Secondary stress

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Secondary stress (or secondary accent [obsolete]) is the weaker of two degrees of stress in the pronunciation of a word; the stronger degree of stress is called 'primary'. The International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for secondary stress is a short vertical line preceding and at the foot of the stressed syllable: the nun in IPA: proˌnunciˈation. Another tradition in English is to assign acute and grave accents for primary and secondary stress: pronùnciátion.

Most languages, if they have stress at all, have only one degree of it on the phonemic level. That is, each syllable has stress or it does not. Many languages have rhythmic stress; location of the stress may not be predictable, but once the location of one stressed syllable (which may be the primary stress) is known, certain syllables before or after can be predicted to also be stressed; these may have secondary stress.

However, a few languages may have secondary stress that is not predictable, that is, phonemic. English is generally considered to be such a language, but this analysis is problematic.


Degrees of stress in English

In many phonological approaches, and in many dictionaries, English is represented as having two levels of stress. Secondary stress is important primarily in long words with several syllables before the primary stress, such as còunterintélligence IPA: [ˌkaʊntər.ɪnˈtɛlɪdʒəns], and after the primary stress in many compound words, such as cóunterfòil IPA: [ˈkaʊntərˌfɔɪl].[1]

Indeed, in some theories English has been described as having three levels of stress: primary, secondary, tertiary, and unstressed (or quaternary). For example, our examples would be ²coun.ter.³in.¹ and ¹coun.ter.³foil. However, these treatments often disagree with each other, and several respected phoneticians such as Peter Ladefoged have noted that it is possible to describe English with only one degree of stress, as long as unstressed syllables are phonemically distinguished for vowel reduction.[2]

Ladefoged et al. believe that the multiple levels posited for English, whether primary–secondary or primary–secondary–tertiary, are mere phonetic detail and not true phonemic stress. They report that often the alleged secondary stress in English is not characterized by the increase in respiratory activity normally associated with primary stress in English or with all stress in other languages. In their analysis, an English syllable may be either stressed or unstressed, and if unstressed, the vowel may be either full or reduced. This is all that is required for a phonemic treatment. In addition, the last stressed syllable in a normal prosodic unit (as in its citation form) receives additional intonational or "tonic" stress. Since a word spoken in isolation (as for example when a lexicographer determines which syllables are stressed) acquires this additional tonic stress, it may appear to be inherent in the word itself rather than derived from the utterance in which the word is spoken. (The tonic stress may also occur elsewhere than on the final stressed syllable, if the speaker uses contrasting or other prosody.)

This combination of lexical stress, phrase- or clause-final prosody, and the lexical reduction of some unstressed vowels, conspires to create the impression of multiple levels of stress. In Ladefoged's approach, our examples are transcribed phonemically as cóunterintélligence IPA: /ˈkaʊntər.ɪnˈtɛlɪdʒəns/, with two stressed syllables, and cóunterfoil IPA: /ˈkaʊntərfɔɪl/, with one. In citation form, or at the end of a prosodic unit (marked IPA: [‖]), extra stress appears from the utterance that is not inherent in the words themselves: cóunterintélligence IPA: [ˈkaʊntər.ɪnˈˈtɛlɪdʒəns‖] and cóunterfoil IPA: [ˈˈkaʊntərfɔɪl‖].

Correspondence of different accounts of stress
(Ladefoged's binary account, a quaternary account, and a dictionary's trinary account.)
Description Dictionary
Yes Primary The final stressed syllable in a prosodic unit,
which receives additional prosodic (tonic) stress.
Secondary Other lexically stressed syllables in a word. Secondary
No Tertiary Full unstressed vowels.
Quaternary Reduced vowels.
  • Lexical stress (inherent to the syllable)
1. Plus tonic stress: A syllable with both inherent (lexical) and prosodic stress in Ladefoged's account corresponds to primary stress in the quaternary and dictionary accounts.
2. Without tonic stress: A syllable with only lexical stress is treated as secondary stress by nearly all dictionaries, but this does not account for all cases of secondary stress in many of these dictionaries. It is equivalent to secondary stress in the quaternary account.
  • No lexical stress (and therefore no stress at all)
3. A full unstressed vowel: An unstressed syllable with a full vowel that occurs after the primary stress is treated as having secondary stress by some dictionaries,[3] but as an unstressed syllable when it occurs before the primary stress in nearly all dictionaries. It corresponds to tertiary stress in the quaternary account.
4. A reduced unstressed vowel: A reduced vowel is said be unstressed in dictionaries or to have quaternary stress in the quaternary account.

