[17] verb conjugations (for the pronouns אני, אתה, and אנחנו), and a group of words called “segholates.”

To demonstrate, words such as אָכַלְתָּ, לִמַּדְנוּ, and אָהַבְתִּי are all penultimately stressed because they correspond to the pronouns אני, אתה, and אנחנו. However, when joined to a Vav HaHippukh,[18] the stress point on the word often changes. The Hebrew word “a-HAV-ti” (“I loved”) thus becomes “v’-a-hav-TI” (“I shall love”). In the Shema alone, there are numerous words whose meaning changes solely based on the stress, e.g., וְנָתַתִּי (“v’-na-ta-TI”) means “I will give” while the incorrectly pronounced וְנָתַתִּי (“ve-na-TA-ti) means “And I gave.”[19]

Segholates, on the other hand, are words which — without getting into a theological discussion — were originally pronounced as monosyllabic and later had vowels added to them, primarily “seghol” (hence the term “segholates”). Examples include מֶלֶךְ, קֹדֶשׁ, and בֶּטֶן. As the stress in these words was originally on the first (and only) syllable, the stress remains on the penultimate syllable of the newly formed two-syllable word.[20] The vowel originally associated with each segholate was either “a,” “i,” or “u,” depending on various historical and linguistic factors; these vowels reappear when adding suffixes to the segholates. For instance, מֶלֶךְ becomes מַלְכִּי, indicating that “malk” was the original form. סֵפֶר becomes סִפְרִי, indicating that “sifr” was the original form, and so on. Penultimate stress is also usually found in other words containing seghol-seghol or pataḥ-pataḥ combinations, such as מִשְׁמֶרֶת (“mish-ME-ret”) and צָרַעַת (“ṣa-RA-at”).

In Arabic, a related Semitic language, stress tends to fall on a long syllable[21] adjacent to the last syllable. If there are no long syllables, the accent is generally on the antepenultimate syllable.[22] For example, the word for “his father”—“aboohu”[23]— has a long vowel[24] in the middle syllable, so the stress is placed there and yields “a-BOO-hu.” The word for “he wrote”— “kataba”[25]— has no long vowel, and so the accent is on the antepenultimate syllable, yielding the pronunciation “KA-ta-ba.”

It’s essential to note that because Arabic is spoken across such a large geographical area there are many dialects of Arabic, quite a few of which are not (immediately) understood by speakers of others. Many if not most of these dialects each have their own rules and idiosyncrasies governing stress points within a word. For example, in “proper” Classical Arabic, “Egyptian male” would be “miṣ-REE”[26] whereas in Egyptian colloquial Arabic, “Egyptian male” is often “MAṢ-ri.”

Stress in Hebrew plays an exceptionally important role in determining not only the meaning but also the vocalization[27] of words, often leading to something known as “vowel reduction.” In simple terms, vowel reduction means the changing of a full vowel (such as a qamats[28] or a tsere[29]) into a shwa,[30] a half-vowel, ordinarily represented by two vertical dots under the letter. All speakers and readers of Hebrew are intuitively familiar with this concept even if it was never formally explained to them. To illustrate, the Hebrew adjective for “big”, in its basic, masculine-singular form, is “ga-DOL,” (גָּדוֹל) with the stress on the ultimate syllable. If any suffix is added to the word, however, the stress shifts to the last syllable, i.e., גְּדוֹלָה, גְּדוֹלִים, and גְּדוֹלוֹת. When paying close attention to the newly-formed word, one realizes that the stress is not the only thing that has changed: the vowel underneath the first letter has also changed, because of the stress which moved away from it and towards the end of the word. This exact process is called “propretonic reduction,” whereby a qamats that is away from the stress a distance of three or more syllables usually “reduces” from a full vowel into a shwa.

Vowel reduction affects hundreds of words in Hebrew. זָקן to זְקנה, שׁופֵט to שׁופְטים, גָדול to גְדול-הדור, מָקום to מְקומות, and כסֵא to כסְאות are all vowel changes that occur because another syllable is added to the newly-formed word and the stress positions itself on the added syllable. In the Biblical pronunciation of the word “שׁמַרְתֶּם,”—meaning “you (pl.) have guarded”—the stress shifts to the suffix “-תֶּם” and the qamats underneath the shin therefore reduces to a shwa (resulting in שְׁמַרְתֶּם).[31] In Modern Hebrew, however, the fact that there is a qamats underneath all other perfect verbs[32] (שָׁמַרְתִּי, שָׁמַרְתָּ, etc.) causes the stress to retreat a syllable, and thus herald the return of the original vowel (resulting in a word disapproved by Hebrew purists, “שָׁמַרְתֶּם”).

What may surprise some English-speakers is that this concept of vowel reduction is all-pervading in their language, too. Consider the word “about.” Is it pronounced “ah-bout”? No, the first “a” is pronounced very quickly, as a sound somewhere between “eh” and “uh,” or in other words, a shwa. This sound is ordinarily represented by the symbol “ə” and is present in the majority of English words. To illustrate, in the word “about”, the vowel letter itself does not change but the sound does.[33] Read the following words and ask yourself if you are actually pronouncing the underlined vowel the way it ordinarily sounds (ah, eh, oh, ih, uh, etc): harmony, sofa, dozen, pleasant, company, mountain, enemy, and fulfill.

