How Do We Stress Our Words? Foot Structure

So let’s talk about melody. People have
a deep appreciation for music, the rise and fall of notes that can fill hearts and bring
the sun out in a glamorous sky. But language has a rhythm as well, of strong sounds and
weaker ones that go all the way down into the roots of our words. So how do we work
out how to do all this? Don’t get stressed out: we’ll take you through it. I’m Moti
Lieberman, and this is the Ling Space. When we talk, we don’t just drone along in
a monotone, like a train chugging along a flat track. No, our speech rises and falls,
draws out and contracts, building a rhythm that expresses what we want to say. And all
spoken languages in the world do this: whatever sentences you’re building, you’ll be making
some of these changes to how you pitch your syllables, how you stretch out their length,
how loud you make them. It’s too valuable of a tool not to use. That doesn’t mean that all languages use all
of those sound cues in the same ways, though. Take something like changing the pitch. For
some languages, like Mandarin or Karen, the whole meaning of the word changes if you change
the pitch that you pronounce a syllable with, or if you shift the pitch over the course
of the sound. Like, in Mandarin, the same set of sounds, [hwa], can either mean “flower” 花
or “paint” 画, depending on the pitch your voice has as you say it. This is known
as tone, and the languages that use it are called tonal languages. In other languages, though, it’s not the syllable
we care about for this pitch change, but the word, like in Japanese. So like, [ima] 今
means “now”, but [ima] 居間 means “living room”. For “now”, the pitch drops on
the first syllable, but for “living room”, it drops on the second. And in English, we
don’t really use pitch changes to differentiate between word meanings, but we do use it for
adjusting how we interpret a sentence, like changing a statement into a question. That
means “You’re moving to Tokyo.” has a different meaning from “You’re moving to
Tokyo?” And that’s just adjusting pitch – that’s only one of our phonetic tools. We’ll come back and talk about tone more in
the future, but for this week, we’re going to focus on another commonly used phonological
strategy: stress. But just like how people have different ways that they show how they’re
stressed, languages do, too. Except it’s not by eating more or practicing their music harder,
it’s by having their stressed syllables show up longer, or louder, or with a rise in pitch,
or some combination of those. It’s not always the same from language to language. But what stays common is that stress is a
comparison. We can always dip down into the phonetic information and get out for ourselves
all the details about any given syllable. And there definitely are sound markers to
tell us how prominent a syllable is. But to really find the stress in a word, we need
to compare each syllable to the ones around it. At the core of each word with stress is
the foot, a pairing of a weaker and a stronger syllable. Every language that has stress will
build at least one foot into each phonological word. Feet are where stress gets assigned,
so when you hear stress in a word, you know you’ve got a foothold. Since it’s a comparison between two syllables,
right away we can see one way languages are going to differ. When you build a foot, does
the first or the second syllable get emphasized? If you make the first syllable stronger, like
DAH dah, you get what’s known as a trochee. So take an English name like Layla. The first
part, “lay”, is louder and longer than the second syllable, “la”. That shows that side
has stress. On the other hand, you could stress the second
of the pair of syllables, so that you get something like dah DAH. In that case, you’re
building what’s known as an iamb. Take a word like guitar. Here, the initial part “gui”
is weaker than the follow-up “tar”. It’s a weak-strong rhythm. Which is an iamb and which
is a trochee can be hard to keep in mind at first, but if you want a little trick, I like
to think “iamb not myself.” The word iamb itself is a strong-weak pair, making it ironically
a trochee. By the way, maybe you’ve run into these
terms before, because the idea of feet also comes up in meter for poetry. So you can find
iambic pentameter, or five iambs a line, in things like Shakespeare:
“(Rough winds) (do shake) (the dar)(ling buds) (of May), (And su)(mmer’s lease) (hath
all) (too short) (a date)”. Or you can find verse in trochaic tetrameter, or four trochees,
as in Blake’s “(Tyger), (Tyger), (burning) (bright), (in the) (forest) (of the) (night)”.
When our words line up, and the patterns within our words carries right through our speech,
it just feels good. But beyond poetry, iambs and trochees actually
have a significant and interesting difference in how they get said. Remember before, we
said that languages differ in what cues they use to show where the stress is in a
word? Well, it turns out there’s a really strong correlation between how you build your
feet and how you mark them out in your speech. If you build trochees, then both parts of
the foot will take about as long to say as each other… but that first syllable will
be louder. On the other hand, if your language is making
iambs, then you show that the second syllable is stressed by making it longer, not louder.
This difference between how our feet get pronounced is known as the Iambic-Trochaic Law, and it’s
actually borne out even in perceptual experiments. Let’s say you play listeners a stream of syllables,
like just repeated [ta]s over and over again, like ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, and have them make
groups out of them. If some of your recorded [ta]s are longer
than the others, then they start parsing the stream of [ta]s into iambs, putting the longer syllables
in the second position. On the other hand, if all your [ta]s have the same duration,
but louder ones alternate with softer ones, then people will start pairing them into trochees,
signalling that they hear the first syllable as stronger. So even how we show our stress
is largely dependent on the kinds of feet we’re building. But of course, the choice of what half of
the foot we should be stressing isn’t the only thing languages do differently when it
comes to our words and their rhythms. There are a few other concerns, too: do you just
have one foot in your word, or can you have a whole bunch of them? When you start pairing
up syllables, do you start from the right or the left end of the word? Do you have to pair up all
the syllables, or can you have leftovers? Do you care about what’s
going on inside those syllables you’re building your feet from, or not? Do you even have to count syllables, or is there something even smaller that we might care about? That’s a lot of questions, and it would
be way too stressful to try to cover all that in one episode. So we’re going to come back
and address this in the future, looking at what happens inside the syllables, and at
different ways of applying stress over a word. But it’s good to know – we’ll have a lot
of melody in our future. For this week, though, we’ve reached the
end of the Ling Space. If you followed in my footsteps, you learned that all languages
change pitch, duration, loudness, and more, to communicate different effects; that stress
is a very common way for languages to impose a rhythm; that we build up feet, either iambs
or trochees, from pairing a strong syllable with a weak one; and that the way we create
stress can depend on what kind of foot we’re making. The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman.
It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost, and it’s written by both of us. Our editor
is Georges Coulombe, our production assistant is Stephan Hurtubise, our music is by Shane
Turner, and our graphics team is atelierMUSE. We’re down in the comments below, or you
can bring the discussion back over to our website, where we’ll have some extra material
on this topic. Also, try dropping by our store, where we have a bunch of cool linguistics stuff!
Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding
your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And we’ll see you next Wednesday. Séð
þig seinna!

