As a great number of words in English only have one syllable, in many cases corresponding to combinations of more than one vowel letter or consonant letter (go, eat, wait, eight, house, prince, friends, thieves, straight, etc.), it does not need a graphic accent for many of its words.
But of course they do need word stress for longer words – in general, on a different syllable than for the equivalent Spanish word, for example:
- doctor; robot; animal (BrE) vs doctor; robot; animal (Sp);
This is because English word stress is counted from the front of the word – Spanish word stress is from the end.
While on the subject, as in all aspects of language, a constantly-evolving mode of communication among human beings, the stress on words can also shift over time.
Some general rules
- two-syllable nouns often, but not always, have the stress on the first syllable:
after; coffee; increase; expert; morning; record; water;
- some other words with the first e pronounced like / i /:
between; defence; demand; departure; emotion; example; except; expensive; extinct; receipt; research; result, etc.;
- when the first e is the stressed syllable, it is usually pronounced /e/:
central; definitely; educate; effort; engine; enter; exercise; exit; expert; gentlemen; mental; pepper; recognise; rescue; second; secretary; sentence; yesterday, etc.;
Note the following exceptions: England / i /; English / i /; pretty / i /; decent / i=/; recent / i=/; secret / i=/;
- in many longer words, we only pronounce some of the syllables: business – /bizniz/; chocolate – /choclt/; comfortable – /comftble/; different – /difrnt/; several - /sevrl/; vegetable – /vegtble/; Wednesday – /wenzdi/;
- in nouns ending -isation or -ization, we stress the /ei/:
organise – organisation; privatise – privatisation; improvise – improvisation; civilize – civilization;
- verbs with two syllables often, but not always, have the stress on the second:
agree; arrive; compare; complain; discuss; forget; improve; increase; invite; suggest; etc.; but not: argue; enter; exit; happen; limit; visit;
- when the stress is on the second syllable and the first syllable contains the letter e, this letter is almost always pronounced / i /, as in begin /bigin/: decide; report; repeat; receive.
Some typical verbs
become; believe; decide; declare; depend; enjoy; explain; prepare; pretend; prevent; receive; refer; refuse; regret; remain; remember; repeat; reply; report; respect; return; reveal; rewind, etc.;
This is particularly noticeable in many verbs which have the same spelling for the noun as in record – vb. and record – n.; export – vb. and export – n.; but not: exit; limit; silence; visit;
A simple example which highlights this phenomenon is as follows. Set a metronome clicking at twice per second, or alternatively just click your fingers, making sure you keep a steady rhythm. Next read aloud the sentences below from 1 to 4 while stressing the content words in bold on each click of the metronome (or your fingers):
- Cat, frog, leopard, eagle.
- A cat, a frog, a leopard an eagle.
- A cat and a frog and a leopard and an eagle
- A cat and then a frog and then a leopard and an eagle.
If the instructions are followed correctly, the structure words will be reduced to weak forms and the characteristics of a stress-timed language will be clearly demonstrated. Limericks can also be used to develop awareness of sentence stress due to their unique sentence stress pattern.
Other forms of stress
In addition to the above forms of stress an English speaker can also use stress to impart additional information, emphasis or contrast.
In these cases stress can be added through greater loudness, higher pitch and longer duration or a combination of these. The full strong form of a non-content word would also count as "stress" under this definition.
Stress can refer to "contrastive stress" - where stress is placed on a particular word to indicate a difference of opinion.
- Crystal, David "A pronounced change in British speech" PDF format