The common denominator between all these words is that, similarly to Hebrew, the schwa will ordinarily not be present in the stressed syllable of the word. Go back to the eight words above and note that the stress is located in a syllable other than the one with the schwa (SO-fa, COM-pa-ny, ful-FILL, etc). The reason for this is that by its nature, a schwa is largely the result of a hastily pronounced sound due to it not carrying the stress, and so it follows that the stress will not be present wherever a schwa is.

Sometimes the schwa is so weak it is often omitted entirely in pronunciation. The words “separate” and “chocolate” are usually pronounced “sep-rit” and “chawk-lit”, completely eliminating the underlined vowels which are pronounced like a schwa to begin with (i.e., “separate” ->> [sepərate] ->> “seprate”, and “chocolate” ->> [chocəlate] ->> “choclate”.)[34]

This phenomenon of truncating the schwa from words[35] is also present in many Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi. For example the Sanskrit word नमकीन which is spelled “Na-ma-keen” and means “salty” or “savory”[36] is actually pronounced in Hindi “Nam-keen”. The Devanagari script used for Hindi spells the word “English” as इंगलिश, which yields “in-gə-li-shə”, but the two schwas are deleted in pronunciation and thus the final pronunciation is “ING-lish”.

The effects of stress on meaning and pronunciation of words cannot be overstated. Quite often, names taken from other languages are mispronounced by the borrowers, potentially leading to embarrassment and/or anger. For instance, the Russian name “Vladimir” traditionally places the stress on the penultimate syllable—vla-DI-mir—not the antepenultimate syllable as most Americans pronounce it (VLA-di-mir). Indeed, we have seen from words such as “vla-DI-mir,” “CON-vict,” and “ca-pa-BI-li-ty” that stress need not only be limited to finals; in fact, stress may be found anywhere. That being said, good luck on your upcoming exams: concert your energy and work in concert ahead of time with classmates and there will likely be an increase in your grade.

Yair Shahak is Instructor of Hebrew at Yeshiva College.

Recommended Reading:

Allen, W.S., Accent and Rhythm, Cambridge University Press (1973)

Giegerich, H.J., Metrical Phonology and Phonological Structure: German and English, Cambridge University Press (1985)

Riad, T., Structures in Germanic Prosody, Stockholm University (1992)

[1] Heteronyms are words that are spelled identically yet have more than one pronunciation.

[2] Mainly French.

[3] Think of the German and/or Yiddish word meaning “light.”

[4] Second-to-last.

[5] Last.

[6] Third-to-last.

[7] How many people pronounce “television” as “te-le-VIS-ion” and not “TE-le-vi-sion”?

[8] But not all, such as Icelandic.

[9] Bearing the syllables “a,” “ris,” “to,” and “crat.”

[10] I.e., on the first syllable.

[11] With the occasional exception of Italian.

[12] Along with native (i.e., non-borrowed) Faroese words.

[13] Indeed, Icelandic, which is not bound by the three-syllable-window can and does pronounce the aforementioned word “A-ris-to-crat.”

[14] Even longer words have been created once Czechoslovakia dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

[15] To hear the correct pronunciation of this phrase, please contact the author.

[16] Examples of other, non-European agglutinate languages are Japanese, Greenlandic, Ḥurrian, the artificial but mellifluous Esperanto, and the artificial (and non-mellifluous) Black Speech of Mordor created by J.R.R. Tolkien (which may have even been based on Ḥurrian, according to some scholars).

[17] The more accurate term would be “perfect” verbs; “future tense” verbs are generally labeled as “imperfect.” Many overlook the fact that verbs in Biblical Hebrew are not fundamentally confined to “tenses” (e.g., yesterday, today, etc) but rather to an action’s state of completeness. This often leads to mistranslations and somewhat erroneous biblical interpretations.

[18] A Vav appended to a verb in Biblical Hebrew which changes the tense of the verb from perfect to imperfect and vice versa.

[19] See Shulḥan Arukh, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 61, for related topics regarding careful pronunciation of words in the Sh’ma.

[20] Note that we do not say “me-LEKH” but “ME-lekh”, not “qo-DESH” but “QO-desh” and so on. In Arabic, incidentally, all these words are still monosyllabic—malk, quds, and baṭn, respectively.

[21] I.e., a syllable that has a long vowel. (The exact definition and manifestation of a “long vowel” are of little importance here.)

[22] I.e., rarely earlier.

[23] Spelled اَبُوهُ  in Arabic.

[24] Here represented by two o’s.

[25] Spelled كَتَبَ  in Arabic.

[26] similar to the Hebrew cognate “מִצְרִי”.

[27] I.e., נקודות.

[28] אָ

[29] אֵ

[30] Known as “schwa” in linguistic circles.

[31] The same applies to the verb “שְׁמַרְתֶּן.”

[32] In the Qal conjugation.

[33] I.e., we don’t spell the aforementioned word “əbout” but we do pronounce it that way.

[34] See more about this in the author’s previous article, Switched at Birth: Letters of Old.

[35] It is aptly named the “Schwa Syncope Rule.”

[36] Derived from Hindi “namak,” meaning “salt.”