19 thoughts on “How Do We Stress Our Words? Foot Structure

  1. I was just listening to this and then I checked one of your videos from a year ago and man, the production has improved so much.

  2. Took me a while to get to this one, but really cool! I'd never heard of the iambic-trochaic law before. How does that apply to trisyllabic and tetrasyllabic feet, though? Just sounding them out in my head it feels like anapests work pretty much like iambs, and dactyls feel pretty much like trochees, which makes sense. But what about amphibrachs? Or multi-stress feet like amphimacers or bacchii? (Spellcheck refuses to accept that those are words…)

  3. excellent work 🙂 looking forward to your next video!
    by the way, maybe in the store you could add a "language map" showing what languages are spoken around the globe!

  4. Moti, I would just like to encourage you to keep making great content. I am a Masters of Speech Therapy student with no formal undergraduate background in linguistics (and hence a lot of catching up to do), and I've enjoyed each and every one of your videos. Your content is always accessible yet at a high enough level to still be informative and interesting. Thank you for doing what you do so well!

  5. Thinking about the next higher element in the Phonological Hierarchy, the prosodic word (ω), can a prosodic word contain just one foot or does it need to have at least two feet?

  6. Your videos are excellent, but I DO think we change the meaning of individual words in English by changing the stress. There are several noun-verb pairs in which the noun is accented on the first syllable, and the verb on the second, for example: remake, research, consult, insult but not result.

  7. Thanks for the videos you have presented.the subject of stress is in fact complex ; the stessed syllable is described by many linguists as having four or five features (a )louder (b) longer ( c) higher in pitch and clearer .to give an example ,He is a teacher .the syllable TEACh is louder,longer ,higher in pitch and clearer than the syllable ER .but if we take intonation in consideration ,I think there is something wrong with those four these features as ( Is he a teacher teacher ?) ,the first syllable of teacher is stessed ( longer ,louder and higher in pitch) but at the same time the second syllable of teacher has a rising intonation . How come ?

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