A friend of mine has a theory that changing the emphasis from one syllable of a word to another never really affects the "core" pronunciation. So for instance, consider the word umbrella.

The emphasis usually falls on the second syllable: um · BREL · la. But if you decided to emphasize the first syllable instead: UM · brel · la, that doesn't really change what those syllables sound like; it just gives greater force to one of them. The first syllable is still a short-U sound in either case; it doesn't suddenly become a long-U sound because of an emphasis change.

Is my friend's theory correct? Or are there any counterexamples to this, where changing the emphasis actually does alter the fundamental sound of a syllable? (e.g. a legitimate emphasis change -- not a mispronunciation -- that changes a long-A sound to a short-A sound, for instance)

  • 2
    Because of how English stress works, this will necessarily change the fundamental pronunciation, if one is to maintain the natural rhythm of the language. Unstressed syllables almost invariably become schwas or carets. Notice how both the u and the a in umbrella have the same pronunciation.
    – Anonym
    Mar 12, 2014 at 18:57
  • user61979, I think you and I are disagreeing on some terminology. What I'm trying to convey by "fundamental pronunciation" is perhaps better called "vowel sounds." The emphasis always changes the pronunciation, yes, that much is obvious. But whether you say "um · BREL · la" or "UM · brel · la" -- like I said -- that does not really change the "fundamentals" of those syllables. It's still a short-U, short-E, and short-A. Two syllables are just "quicker". But it doesn't become ümbrella because of emphasis. If it did, that'd be what I call a fundamental change in the pronunciation.
    – soapergem
    Mar 12, 2014 at 19:09
  • Really you're just saying the same phoneme that is already there in a louder and more forceful manner, and there is no intrinsic necessity to change the pronunciation (which includes changing a vowel sound). That said, you can choose to change the "vowel sound", or any other sound, for clarity, eg, "blasPHEEmous", or to make it easier to say, eg, in "emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble", I tend to make the emphasised As long - but you don't HAVE to (and there I tend to say emphasised HAVE as HAFF, but that, again, is not based on any necessity).
    – nxx
    Mar 12, 2014 at 19:16
  • A different emphasis that would require a different phoneme would be because you're saying a different word.
    – nxx
    Mar 12, 2014 at 19:21
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    (By the way, it's stress, not "emphasis"; emphasis is a desired effect, not a measurable phenomenon.) Stress always changes vowel pronunciation in English. The full range of phonemically distinct vowels only occurs in stressed syllables. Unstressed syllables are likely to contain only vowels that are centralized to some allophone of /ə/. Mar 12, 2014 at 20:10

1 Answer 1


How about defense?

de-FENSE: the act of protecting.

DE-fense: in American football, the team not in possession of the ball.

  • 1
    You are correct in noting that the emphasis affects the definition, but I believe the OP asked whether emphasis can change pronunciation. Mar 12, 2014 at 19:50
  • I think we have a winner. 1st syllable emphasis ("The Packers' defense was poor this season") has a long-E sound ("dee") while 2nd syllable emphasis ("The Defense of Marriage Act") has a short-E sound ("duh"). Thanks!
    – soapergem
    Mar 12, 2014 at 20:01
  • Stress ("emphasis") is part of pronunciation, of course.
    – fdb
    Mar 12, 2014 at 21:41
  • See also contrary
    – Mynamite
    Mar 12, 2014 at 22:24

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