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Feet, stress, metricality

Languages like English have rhythms inside what we think of as words as well as between words. The rhythm inside words is based on what are known as ‘feet’, in English, mostly with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, as in canon, and the other way round in canoe.

Children hear words for interesting things like animal, excavator, helicopter, kindergarten, hippopotamus, Tottenham Hotspurs. And they want to say them. The rhythm in all English words of two syllables or more is built about what were nicely called ‘feet’ in the ancient world. In English, as in classical Latin, a foot typically has a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. This is separate from the idea of a word.

English word stress (and that of most of the other languages of Western Europe and perhaps half of the world’s languages) uses a combination of pitch, length and loudness which give a word a rhythm. In English, as in most European languages other than Scottish and Irish Gaelic, stress is worked out from right to left. The modern English system is closest to the one in classical Latin.

This structure is often known variably as ‘prosodic’ or ‘metrical or ‘suprasegmental’. Feet and parts of feet combine to form what we know as words. Words combine to form phrases. Phrases combine to form sentences. The prosody varies with respect to words and phrases, the pronunciations of speech sounds, and more.

Between words, in the most famous quotation in the language “To be or not to be, that is the question” the two cases of to, is and the may be all unstressed, creating a simple rhythm of mostly alternating stressed and unstressed words. The system at play here has been exploited by poets writing in metre, from the times of Chaucer and Shakespeare to the present day.

Inside words, there are two stresses in hippopotamus, one on the HIP and a stronger one on the POT. The way this works is complicated. But as discovered by Paula Fikkert (1994), children learning a language like English normally start learning the stress pattern inside words around two and a quarter. The stress patterning, the syllables, the speech sounds, and the words themselves, are all different things. These things have to be learnt.

The child who calls a banana a NANA or a BANA is effectively treating the domain of the stress as the same thing as the word – as it often is, but not in this case.

English happens to be uncommonly complex in its metricality, syllable structure, and the number of its phonemes.

If this was not so, English speakers might be confused about how to say Austria, America, Amazonia, with the stress consistently on the third last syllable from the right, but also on the first, second and third syllables from the left.

This working out is known as ‘scansion’. In French the scansion is simple: Stress the rightmost syllable, disregarding any final vowel with no specific character, what is known as ‘schwa’, always spelt with an E, as in the name of the country La France, and in the name of the anthem, La Marseillaise. In English, the system is much more complex and was only worked out in detail by Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle in 1968.

This is in contrast to the metricality in more than half of the world’s languages, in the Americas, Africa, and East and South East Asia, including China, where the tone of a word is crucial for its meaning.

So the task for the learner of English is first to determine that the metricality is by stress, and that the very obvious variations of pitch and tone do not differentiate words, but mark all sorts of ‘doing‘ effects, points of emphasis, the difference between questions and statements, and a whole lot more. And second, English learners have to work out the exact mechanism, which has been a major topic of scholarly debate ever since the 1968 work of Chomsky and Halle.

Children get a lot of guidance about being polite. And a lot of attention is paid to how they articulate the phonemes. But there is little consideration of children’s metricality.

There is strong evidence in English of a powerful principle at work in the way many other foreign words are treated. The Russian place-names, Vladivostok and Borodino, the second the site of the famous battle commemorated in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, both have final stress in Russian. When these Russian names are pronounced by English speakers, the stress is almost always shifted one syllable to the left and the first syllable gets a secondary stress.

By this right to left scansion, words like Austria, photograph, photographer, and Australia have the primary stress on the third syllable from the right, and have stressed and unstressed syllables alternating with one another, discounting the final syllable, not quite the same way as in French, but counting the same elements in the same direction. If the scansion worked differently, English speakers might be confused about how to say Austria, America, Amazonia. The same principle applies to every word and name in English apart from a very small number of words, mostly recent loans and the names of revered foreign celebrities who are allowed to have their names pronounced as they do themselves – if they are revered enough.