Language and Life
Stressful Words and Sentences
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
Language learning is stressful. Languages are stressful. Words can have stress. But whole phrases and sentences also have their own stresses. This was illustrated to me in a worship service I visited in Botswana. It could have happened in any country.
In a bilingual service (English and Tswana) they announced a responsive scripture reading from the English hymnal. I knew of the difference in stress patterns in English and Bantu languages, so I observed how this mixed congregation would read together these English passages.
Two separate rhythms were clearly discernible: English-speaking Europeans (mostly Americans) and English-speaking Africans (from several language groups).
The Europeans were following their native English stress patterns, following a phrase stress rhythm. The Africans were following the Bantu language stress patterns, which follow a syllable stress rhythm. Sometimes the phrase-stressing Europeans would go faster and get ahead, so they would have to wait for the syllable stressers to catch up.
In phrase stress, the syllables do not have the same length. Stressed syllables are longer than unstressed syllables. English, French and Portuguese are phrase-stress languages. When the word order in these languages changes, the stress pattern may change, because the primary word in the phrase is stressed by lengthening, raising tone and raising volume. Less important words in the phrase are stressed a little less and the ones in between are de-emphasized, or even left out.
On the other hand some other well-known languages are syllable-stressed, like Spanish, Italian and Swahili. These languages are more staccato, as each syllable receives about the same amount of stress and the rhythm is mor punchy and bouncy since every syllable is about the same length.
Stress in languages is good. In fact, it is necessary. Only computers speak languages without stress. Today, even computers can reproduce recognizable stress. You can too. It's just that the stress required by another language is different from the stress of English. And your native English stress interferes when you try to produce the other languages!
Master the Stress
Give attention to stress. But don't try to get rid of language stress. Try to master it. That is the human part of language! The more you are aware of the differences, the better you can work on it.
The more you master the stress of the new language, the more human you will sound to the native speakers of that language!
This theme is also addressed in the related articles:
Juncture and Aspiration
Working on Tones
Originally published as a general article in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, a cross-cultural communication newsletter, Nairobi, Kenya, November 1993
This updated version prepared for Thoughts and Resources and posted 9 October 2008
Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 1993, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.