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Word Stress: weak and strong vowels       

Word-stress - preview

Read the following words to yourself, putting the stress on the STRESSED syllable:

baNAna reVERSE reTURN geOgraphy corRECT parTICular arRANGE aMERika
The important point to remember is that Icelandic words always have their stress on the FIRST syllable, while English words can be stressed on any syllable.
So Icelanders speaking English often stress the FIRST syllable of words. They might say:
BAnana REverse REturn GEOgraphy CORrect PARticular ARrange America
In the following table, note how we mark stress - with the stress mark (') IN FRONT of the stressed syllable:


The lax and tense vowels and diphthongs we have learnt so far are STRONG vowels, occurring in STRESSED syllables. In UNSTRESSED syllables we USUALLY (but not always) find WEAK vowels.

Weak vowels: SCHWA, KIT, FOOT - , ,

   The main weak vowel in English is . This vowels is ALWAYS WEAK and NEVER STRESSED. Since there are usually more unstressed than stressed syllables in connected speech, is by far the most common vowel in English. If you check out the chart of vowel frequencies you will see that has a frequency of 10.47 - more than one in every 10 phonemes in English is schwa!


   The next most common vowel is KIT . KIT is strong when it is a stressed vowel, and weak when unstressed. If you look back at the table above you will see that occurs in unstressed vowels in reverse, return, and America.


   The third weak vowel is unstressed FOOT . For the moment, it's enough to remember that it's not very common. You will find it in the table above in the word particular.

In Spite of the Spelling!

If you study the table above closely, you'll find that the weak vowel SCHWA occurs in MANY (but NOT ALL - see below) of the UNSTRESSED syllables IN SPITE OF THE SPELLING.
In the following words, the second syllable is pronounced with a SCHWA, although it may be spelt -er, -ar, -or, -yr, -ure, -our, and even other spellings:



In the next table, the words are stressed on the SECOND syllable. The first is SCWHA, no matter how it is spelt:




Finally, look at the endings -ent, -ant, -ence and -ance:


SCHWA leads the field

In many accents of English, has taken over from KIT and FOOT in weak positions, and reigns supreme in weak syllables. I call this the Lennon-Lenin Merger. In RP these two words are distinguished by the weak vowel in the second syllable:
But in many Norther British acents, in American and Australia, these two words sound the same:

MANY BUT NOT ALL - unstressed syllables can have STRONG vowels too

You will need to check your dictionary to see whether a word has weak vowels in it or not. Sometimes normal strong vowels are used even in untressed syllables:

- but ...
object (noun) ,


Tensing of weak and

When weak KIT and weak FOOT occur AT THE END OF WORDS or BEFORE ANOTHER VOWEL they are TENSED:
  • The KIT vowel sounds more like FLEECE - but shorter
  • The FOOT vowel sounds more like GOOSE - but shorter
  • But we show them without the length mark because they are still short and weak:
  • is tensed to
    happy ,   party     react
    • (older, more conservative RP , )

  • is tensed to
    influenza      to ask
  • More on weak vowels

    We will be discussing weak vowels in more detail later (10th week - weak and strong vowels again).

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