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What Exactly is Word Stress and How It Influences The Way We Speak

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What exactly is word stress and how it influences the way we speak and the listener’s understanding of our utterances is considered in this study? Word stress is also called word accent. It is the stress distributed over syllables in a word. Stressed or accented syllables will be higher in pitch, longer in duration, and generally a little louder than unstressed or unaccented syllables.

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A syllable is a word, or a fraction of a word, which contains a single vowel sound. It is one unit of speech. Each word contains one syllable or more. In many languages such as in English, all the syllables in multi-syllabic words are not equally stressed. There is a kind of force given to say that part of a word where the syllable is stressed. In English, we do not say each syllable with the same force or strength. This means that one part of a certain word is said louder and longer than other parts of the same word. In one word, we accentuate ONE syllable. We say one syllable very loudly (big, strong, important) and all the other syllables very quietly. The syllable which is pronounced with greater force is called the stressed syllable. “Accent” in this case means “emphasis”. It is this emphasis given to a particular syllable that conveys meaning to the sentence.

WordStress is natural for those who are trained in speaking English since childhood, but it does not come that easily to other speakers of the English language. A word can only have one stress. In a very long word, you can have a secondary stress but it is always a much smaller stress. A word can only have one stress. In a very long word, you can have a secondary stress but it is always a much smaller stress. Only vowels, a, e, I, o, and u, are stressed, not consonants.

English is very much a musical language. Spoken English is almost music. There is intonation, stressed and unstressed sounds, rhythm and tonal variations. Malayalam, on the other hand, is rather flat in the manner of speech. Malayalam is spoken in monotone. There are some dialects of Malayalam that speak in a rather “sing-song” way, like people from Trivandrum, Kozhikode, and Thrissur. But otherwise, there is no rhythmical intonation in Malayalam. Malayalam is also a phonetic language. In fact, Malayalam has the largest number of letters among Indian languages. Because of its Sanskrit and Tamil origins Malayalam alphabet can represent most of the sounds in Indian languages. In spite of the Indo European family bonds Malayalam does not have all the sounds in English. Sounds like ‘the’ and ‘r’ are examples. All the syllables are stressed in Malayalam making it sound flat. But it is read exactly how it is written. English differs in this as the way we pronounce knife is different from how we actually say it.


A group of non- native speakers (four each, eight in total) of English were organized into two groups based on the generation gap, one group belonging to the age group of 55-70, and the other from 20-25 and asked to read out words with the similar sound combination. Given below are the sound combinations considered for this study.

  1. Words that have the Long A+T sound
  2. Words that have the Long E+R sound
  3. Words that have the Long A+R sound
  4. Words that have the Schwa + R sound
  5. Words with the letter S sounds and Z
  6. TheLong U sound in English words(The group was divided into two, four members in each.

One group consisted of Malayali students educated from English medium schools since kindergarten and the other group had members who were educated in Malayalam medium schools until junior college and then later went onto study in English medium colleges. The second group was a rather elderly crowd and the other was youngsters below the age of 30yrs. After recording the readings, a study was done and then it was observed that most of the members in the one group pronounced the word in a similar manner. And that pronunciation was taken for the studying of word stress and jotted down in the column below)

After a close observation of the words and the way it was spoken, one can understand the impact of spelling on the pronunciation and accent given to a word. since Malayalam is spoken in a flat way and all the letters stressed equally among each other, it is difficult for a speaker of Malayalam to suddenly shift and place importance to one syllable in particular. Some even though they do place importance on a syllable, seem to confuse between primary and secondary stress. For example, when both the groups were asked to say the word religion they tended to give stress to the second I than the first as it would ideally be pronounced. In everyday conversation, they also read out silent letters of the words like honest and silent’ in debt, and words likecupboard and receipt had the silent p’s pronounced. Some of the words in English which are nouns and verbs have different stresses functioning on its usage in a sentence. Words like `record` as a noun, is read as and as a verb but no matter what its function, it is plainly read as record by most Malayalis. Words such as Hotel is given stress to the first syllable instead of the second sound, making it sound like HOtel. In the groups of words selected above for the study, the following observations were made.

For easy understanding, the group of adults’ ages 20-30 years shall be called group 1 and those who belong to the age group of 50 plus shall be group 2.

Words with a longA+T sound example, plate, and weight, the younger generation pronounced it with a little error, in the end, confusing the “ate” sound of the plate to the literal sound used in the word. The older generation tended to add an unwanted schwa sound to the end of these words to show emphasis. In words like Weight, both categories tended to emphasis because of the meaning of the words and stressed on the although it is silent. The debate which has stress on the second syllable was pronounced with a primary stress on the first syllable and by the other group again with an additional schwa.

Words with Schwa+R sound with words bird and burn were pronounced with accented r sound. The stress was on the silent R sound in this group of words by the older group and the others read it with a sound of in bird instead of schwa. Both groups had a problem pronouncing the d sound in ‘jury’ as there is no equivalent of it in Malayalam language and hence they read as they saw it with a J sound. Ago, with just a schwa sound, was read in a similar manner with the A sound fused with o. The younger group stressed on the go part whereas the other group stressed on the.

