The importance of stress

Last night at the Polyglot conversation group a friend who is learning Welsh told me about the difficulties he had when trying to buy a train ticket to Dolwyddelan, a small village in the Conwy valley in North Wales. None of the ways he tried to pronounce it were understood by the ticket seller, so he ended up spelling it out. I also wasn’t sure what place he was referring to until he spelled it for me, even though I’m used to hearing mispronounced versions of Welsh place names.

In Welsh word stress almost always falls on the penultimate (last but one) syllable, so in Dolwyddelan it’s on the ddel, i.e. /dɔlʊiˈðɛlan/. If you put the stress anywhere else words just sound wrong or incomprehensible.

In languages like Welsh where there stress is usually in the same place it’s not so hard to get it right, but in languages with irregular stress placement, like English and Russian, it’s more difficult. You can try to learn where it goes in each individual word, and/or try to develop an instinct for it through extensive listening. I think I’m beginning to do his for Russian.

7 thoughts on “The importance of stress

  1. ‘try to develop an instinct for it through extensive listening’
    This is what I usually do for other parts of learning a Language too, not just stress.
    If the Language has a complex grammar, I learn the basics of it and then listen a lot and just end up ‘knowing’ the rest. It doesnt always work out perfectly but that’s the idea!

  2. Yes, stress placement is one of the easier-to-grasp aspects of Welsh. However, Welsh has its own peculiar rhythm and intonation (which varies considerably between regional varieties of Welsh) and the tendency for pitch and/or volume to rise at the end of a sentence can be easy to mistake for a stressed final syllable.

    Latvian places the stress on the first syllable, with very few exceptions – interestingly, a feature it has in common with the Finno-Ugric languages (Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, at least) but not with its closest relative, Lithuanian (which has an irregular stress pattern). But, whilst the regular stress pattern of Latvian (stressed first syllable, with progressively weakening stress on subsequent syllables) was easy to grasp conceptually, pattern, it took me some time to be able to put in into practice without a lot of mental effort, because the alternating stress pattern of English was so deeply ingrained.

  3. David – that’s a good point – coming from a language with irregular stress like English to one with regular stress like Latvian or Welsh does take some getting used to.

  4. The problem I have with Latvian (and with Hungarian) is vowel length in unstressed syllables. I have trouble with vowel length anyway, but when it is so independent of stress it is especially tricky.

  5. To tell the truth, I still read about the Stress in some language books or articles, and yet I still don’t know what it really means. I speak (and learned) English at school without introducing such concept of stresses.

  6. I agree with you on the importance of stress. I teach English in France and I keep telling the students that phonemes matter, but not as much as stress. Stress in French is generally either inaudible or on the last syllable – gaRAGE, aMOUR, touJOURS – and it’s very difficult to persuade learners that it is terribly important to put it on the right syllable. For instance words like politics or phonetics are not stressed on the same syllable – and that if you make a mistake, it leads to confusion. I remember when I was a French assistant in England, mispronouncing SCAffolding as scafFOLDing. The English girls were in stitches!

  7. I get stress wrong in Filipino languages constantly. The stress of the original root word moves when you change it to various verb forms, and then it can sometimes move again when you start adding enclitics and suffixes. I’ll say a new word to my mom and probably 2/3rds of the time I’ll have it wrong.

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