Stress and Rhythm in English

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Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses 4 (1991): 145-62

Stress and Rhythm in English

Maria-Josep Solé Sabater Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona

ABSTRACT This paper studies the role played by stress and rhythm in English. The effects of stress on the phonetic realization of segments, the morphological and syntaclic function of elemcnts and the structuring of information in the sentencc are considercd. English rhythm is studied and the factors that contribute to maintain a regular stress-timed rhythm are presented. A rhythmical approach to English pronunciation is proposed, which involves the practice of pronunciation in terms of stressing and unstressing and in longer stretches of speech. Finally, some material for practising English stress and rhythm is presented.

Introduction In English teaching practice the study of pronunciation basically concentrates on the segmental aspeets of English: the practice of phoneme contrasts and phoneme sequences. The practice of English stress and rhythm has been traditionally neglected despite the existence of (i) a number of descriptions in an English teaching framework of English word stress (Kingdon, Fudge), sentence stress (Albrow) and rhythm (Classe, Brown, Couper-Kuhlen), and (ii) practice materials (Guierre, Tibbits, O'Connor and Arnold and Tooley, amongst others). An appropriate stress and rhythmic pattern is more important for intelligibility than the correct pronunciation of isolated segments and, in fact, stress and rhythm determine the pronunciation of segments in English. Stress and rhythm are suprasegmental aspeets that give the ovérall shape to the word or sequence. If easy intelligibility is to be achieved, it is important to give words their correct accentual pattern and rhythm. Thus, the pronunciation of a word with the inappropriate accentual and rhtyhmic pattern, for example: vocabulary [v9'kasbjul9ri] as [voka'bjulari] profitable ['profítabl] as [profi'teibol] makes the word unintelligible not only because the misplaced main stress distorts the shape of the word, but also because there is no unstressing of the other syllables with

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Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses

the consequent phonetic reductions. The inappropriate pronunciation of a single word, however, is not vital for intelligibility since in most cases the right form of the word can be reconstructed from the context. This issue becomes more important at the phrase level. If an English sentence is pronounced without the appropriate weakening of unstressed syllables and unaccented grammatical words, a serious loss of intelligibility results. Thus, the sentence you should have come to the library is less easy to understand when pronounced ['ju: 'Jud 'hasv 'kAm 'tu: 'ói: 'laibrari] than if it is pronounced [ju Jad av 'kAm ta óa iaibrari]. In other cases, a misunderstanding might result from the lack of weakening of unstressed syllables. Thus, if a foreign speaker pronounces the sequence These books are mine with no unstressing ['Ói:z 'buks 'a: 'main], this sentence will be heard as these boóks aren't mine since only negated auxiliarles can be stressed in English (in non-contrastive pronunciation). Thus, the sequence will be interpreted as the result of the dropping of the final interconsonantal [t] (1), assimilation of the alveolar nasal to the following labial (2), and reduction of the labial closure duration (3): (1) [6i:z 'buks 'a:n(t) 'main] (2) [6¡:z 'buks 'a:m 'main] (3) [6i:z 'buks 'a:(m)'main] Consequently, assigning the right stress pattern—at the word and phrase level—and learning to produce unstressed syllables is the most productive single device for achieving an adequate pronunciation of English. In this paper we propose a rhythmical approach to English pronunciation which involves the practice of pronunciation in terms of stressing and unstressing and in longer stretches ofspeech—which will contribute to more meaningful communication. This will help to instil a sense of...
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