I remember the exact moment that I first got angry about stress and pitch. It was while I was living in Sweden, standing in a shared kitchen with my Swedish roommate, listening to him repeat the same word over and over again that I was trying to say.
“I don’t understand, I’m saying all of those sounds. Which sound am I saying wrong?”
“It’s not the sounds, it’s the way you raise your voice.”
It occurred to me that somewhere along the line of learning Swedish, someone should have mentioned to me that the way you raise your pitch significantly affects a listener’s understanding. Not only that, why did no one explicitly teach me the pitches I was supposed to use, and when? All of my linguistics professors had told me Swedish was a pitch-accented language, but why did I still have no concept of how to apply that in a way that was functional?
And now, 10 years later, the same realization struck me while working with my clients; why has no one been taught that English is a stress-accented language?
Let me back up. Pitch and stress are a little bit different. Pitch is the way you raise and lower the tenseness of your voice. You can think about it like singing; raising your pitch is like hitting a higher note. English uses pitch in sentences to mark important words and signal questions, among other things, but that’s a different blog post.
Stress has to do with the emphasis you’re putting on a syllable. If you’re stressing a syllable, you’re making the vowel in that syllable longer and slightly louder, to make sure that everyone is paying attention. English is a stress-accented language: that means that shifting the stress can shift the meaning of a word, or essentially make it a non-word.
Hold on, what?
Look at this short list of words below. Changing where you put the stress can affect if this word is a noun (stress on the first syllable) or verb (stress on the last syllable):
You go to a PROtest, but you proTEST when you receive a parking ticket. You can hold an OBject, but you obJECT to its expensive price. With some exceptions, there’s a fairly extensive list of words where stress is the ONLY difference, but it changes the meaning of the word.
But as I like to regularly remind my clients, the only consistent rule in English is that there are no consistent rules. I threw “address” in there on purpose. Lots of native speakers stumble on this one. Is it ADDress? Or ad-DRESS? Well, technically, you can give someone your ADDress so they can adDRESS a letter to you…but language is fluid, always changing, so sometimes people make exceptions to rules. Ask a native speaker how to pronounce the word VE-hement, and I guarantee you that many of them will pronounce it ve-HE-ment. I know, because my husband said it that way at dinner last week.
I can go on forever (actually, an hour and thirty minutes) about stress rules, so in lieu of that I’ll just add one extra fun fact: you can cheat with how you mark the stress.
Some linguists argue that English is not truly a stress-accented language, because native English speakers tend to reduce the unstressed vowels, essentially changing the pronunciation of the word. Reduce in this context literally means to turn unstressed vowels into a neutral schwa sound (just say “uhhh” with no enthusiasm, like you’re trying to think of what to say next; voila, you’ve said a schwa). An easier way to think about it might be to “swallow” the unstressed vowel, or pretend like it doesn’t exist. Lots of times I have clients cross out the unstressed vowels while practicing word lists so they’re not tempted to over-pronounce the vowel.
Let’s look at everyone’s least favorite word: develop. Develop is the bane of most of my clients’ stress-accented existences. The stress in develop goes on the middle syllable. That means that the VE syllable gets longer and louder. It also means you “don’t pronounce” the other vowels. “duh-VEH-luhp.”
How can this help you? Well, native speakers of some languages (for example, Spanish) have an easier time learning how to stress a syllable by making it longer and louder. Some don’t. So if you’re having trouble figuring out how to emphasize the syllable, you can skip the emphasis rules and re-learn the word pronunciations by deleting all of the reduced vowels.
Yes, I feel your frustration. You mean I have to relearn how to pronounce basically everything I already learned? (Ten years ago, standing in that kitchen in Sweden, I was so annoyed that I actually came back to the States and wrote a thesis about an experiment I conducted where I removed all of the pitch from Swedish and played it for native Swedish speakers, just to see if the pitch really affected their understanding. Spoiler alert, it did, and in measurable ways!)
No, you don’t have to relearn everything. You probably learned a lot of words with the correct stress if you learned them via spoken English. There might be 10, 20, 50, or even 100 words that you use so often that they need to be practiced a little bit differently. Changing your speech is like going to the gym; you have to train your muscle memory to follow a new pronunciation pattern. And that’s where accent modification can help.