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I am non-native in English, so this question may be a meaningless one or even a silly one. Why do we need a stress on one or more letters in a word? Indeed, a native person can read a word containing stress; even I omit duplicated letters. Is this just a heritage from the historical times, or not?

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Are you asking why the need to put written accents, or why the need for oral stress on particular syllables? –  Neil Coffey May 23 '12 at 16:16
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@NeilCoffey: I meant the second one actually, but the first point is a great one too. Thanks –  Babak Sorouh May 23 '12 at 16:19
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Stress is part of the pronunciation of a word. If you leave out all the stresses on your words (as if you were speaking Parisian French), or put the stress on the wrong syllable, it makes you very difficult to understand. I assume it's like leaving all the tones out of a tonal language like Chinese; you're omitting an important aspect of the pronunciation. Why don't we put the stress in the spelling the way Spanish does? It's a matter of historical development of the written language. –  Peter Shor May 23 '12 at 16:49
    
@PeterShor Spanish only uses written stress when a word deviates from the trivial rule that the stress fulls on the penult if it ends in a vowel, n, or s, and on the last syllable otherwise. Most words follow that rule, and so need no written stress marking. There are also a few (usually-)one-syllable homophones distinguished by one having an acute accent: te (the 2s clitic pronoun) vs (tea, the beverage); si (if) vs (yes, or oneself as a tonic pronoun); mi (my, the possessive determiner) vs (me, the tonic pronoun); + tú,tu;dé,de;sé,se;aún,aun;sólo,solo;ésta,esta &c. –  tchrist May 23 '12 at 16:59
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@tchrist: you can read a Spanish word and know exactly where to put the stress. This is what I meant, even if it's not exactly what I said. –  Peter Shor May 23 '12 at 17:05

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

In general, it appears that "rhythm" of speech in one form or another improves intelligibility(*). Syllable "stress"— making particular syllables locally prominent in some way compared to other syllables — is one component of rhythm. It may not be strictly a necessary feature of language, but it appears to be a perceptually useful feature. It is possible that all languages use stress in one way or another (see Hirst & Di Cristo, "Intonation Systems", for a survey of how a selection of different languages from different language families use stress and intonation generally).

Now, although stress per se is an apparently universal feature of language, lexically contrastive stress as in English — i.e. where the stress position can be determined by the identity of the word in question and the difference between two words can be determined by stress pattern — is by no means universal. In many languages, such as French, which syllables carry which type of stress is essentially determined at phrase level and not dependent on the identities of particular words (though in such a language, you can still get certain classes of words that cannot carry stress vs others which do).

So in summary: rhythm/intonation is perceptually important to languages and stress patterns form part of what we perceive as "rhythm". But the precise system of stress used varies from language to language and there is little necessity for English to have the particular stress system that it does.

(*) See e.g. Tajima et al (1997), "Effects of temporal correction on intelligibility of foreign-accented English", Journal of Phonetics 25:1–24. Even with speech in which, say, the actual quality of vowels is quite far from that of a native speaker, by correcting specifically the timing of those vowels (and other segments in the speech), these researchers found that speech becomes more intelligible despite the fact that the speaker is actually pronouncing 'the wrong sound' as it were.

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Great question.

When an English speaker de-stresses a syllable, he or she will give a little less time to the pronunciation of the syllable, and move the vowel closer to a neutral vowel (schwa or ə).

Nouns and related verbs sometimes have different stresses to indicate that they are different parts of speech.

I went to the record studio to record my demo song.

I suspect that many native readers would have to read that sentence twice to get the pronunciation of the repeated words correct. The would be pronounced with stresses as:

I went to the rècərd studio to rəcòrd my demo song.

A native speaker would know that the first "record" is an adjective and the second "record" is a verb.

To answer your question: English has evolved to have a more consistent orthography, while sacrificing a less consistent pronunciation. So words like

electric

and

electricity

have a common orthography, even though the second "c" in the first word sounds like "k" and the second "c" in the second word sounds like "s". Also, the stress in the first word is on the second syllable, but in the second word is on the third syllable.

English orthography doesn't mark stress. This makes the job easier for the reader and writer, but harder for the speaker and listener.

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I’d say that a “record store” is a noun–noun compound, myself, since it’s a shop for buying records at. –  tchrist May 23 '12 at 16:52
    
I searched Google Maps for a "record store" nearby and came up with "Lunchbox Records" (which presumably sells records) and "CD Warehouse" (which presumably does not). Admittedly, "record studio" is an anachronism. Vocalists just go to the "studio" now, no? –  rajah9 May 23 '12 at 17:48
    
I think they all continue to go to the recording studio –  Jim May 24 '12 at 4:58
    
The OP wants me to perfect the perfect response. –  rajah9 May 24 '12 at 12:30

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