Stress And Intonation With Language And Linguistics English Language Essay

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When we listen to understand someone speaking to us, we understand as much from the way the voice goes up & down as we do from the actual combinations of vowels & consonants. Certainly a dog trained to respond to certain utterances will continue to respond if the vowels & consonants are slightly changed but all factors kept constant. Many of us as children have played the game of talking without words-carrying on a fairly prolonged conversation of 'Mmmmm?' 'Mmmmmmmmm! & so on. Or we have listened to one end of a telephone conversation the end audible to us consisting almost solely of grunts, & when the speaker finally puts down the telephone we are able to say, "That dint sound too good, whats the matter?" basing our interpretation on the voice patterns rather than on any actual words. Again the interpretation of a sentence such as ' John says Mary is a fool ' will depend entirely on voice teams to tell us whether it is John or Mary who is a fool. The voice tunes are sometimes partially represented in the written language by the presence of or absence of punctuation: 'John, says Mary ,is a fool' would be an alternative written interpretation. But the written language does not always offer even this help. In the written language, without further context, 'The dangerous medicine cupboard' could be either 'the cupboard in which the dangerous medicines are kept' or ' the medicine cupboard which is dangerous, whereas the spoken language will almost invariably make enough distinction for the meaning to be quite clear. Similarly, 'He's a good workman, did you say?' is neutral in written language, but may carry a variety of meanings from doubt or factual inquiry to incredulity in the spoken language. The two factors which give spoken language greater flexibility are the factors of STESS & INTONATION. They are far more complex in English than was realised until a relatively short time ago, and even more comprehensive accounts now published are only partial and in some areas, doubtful description.


Technically, it is not easy to describe stress; practically few native English speakers have difficulty in at least recognizing it when they hear I t, so that for instance they can tell you that in forget the second syllable is stressed and then later the first syllable is stressed. If asked to say how they know most people will say that the relevant syllable is louder that the other, and for present purposes this is perhaps enough. A stressed syllable in a word therefore one that is heard as louder than the others. It should, however, be noted that this is not a wholly accurate account of word stress, merely a convenient short hand as an introduction to the subject. Using this, it is not difficult for the native speaker to mark the stressed syllable in isolated word as is shown below. ( is used immediately before the stressed syllable).

for get happy better a lone

husband or in longer words

unacknowledged fas tidious agonisingly

adminis tration tele vision (television)

Apart from a few words like television, controversy(controversy or con troversy) where usage tends to vary, there is a normal stress in each word recognized and followed by all native speakers. As has been seen in these few examples, however, there is an English no one uniform place for the stress- it may be on the first, last, penultimate or indeed any syllable, so that if we meet an isolated new word with which we are quiet unfamiliar we are likely to be in difficulty over where to put the stress.

This lack of restriction on the placing of the stress causes considerable difficulties to foreigners whose own language regularly places stress in the same position. So far the chapter dealt with word stress that is where the stress is placed on isolated words. What is perhaps more important is rhythmic stress, which may be obscure, or even conflict with normal word stress in a stream of speech.


It is necessary to make distinction between word stress and rhythmic stress. While any word pronounced in isolation will have a stress, or stress on particular syllables, it is not true that in normal running speech any word will necessarily have a stress at all.

For example:

I (a) going. Word stress on first syllable going.

(b)I'm going whether you like it or not. Tonic syllable 'go', stress as on word in isolation.

(c ) I'm not going to tell you. No stress at all on 'go', since tonic is now on 'tell'.

II(a) over. Word stress on first syllable o.

(b) Over you go Tonic syllable o, stress as on word in isolation.

(c) It's over an hour since we came. No stress on 'o', since tonic now on 'hour'.

The tendency in English is to select nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives and pro nouns for stressing, according to the degree of importance we wish to attach to them but there is no invariable rule either that these parts of speech should be stressed. One of the principal characteristics of English speech however, is the presence of rhythmic stress. This means briefly, that English speakers have a tendency to stress syllable at roughly at equal spaces in time so that the decision as to which syllable have to be stressed will depend partly on meaning and partly on timing. One result is that if the meaning seems to demand two stressed syllable in close proximity, they will tend to be spaced by being made more slowly and deliberately, whereas if a lot of unimportant syllables occur between two on which stress is felt to be necessary, they will tend to be spoken rapidly.

For Example: Compare:

In a couple of minutes dear…

Ten minutes only…

Here the four syllables in in a couple of…' will probably take only as much time tyo say as ten'.

It may take a little practice to pick out a stressed a syllables in the longer intonation groups, but it is not really not difficult. It is easy and obvious in some poetry

humpty dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty dumpty had a great fall,

The rhythms of ordinary speech are more subtle and less thumping, but clearly exist. The forigeriner who does not master them will always sound a foreigner how ever impeccable in theory his vowels and consonants; this applies particularly to the foreigner who insist on stressing what are normally unstressed weak syllables since the fact that they are stressed distorts the actual vowel quality.


Given a collection of words, say 'love', 'John' and 'Mary' and a structural pattern which arranges them as 'John loves Mary' you have meaning. But only, so far, part of the meaning. We will, when listening to the speaker, most likely be able to ascertain that the speaker:

Thinks that this statement reports a fact; or

Is querying whether it is in fact John (or someone else) who loves Mary; or

Is querying whether John loves Mary (or someone else); or

Is querying whether John loves her (or merely likes her, or knows her); or

Is stating that it is John, (and not anyone else) who loves Mary; or

Is stating that it is Mary, (not Jane,)that John loves; or

Is stating that it is John loves John loves Mary (doesn't hate her, or merely like her).

In addition we may also find out that the speaker:

Disapproves of the whole business; or

Is delighted with the news; or

Is bored with the news; or

Is skeptical of the news;

In the case of (a) to (g) the interpretation is based on the rules of the English language which are as consistence and forceful as the rules which say that ' love' means one thing and 'hate' another or that 'I' is followed by 'am' rather than 'is'. The fact these tune rules have not yet been fully codified or described does not invalidate this statement since it has been realized that in many ways there is no complete description of any modern English rules, whether of grammar or intonation. The study of English intonation is still incomplete. Similar rules will have to be applied to give the interpretations suggested in (h)-(k) and other utterances like these, but here the interpretation by the hearer is likely to rely on other features as well. These are the features may well include gesture, facial expression and other voice features which are sometimes called Paralinguistic's, these features includes such things as the quality of the voice-creaky, husky, whispery and so on, or even the accomplishment of other non speech sounds such as giggles, laughter,, sobs or snorts.

As far as (a)-(g) are concerned, it will be concern seen that the varying interpretations placed on 'John loves Mary', were variations of fact. With (h) - (k) the variations were of the attitude of the speaker towards the fact. Written language, by means of punctuation and devices such as italicising can often indicate the variations of factual meaning, but the attitudinal variation will normally only be apparently from context, or by the addition of some such comments as ' … said Philip with a laugh', ' or … she said incredulously'. The way in which these variation are affected in speech, is by means of voice 'tunes'. The stretch over which any one tune is used is called an intonation group.

In each intonation group there will be one syllable which, as it were, takes the brunt of the tune. On this syllable, which is stressed, the main change of pitch, rising, falling, rising and falling, falling and rising, is heard, though other syllable near it may lead up to or away from the main pitch direction. This syllable is called the tonic, or nucleus. By varying the choice of tonic syllable within the intonation group, the meaning of the group is changed. It is therefore to say that a falling tune tends to sound definite and complete, indicating that the speaker is treating what he says as a self contained, separate item of interest this applies to low falling, high falling and rise falling tones. With a rising tunes it is less easy to generalize; some low rising tunes invite a response and therefore incompletes sounding, others sound reassuring. The high rising tune on the other hand nearly always tends to suggest a question many European languages. The fall rising tunes has many uses about which it is difficult to generalize. Combinations of these various tunes are further more possible ' so that the number tunes available to express attitudes is very large and so is the degree of subtlety of attitude which can be expressed by intonations.