It is perhaps because dictionaries present words in citation form that they make a primary–secondary distinction in stress. In general, tonic stress in citation form is marked as 'primary stress'; stressed syllables prior to that tonic syllable are marked as 'secondary stress', as in còunterintélligence, as in many dictionaries are any full vowels after that syllable, as in cóunterfòil. That is, many dictionaries merge some stressed ('secondary') syllables with some unstressed ('tertiary') syllables and call the result 'secondary stress'.[2] Occasionally in these dictionaries full vowels before the tonic stress may also be marked for secondary stress. Bolinger (1989)[4] notes that such dictionaries make use of the secondary-stress mark to distinguish full vowels from reduced vowels in unstressed syllables, as they may not have distinct symbols for reduced vowels.

The marking of full vowels as having secondary stress may be a partially regional (US) convention. John Wells remarks, "Some analysts (particularly Americans) argue [...] that the presence of a strong [= full] vowel is sufficient evidence that the syllable in question is stressed. In the British tradition we regard them as unstressed."[5]

To determine where the actual lexical stress is in a word, try pronouncing the word in a phrase, with other words before and after it and without any pauses between them, to eliminate the effects of tonic stress: in the còunterintèlligence commúnity, for example, one can hear secondary (that is, lexical) stress on two syllables of counterintelligence, as the primary (tonic) stress has shifted to community.

Phonemic secondary stress in other languages

There are other languages with secondary stress in compound words that behave like English. For example, in Norwegian, the pitch accent is lost from one of the roots in a compound word, but the erstwhile tonic syllable retains the full length (long vowel or geminate consonant) of a stressed syllable.[6]

Rhythmic or syllable-weight based secondary stress is common, but generally predictable. For example, Romanian has secondary stress every other syllable, starting with the first, as long as it does not fall adjacent to the primary stress.[7] In other languages, heavy syllables may take secondary stress. However, in other languages the placement of secondary stress is not predictable, or may not be predictable for some words. This is frequently posited for Germanic languages. However, Bolinger (1989) notes that these may be cases of full vs reduced unstressed vowels being interpreted as secondary stress vs unstressed, as in English.


This is true of Dutch: generally, initial and final syllables (word boundaries) take secondary stress, then every other syllable before and after the primary stress (trochaic rhythm), as long as two stressed syllables are not adjacent and stress does not fall on IPA: /ə/. Examples are:

fò.no.lo.gíe, íìef, Wá.gə.nìn.gən, èò.pe.díe, èé.disch, èè.do.lóog.

However, some technical words such as èì.no.lo.gíe violate this pattern, which would predict *èò.lo.gíe; Booij (1999) suggests that because the prefix endo- is not native, secondary stress may be assigned to the first syllable of the root -crinology. There are also words where the trochaic pattern overrides boundary stress, as in pi.rà.te.ríj, gram.mà.ti.káal; unless these are due to lack of vowel reduction, they are unpredictable as stress.[8]


  1. ^ The foil of counterfoil is transcribed with secondary stress in Merriam Webster's dictionaries, for example, but not in the Oxford English Dictionary. Both dictionaries assign secondary stress to the counter of counterintelligence.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ladefoged (1975 etc.) A course in phonetics §5.4; (1980) Preliminaries to linguistic phonetics p 83
  3. ^ for example, Merriam Webster's, but not the OED
  4. ^ Dwight Bolinger (1989) Intonation and its uses
  5. ^ John Wells, "strong and weak", in John Wells's phonetic blog, 25 March 2011[1]
  6. ^ Gjert Kristoffersen (2007) The Phonology of Norwegian, p 184
  7. ^ Ioana Chițoran (2002) The phonology of Romanian, p 88
  8. ^ Geert Booij (1999) The Phonology of Dutch, p 105–106
Secondary stress
IPA: ˌ◌
IPA number 502
Entity (decimal) ˌ
Unicode (hex) U+Template:Hexadecimal

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