A big part of an accent is something called stress. Unlike the feeling that you get when you have too much on your plate, this stress is an important component of any spoken language. Stress is a part of prosody, which I like to define as the ups and downs of speech. When a word or speech sound is stressed, it is lengthened and emphasized, either with increased or decreased volume or pitch.
Lexical stress is the stress within a word. This kind of stress can change the meaning of the word, and sometimes it’s accompanied by a change in vowel sound. For example, when you stress the first syllable of the word record, you’re talking about an album or a history of something, and the vowel is a short e sound, like the one at the beginning of egg. If you stress the second syllable of record, you hear or and you’re talking about capturing something that you can play or read back later. Researchers have found that when the vowel sounds of words like record are changed, listeners tend to hear the unintended version of the word. In other words, if you mispronounce one of these words, it will be harder for your listener to understand what you’re saying.
There are a lot of words that change meaning when you change their lexical stress. Below is a list of some of those words. Can you come up with different definitions for each word?
Lexical stress in other, more unique words follows specific rules. Saying the word with the stress on the wrong syllable may not change the meaning of the word, but to a native listener, it will sound funny. Imagine if someone pronounced your name with stress on the wrong syllable. That would sound pretty strange!
Numbers in the teens have stress on the first syllable, but when you get into the twenties, the stress shifts to the second syllable. Below, the stressed syllable is written in bold.
There is another class of words that experience stress shifts – and for some, vowel changes – when suffixes are changed. Can you pick out the vowel changes?
Celebrate / celebration
Music / musical / musicality
Emotion / emotional / emotionality
Environment / environmental / environmentalism
Can you think of more examples?
Lexical stress gives poetry its cadence. If you studied Shakespeare’s sonnets, then you know that they’re written in iambic pentameter, which features a pattern wherein syllables are: unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed,…
Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have Astronomy,
(from Sonnet XIV)
And then there are the limericks of Edward Lear, which have another stress pattern. For example,
There was an Old Man with a beard
Who said, “It is just as I feared!-
Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”
When words have three or more syllables is when figuring out where the stress goes can get tricky. One way to practice is to try saying the word, and tap your hand on something (a table, your leg, your dog, etc.) one time as you say the word. You’re likely to tap on the stressed syllable. Another way to practice lexical stress is to use music. Although there are some cultural differences in picking out stress from music (another topic I can address if anyone is interested), you might be able to pick out the stressed syllable in your favorite music. Try it, and let me know how it goes.
There are so many components to speaking a second language well enough to be understood, it can be difficult to focus on everything when you’re trying to communicate what’s on your mind. However, a bit of practice can lead to improvement, and less confusion (or at least processing) on the end of your listener. After all, your listener should focus on your ideas, not your accent.