3.2.4 - Stress in Phrases

At the outset of this section on Prosody, we distinguished between content words and function words. So far, almost all of our attention has been on content words. Monosyllabic function words like "a," "the," "but" or "and" are generally unstressed, as we saw in "the poem" above. Polysyllabic function words have relatively stronger and weaker stresses within them, for instance in such prepositions as "before," "after," and "against." But at higher levels of analysis, i.e., in phrases and larger syntactic units, the stress in these words is almost always subsidiary to the content words to which they are attached.

As I indicated at the outset of the tutorial, understanding phrasal stress is critical for understanding the large-scale rhythms of poetry and the way these rhythms create our perception of time. Kiparsky goes so far as to claim that "The most important, virtually unbreakable constraints on meter in English involve the grammatical structure of the verse, notably the phrase and word units of which it is made up. . . . This syntactic phrasing appears to determine . . . the phonological phrasing of sentences, i.e., the locations of optional or obligatory intonation breaks, corresponding to CAESURAS in verse" ("Stress, Syntax, and Meter" 579, 581). Hence, one of the most important prosodic rules of the generative approach is the NUCLEAR STRESS RULE, which operates within PHONOLOGICAL PHRASES. "Nuclear" here has nothing to do with atomic energy; rather it has to do with an iterative process of determining stress relationally within ever larger syntactic structures, the nucleus being the syntactic center or head of a given phrase. The formal statement of the rule comes from Liberman: "In a configuration cABc, If c is a phrasal category, B is strong" (Liberman, "On Stress and Linguistic Rhythm 269, 257). What this means is that in a phrase, the strongest stress of the phrase will fall as far back, i.e., as close to the end as possible.

In this tutorial, we will deal primarily with three types of phrases, noun, verb and prepositional. You can identify them by looking at the syntax. For instance, in the sentence, "The purple cows went running on the dew-covered lawn, "The purple cows" is a noun phrase. "Went running on the dew-covered lawn" is a verb phrase, within which is the prepositional phrase, "on the dew-covered lawn," which in turn contains the noun phrase, "the dew-covered lawn." According to Kiparsky, there is an optional intonation break or pause between the noun and verb phrases, though one is not required to perform it. For our purposes, these optional breaks are important because they signal perceptual units of rhythm; in other words, they mark off the units that create our sense of time.

To take a practical example, let's first look at the smaller phrases in the sentence and then put them together. The convention for indicating phrases is brackets. In "the purple cows," the Nuclear Stress Rule tells us that the strongest stress falls on the head of the phrase, the noun, and both the article and the adjective are weak relative to "cows." "Purple" has a stressed syllable in it but relative to "cows," the word as a whole is weak.


Example 9

The prepositional phrase, "on the dew-covered lawn," has its strongest stress at the end on the noun, "lawn"; here again the adjective and function words will be relatively weak. Note here also that "dew-covered" is a compound word and is subject to the Compound Rule, not the Word Rule. "Covered" branches but for the Word Rule to apply, the branching must be word internal. Instead, the Compound Rule specifies that the strongest stress in the compound will be as far forward as possible, exactly opposite to the Nuclear Stress Rule for phrases.


Example 10

To put the whole sentence together, we need to lodge the second prepositional phrase within the larger verb phrase and analyze the verb itself. Essentially the sentence divides into two large phrases; applying the Nuclear Stress Rule to the sentence as a whole allows us to see the opening noun phrase as subsidiary to the verb phrase.


Example 11

At a practical level, there are several techniques for analyzing lines or sentences that you can extrapolate from this example. It is easiest to begin your analysis by reading the line as a whole. Then look for polysyllabic words and assign s's and w's with their trees. Then consider phrases as in the "purple cow" example, allowing the Nuclear Stress Rule to guide you in assigning the relative stress of subsidiary content and function words as well as the relationship among phrases. You may find it helpful to mark the most prominent stress in a word or phrase so that you are clear about what the peak or most prominent point is.

Another important aspect of phrasal rhythms is the way the phrasal context can change the stress of words. In English, there is a strong preference for alternating stressed and unstressed syllables, a tendency captured by the binary system of analysis used here. We tend to avoid both too many unstressed syllables in a row and consecutively stressed syllables. We are more likely, for example, to say "a free and easy manner" rather than "an easy and free manner" or "bright and shining eyes" rather than "shining and bright eyes" (Attridge, REP 71). In both of the preferred forms of these phrases, stressed and unstressed syllables alternate. In the non-standard forms, the double unstressed syllables followed by double stressed syllables feels awkward to our mouths and ears.

The tendency towards alternating stressed and unstressed syllables is also apparent in the RHYTHM RULE which specifies that stress retraction occurs in certain words in order to produce this alternation. For instance, "Tennessee" normally has its strongest stress on the last syllable. But in the phrase, "Tennessee walking horse," the strongest stress in "Tennessee" retracts to the front of the word to produce an alternating pattern. Compare the following analyses:


Example 12

Other examples of this pattern can be seen by comparing the differences between "thirteen" and "thirteen blackbirds" or "unknown" and "unknown soldier" (Attridge, PR 39).


Apply appropriate s's, w's and tree structures to the following:
Black birds nibbled on the frost-covered corn.
Blackbirds sing sorrowful songs in the winter.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird