Have you noticed that some syllables in English are long, and others are short? The long syllables are stressed, and the short ones are unstressed. Every word has only one stressed syllable. Study the difference in how these two kinds of syllables sound, and start paying close attention to this as you work on speaking English like an American.
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If you’ve seen many of my videos, you’ve probably heard me refer to a syllable as being stressed or accented. Well, what does that mean? In American English, certain words have stress within a sentence, and certain syllables have stress within a word. And it is this stress that allows our ears to understand the meaning and also to pick up the important parts of the sentence.
Let’s take for example the word ‘about’. ‘About’ has two syllables, one is stressed. Can you guess which one it is? About. It’s the second syllable. What makes a syllable stressed? Well, about. uh, about. It is usually higher in pitch. About. Also, longer in duration. And it is this higher pitch and longer length that allows our ear to pick it up and understand what’s being said. About.
In longer words with many syllables, there can be a primary stress and a secondary stress. So the primary stress would be the highest in pitch and perhaps the longest, but there might also be another syllable that is important that is brought out somewhat. For example, the word embarrassment. Em-bar-rass-ment. So there it is the last two syllables that are not stressed. And it is the second syllable that is stressed. Embar-. But the first syllable is also somewhat important and higher in pitch than the last two. Embarrassment. So, the first syllable there has a secondary stress, and the second syllable has the primary stress. The last two syllables are unstressed.
And, within a sentence. ‘I saw her at the meeting.’ Which words did you hear best? I saw, saw: this verb is higher in pitch. I saw her at the meeting. So it is ‘meeting’ and ‘saw’ that are the stressed words within this sentence. I saw her at the meeting.
Let’s take a look at some pictures. Here I’ve used some speech analysis software. It’s a free download, and I’ll put a link to it on my website. This software allows one to look at several aspects of the voice. Here I’m focusing on pitch because that is one of the important components of a stressed word or syllable. The blue lines represent the pitch of the voice. Here I’ve circled the stressed syllable in the word about. It is the second syllable that is stressed, and you can see it has this curve up in the syllable. Here, again, on ’embarrassment’, the accented syllable is slightly higher in pitch, and has this scoop up in pitch. Embarrassment, with the primary stress on the second syllable, and a secondary stress on the first syllable. And, in the sentence, here is the word ‘saw’, and the word ‘meeting’. I saw her at the meeting. Where both ‘saw’ and the first syllable of ‘meeting’ are the stressed syllables of the sentence. All of these accented syllables are generally higher in pitch and have this slight scoop up in the voice as the voice emphasizes the syllable.
In addition to there being words and syllables that are stressed within a sentence, there are those that are reduced. For example, listen to how the word ‘for’ is pronounced in this sentence: ‘I got it for you,’ Frr, frr. It was not at all ‘for’. I got it for you. So it was lower in pitch and shorter than ‘for’. Fr, fr, I got it for you. It is these changes in pitches, along with an understanding of the sounds, that make up an accent, and they are so important. There will be many more videos on stress, reduction, and speech patterns coming soon.