Information about word stress


Notational conventions

apostrophe (') precedes syllables with primary stress
equals sign (=) indicates morpheme boundary
exclamation point (!) indicates negation
italic font indicates silent grapheme
macron (̄) indicates vowel length
period (.) indicates syllable boundary

Germanic stress rule

Since English is a Germanic language, English words were originally subject to the Germanic stress rule.

(1)     Germanic stress rule:
Germanic words consist of a stem, preceded and followed by optional unstressable affixes. Word stress falls on the stem-initial syllable.

Stem-initial = word-initial (no prefixes) 'hea.ven
'lat.ter
'un.der.ling
Stem-initial != word-initial
(stem preceded by prefixes)
for='get
mis='take
mis=un.der='stand
un.der='stand
with='draw
Exceptions (very rare) e.'le.ven

French stress rule

Starting with the Norman Conquest in 1066, many French words entered English. The original French stress rule was very simple.

(2)     French stress rule:
In French, word stress falls on the final stressable syllable of the word. (Syllables containing schwa - enclosed in parentheses in the examples below - are unstressable.)

ad.ven.'tu.(re)
a'zu.(re)
de.'ba.(cle)
mar.ri.'a.(ge)

Latin stress rule

Starting in Old and Middle English, but particularly after 1500, English borrowed many words from Latin. Stress in Latin was based on syllable weight.

(3) a.   Closed vs. open syllable:
If a syllable ends in at least one consonant, it counts as closed.
Otherwise, a syllable counts as open. There are some complications to this straightforward system: First, in words with s + stop, the syllable boundary was between the s and the stop (for instance, au.gus.tus rather than au.gu.stus). Second, syllable boundaries involving stops and liquids were ambiguous (at least in Latin verse) and could count as open or closed.
b.   Heavy vs. light syllable:
A closed syllable or one containing a long vowel or diphthong counts as heavy.
Otherwise, a syllable counts as light.
Another way of making this distinction is in terms of moras (one mora = light; more than one = heavy).
c.   Latin stress rule:
Word stress falls on the penultimate syllable if it is heavy; otherwise, on the antepenultimate syllable.

Heavy penultimate (long vowel or diphthong) di.'vī.nus 'divine'
hu.'mā.nus 'human'
im.pe.'rā.tor 'emperor'
li.ber.'tā.tis 'liberty, gen. sg.'
ser.vi.'tū:.do 'servitude'
Heavy penultimate (short vowel with following consonant(s)) au.'gus.tus 'august'
Ka.'len.dae 'Calends'
li.'ber.tas 'liberty, nom. sg.'
Light penultimate 'ca.pi.tis 'head, gen. sg.'
'Iū.li.us
'op.pi.dum 'city'
pe.'ri.cu.lum 'danger'

Romance stress rule

When borrowed into English, Latin words typically lose any inflectional morphology. If Latin loanwords into English retain word stress on the same syllable as their etymon, we would expect word stress to shift towards the end of the word by one syllable. Note that the resulting rule (henceforth, the Romance stress rule) subsumes the French stress rule if we count final syllables with schwa as light).

(4)     Romance stress rule:
Word stress falls on the ultimate syllable if it is heavy; otherwise, on the penultimate syllable.


Complicating factors

Stress on verbs borrowed from Romance (Latin or French) often remains on the stem, leading to variable stress assignment in morphologically related noun-verb pairs. Because of this, we will focus on nouns, which exhibit greater freedom of stress assignment.
Noun Verb
'ad.mit ad-'mit
'con.voy con-'vey (near-minimal)
'in.cense in.'cense
'per.mit per-'mit