Word Stress

The pronunciation of a word consists of at least one syllable; if a word in English consists of more than one syllable, one syllable will sound more prominent than any other. That greater prominence is what is called stress, and we have introduced the IPA symbol for it / " /. The earliest examples we introduced included snippet / "snIpIt / with the stress on the first syllable, and exist / e g"zIst, Ig"zIst / with the stress on the second syllable.

Stressed syllables contain any of the strong vowels; unstressed syllables contain a weak vowel, or / I / or / U / with at most one consonant following as in deceive /dI"si:v / and educate / "EdjUkeIt /.

However, there is an intermediate degree of stress that occurs in many English words. Take the word pronunciation itself; it has five syllables: / pr@ - nVn –si - eI - S@n /; the fourth syllable / - eI - / has the greatest degree of prominence and so will be marked as stressed: / pr@nVnsi"eIS@n /. The first, third and fifth syllables all contain weak vowels, but the remaining one, the second, has the strong vowel / V /, and sounds too strong to be unstressed, but not strong enough to be the stressed syllable. Hence we make a distinction between the primary stress / - eI - / and a secondary stress / - nVn - /, which is nevertheless heard to be more prominent than nonstress. The IPA symbol for secondary stress is a stress mark at the foot of the following syllable:

/ pr@%nVnsi"eIS@n /.

The identification of secondary stress is important in three types of word: long words which have any number of syllables before the primary stress, a number of homographs, and compound words. A little practice with these types will bring this course on the transcription of words in English to an end.

First of all, listen to the four syllables of the word economic: / i: - k@ - nQm - Ik / or / E - k@ - nQm - Ik /; in either pronunciation, which is the syllable with the primary stress? The third one / -"nQm - /. The second and fourth syllables both contain weak vowels, but the first contains either the long vowel / i: / or the short vowel / E /. Both are strong vowels; that first syllable is more prominent than the weak syllables, but not as prominent as the primary stress. Therefore, it has secondary stress: / %i:k@"nQmIk / or / %Ek@"nQmIk /.

Now identify the secondary stress in the following words and try to transcribe the whole word:

fundamental, educational, university, scientific, communication


These cases of secondary stress are subject to change in phrases like pro "nunciation "principles and "fundamental i"deas, and that is why it is important to first identify their secondary stresses as single words. (Briefly, what happens is that the sequence of secondary then primary stress in a word like pronunciation / pr@%nVnsi"eIS@n / is reversed in a phrase like "pronunciation "principles: / pr@"nVnsi%eIS@n "prInSip@lz /; similarly, / "fVnd@%mEntl= aI"dI@z /; but all this will be clarified in the course Transcribing Phrases in English.)

Secondly, there are a number of homographs in which the ending –ATE changes pronunciation according to whether they are verbs or not. Take SEPARATE, for instance; as an adjective, the –ATE is pronounced with a neutral vowel: / "sEpr@t /, but as a verb, the –ATE is pronounced with a strong vowel: / "sEp@reIt /. That long vowel is, in fact, another case of secondary stress. / "sEp@%reIt /. Now transcribe these homographs in the same two ways:

advocate, associate, delegate, duplicate, graduate, moderate




Finally, compounds are single words that consist, usually, of two otherwise independent words. To take a simple example, compare the phrase black bird with the compound blackbird in a statement like: A crow is a black bird, but is bigger than a blackbird. The phrase black bird has a primary stress on each word: / "bl{k "b3:d /; but the compound blackbird has only one primary stress, on the first part. The second part contains a strong vowel and is treated as a secondary stress: / "bl{k%b3:d /.

It is important to note that compounds are sometimes spelt as a single word, or as hyphenated, or with a word space; you could think of three ways of writing the compound: teatime, tea-time, tea time. However it is spelt, there is only one primary stress. Identify the primary and secondary stresses in the following compounds and transcribe the whole compound word.

Compound check (1)

teaspoon, coffee cup, dinner plates, lunch box, supper time


overdone, underneath, hard boiled, half-baked, short-changed


(See Key)

Notice too that a compound itself can become one part of another compound: thus, two secondary stresses are required

railway, railway lines, railway station


It is often the case that the second part of a compound will be reduced to an unstressed syllable with a weak vowel:

Englishman, Scotland, Portsmouth, strawberry, boatswain


Finally, a compound may contain one, or two, bound stems of Greek or Latin origin. The stress pattern depends on the form of the second part; compare homophone and homograph with primary stress on the first part, and homorganic and homogeneous with secondary stress on the first part:

/ "hQm@%f@Un /, / "hQm@%grA:f /, and / %hQmO:"g{nIk /, / %hQm@U"dZi:ni@s /

Compare, and transcribe Compound check (2):

biosphere, biology ________ ________

equinox, equilibrium ________ ________

paralanguage, paralinguistic ________ ________

psychopath, psychology ________ ________

phoneme, phonology ________ ________ (See Key)

The difference between compounds and phrases will be explored further in Transcribing Phrases in English.

You have now completed a pretty comprehensive introduction to the transcription of all the words in English in not only the Southern English Standard Pronunciation but also, in a number of cases, in other standards too. This kind of variety will be explored further in Transcribing Accents of English.

For further practice and explanation of the transcription of words in English, you could consult:

Ashby, P. (1995) Speech Sounds London: Routledge

Davenport, H. & Hannahs, S.J. (1998) Introducing Phonetics and Phonology. London: Arnold

Fletcher, C. (1990) Longman Pronunciation Dictionary Study Guide. London: Longman

Gimson, A.C (2001) Gimson’s Pronunciation of English. 6th ed. Rev by Cruttenden, A. London: Arnold

International Phonetic Association (1999) Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge: CUP

Kenworthy, J. (2000) The Pronunciation of English: A Workbook. London: Arnold

Kreidler, C.W. (1997) Describing Spoken English. London: Routledge

Lecumberri, M.L., Garcia, & Maidment, J.A. (2000) English Transcription Course. London: Arnold

Roach, P. (2000) English Phonetics and Phonology. 3rd ed. Cambridge: CUP

Wells, J. C. & Colson, G. (1971) Practical Phonetics. London: Pitman

and these three dictionaries:

Jones, D (1997) English Pronouncing Dictionary 15th ed. Edited by Roach, P. & Hartman, J. Cambridge: CUP

Upton, C. et al (2001) The Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English. Oxford: OUP

Wells, J. C. (2000) Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 2nd ed. London: Longman