Word Stress and Three Syllable Words

Study long vs. short syllables and word stress while focusing on three-syllable words.

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Video Text:

In this American English pronunciation video, we’re going to go over word stress and three-syllable words.

In American English, any word can have only one syllable with primary stress.  That means there are three possible stress patterns for a three syllable word:  first syllable:  DA-da-da, second syllable:  da-DA-da, or third syllable:  da-da-DA.

Let’s talk about what’s happening with these patterns.  Basically, it’s a mix of long and short.  The stressed syllables are long, and the unstressed syllables are short.  I’ve noticed that my students that are Spanish speakers need to work on making their long syllables longer:  DA.  Pretty much everyone else needs to work making their short syllables shorter:  da.

Let’s look at a couple of words for each category.
Stress on the first syllable:  rational, DA-da-da. One way to practice as you’re working on word stress is to break up the syllables.  Practice stressed and unstressed syllables separately.  So, Rational.  Ra, ra, the stressed syllable. Notice how the voice goes up then down in pitch.  That’s the shape of a stressed syllable.  Click here to see that video, or look for the link in the description.  The unstressed syllables:  da-da, tional.  Ra-tional.  Notice how it’s much quieter, lower in pitch, very fast.  Maybe it even sounds a little muddled.  -tional. As you practice unstressed syllables separately, see just how short you can get these syllables.  Try to make them extremely fast.  -tional.  Rational.
Another word with this stress pattern:  popular.  DA-da-da, Popular.  The stressed syllable, pop-, pop-.  Unstressed: -ular.  Again, very fast, low in pitch, quieter.  -ular.  Pop-ular.  Popular.

Stress on the second syllable:  da-DA-da.  For example, the word ‘decided’.  da-DA-da.  De-ci-ded.  The stressed syllable, -CI-.  Unstressed first syllable:  de-. Unstressed last syllable:  -ded.  Make them as short as possible.  da-DA-da.  Decided.  Another word:  Example, da-DA-da, example.  Stressed syllable:  -xam.  Unstressed:  ex-, and -ple.  Example.  da-DA-da.  Example.

And finally, stressed on the last syllable, da-da-DA.  Everyday.  da-da-DA.  The stressed syllable:  -DAY.  Unstressed syllables: every-, da-da, every-, da-da-DA, everyday.
Another word:  eighty-one:  da-da-DA.  Stressed syllable:  -ONE. Unstressed syllables: da-da, eighty. Eighty-one.  da-da-DA.  Eighty-one.

This concept of long and short, of rhythmic contrast, is part of the foundation of the character of American English.  Why not practice on rhythm as you learn a new word?  When you look a word up in the dictionary, this symbol means primary stress.  Let’s say you’ve just learned the word ‘sensation’.  You’ll look it up in the dictionary and see this.  Stress on the middle syllable, sensation. So practice it on just rhythm a few times.  da-DA-da, sensation.

Paying attention to rhythmic contrast will definitely help you sound more American.  Practice now, choose a three-syllable word, and record yourself saying the rhythmic pattern, then the word.  For example, da-DA-da, example.  Post it as a video response to this video on YouTube.  I can’t wait to see your rhythmic contrast.

That’s it, and thanks so much for using Rachel’s English.