Words with letter S and Z sound were watches, classes, wise, sings and angels. The common rule for the pronunciation of z and s in the English language is comes after words ending in voiceless sounds( sounds when produced, the vocal chords are held apart and do not vibrate). Whereas /z/ comes after words ending in voiced sounds(sounds in which when produced the vocal chords vibrate). because the Malayalam language does not have a disparity as such all words that ending in voiced sounds also are pronounced with  instead of /z/. The word stress also given was different as they tended to stress on the /s/ because of the letter doubling. In English, it need not be that because of letter doubling that part may be stressed, but Malayalam speakers of this language due to the lack of basic grammar rules, tend to stress there where lies double letters even if needed or not. There also seems to be a confusion about the ‘a and sound in the word angels. The stress is also placed on the I instead of  the elderly crowd, who were used to reading and writing in Malayalam than English.

The long U sound words in English. Shampoo was one of the examples taken for analysis. The older generation tended to stress on the last vowel of the word whereas the others stressed p+u but with the changed to .In ‘amuse’ both the category of people stressed the second syllable as primary stress and the sound was pronounced as/s/. In the words truth and recruit the stress was placed correctly but the way it was pronounced was different RP. In the word ‘coupon especially the word was read as, with the primary stress on the sound by the 1stgroup and by the second group with stress given to the accented U.

Words with the A+R sound combination. The word ‘department’ was stressed correctly by the second group but the silent r was pronounced. The first group stressed the ’I’ instead of after it. In the word ‘apparel’, the first group stressed correctly but pronounced it with a starting which is incorrect. The second group too used  instead of /?/and stressed the first vowel. In words like ‘darling’ and ‘err’, both groups pronounced the silent ‘r’, though the first group stressed it correctly the second group tended to stress the instead.

Words with long E+R sound in all the words selected the R was pronounced and stressed, eg, beer and career. Words like ‘sincere’ and‘interfere’ had the primary and secondary stresses interchanged. The word ‘yearly’ was stressed correctly by both the groups.


Primary stress in Malayalam words is fixed on the first syllable of a word unless it contains a short vowel followed by a long vowel in the second syllable. Like other Dravidian languages, Malayalam is agglutinative, i.e., it adds suffixes, one after another, to stems to form words and to express grammatical functions. There is no absolute limit on the length and extent of agglutination in Malayalam, sometimes resulting in very long words. Hayes’ (1995) description of Malayalam stress in terms of moraic trochees, for instance, takes for granted that vowel length is the sole determinant of syllable weight in Malayalam. In a much-cited experimental study by Broselowet al. (1997), Malayalam was chosen to represent languages in which codes are weightless without exception (although under K.P. Mohanan’sanalysis Malayalam has no codas at all).

Malayali English, weakly articulated function class words in the R.P.are spoken in their strong forms. Eg: the sentence ‘I am coming’ – aim is pronounced as [ai am’kmi].Similarly ‘can I go’ – / knai’g/- [kjan ai go:]. This strong articulation of function class word is due to the absence of weak articulation markers in spelling. English is a complex language with its stress changing based on the function of the word. For example in the word Photograph the stress lies on the first syllable. In the word photographer the stress is upon the second syllable. And in the word photographic  the stress is on the third syllable. In words like dessert and record, the changing of the stress will end up changing the meaning of the word.

InMalayalamword itself is a palindrome and words like Amma, Appa all belong to this category of words where the stress is always on the first syllable. MalayaliEnglish also lacks some diphthongs (sounds formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable). As a result, for a Malayaliboth got and goat sound similar. The same is the case with bought and boat; cot, caught and coat; rod and road; roll and role; so, saw and sow. There is no equivalent to the English vowel sound  (the sound of ‘a’ in cat) in Malayalam. The speakers deal with the English words with in them in a different way. For example, the cat is pronounced as kyat while captains captain and his cap are kyaap. The sound ‘z’ is one that Malayalis are still struggling with. For a Malayali, the zoo is soo and zebra is a zebra,due to the lack of sound producing the same tone in the native language.

Most of the schools in Kerala from an early age teach the children in a method that’s different from the conventional method of learning English. The students are trained to think in their native language first. This leads to mispronunciation while learning any new language, as anything learned later will be first, a translated version of the native language. The sentence order in English subject Verb Object, whereas that of Malayalam, is Subject ObjectVerb, which causes problems when both the languages are intermixed in the learning process. Example, “njan Innu variate” which literally translates to “I today come”, although it makes sense it is grammatically wrong in the English language. Grammar also has an important role to play in the speech of a person. Due to the prescribed method of teaching grammar for exam purposes, the students in the south who do not have access to communicating in English with others, will not be confident in their speech. The same students grow up learning the language incorrectly and end up becoming teachers to other students which affects another generation and this cycle goes on. In order to understand the correct usage of the English language with its word stress and pronunciation it is highly necessary that along with the English subject, Phonetics also be taught since younger days. Only then can one rid of the disparities found between an English speaker and a “Mallu English speaker.”

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Through the study conducted above one can conclude with the idea of how the importance of the process of learning a language. From the group interviewed, although all were educated in English in the college level, they too claimed that it was through experience and through interactions with other speakers did they inculcate the right method of speaking English and not through the textbook method. In order to break the divide and the stereotype of “mallu accent” schools must engage children in activities that enable them to speak better and above all proper English with use visual and listening aids. Kerala has always been at the helm of education in fields such as technology and science. Academic excellence is something they have flourished in all stages but the language divide is what makes the world look down upon them and it is not them who are to be blamed. The change must come from the core aspects of learning, only then can we uplift any sector of society be it in language or life. In a country with hundreds of languages each having innumerable dialects based on region, the influence of these upon English is bound to occur. One at this point can only do few things in a place rich with culture either help and change it or else blindly celebrate its uniqueness.

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