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According to Wikipedia, lexical stress in Standard English* is "phonemic" (whatever they think they mean by that), using the minimal pair insight/incite as an example. My hypothesis is that, across Standard English, lexical stress is mostly consistent. I am however not very familiar with the many different English accents, so I wonder whether this is true.

Note that I'm specifically not considering prosodic stress, or how stress is realised (inflection, vowel length, etc.) in different accents. I'm only asking about one part of the puzzle: if Standard English speakers are asked to mark the stress of words, would they mostly agree**, regardless of their accent?


* I know, this is a vague term. I'm mostly concerned about what's called "native English" in North America, the British Isles, Australia, and New Zealand. If you believe that's too narrow of a definition, please don't hesitate to comment on that.

** If you need a metric for agreement: the correlation of the placement of primary lexical stress for each word (only distinguished by exact spelling and part of speech, to account for details like heteronyms and unexpected spellings), weighed according to that word's frequency (in a corpus of your choice, which usually also comes with a preferred PoS inventory).

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    You say poh-TAY-to, I say pah-tah-TO. You say CER-a-bral, I say ce-REE-bral. I refute it thus. – cobaltduck Mar 15 '16 at 19:09
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    @jejorda2 That is an interesting example. I updated the question to clarify what I mean by consistency, but I unfortunately can't qualify what I mean by "mostly". – Rhymoid Mar 15 '16 at 19:09
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    You say a-DULT, I say AH-dult. You say ga-RAJH, I say GA-rij. You say FER-tl, I say fer-TILE. – John Clifford Mar 15 '16 at 20:44
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    @DanBron Not me. I'm looking forward to the next request for proofreading a resume. But that's only because I enjoy watching Ranthony get medieval on posters. – deadrat Mar 15 '16 at 21:32
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    That's pretty much what I expected your intention to be. I think that if you add this bit of clarification to the question it may help. Maybe even something simple like "There are going to be some words where pronunciation norms change the vowels or even syllable breaks. This may cloud the lexical stress question. Please feel free to treat those as outliers exempted from the 'Standard'." – H.R.Rambler Mar 17 '16 at 17:26
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I will defer to someone who can provide more explicit references, but I'm going to say "yes, it is mostly consistent", for two reasons:

  • "J. C. Wells: Accents of English" (by John C. Wells, the famous British phonetician), in summarizing the phonetic features of the various major accents of English, mentions word stress only twice:

    • In the West Indies, "Words such as realize are stressed on the last syllable."
    • In India, "word stress sometimes deviates from that of other accents (acquire [ˈɛkʋaɪɹ])."


    Additionally, it mentions that RP has a "[w]eak suffix in -ary: momentary /ˈməʊməntrɪ/; but not in -ile: hostile /ˈhɒstaɪl/". Under some analyses, these would be differences in secondary stress between different accents; under other analyses, unreduced vowels are not inherently considered stressed, so these would just be differences in vowel reduction, not in stress. (Wells apparently subscribes to the latter camp, else he would presumably have written /ˈhɒsˌtaɪl/.)

  • Anecdotally: when I've listened to non-American accents, I've frequently noticed differences in stress placement in various words, such as protester and elsewhere, but my experience is that these are by far the exception rather than the rule.

Of course, even within an accent, there is often variation between different speakers, especially in less-common words.

  • In Southern US English and African American English, there is a tendency to pronounce words like police, TV (teevee), and Detroit as police, TV (teevee), and Detroit. – Matt Aug 4 '16 at 17:34
  • @Matt: I'm not very familiar with Southern US English, but as far as AAVE goes, I don't think Detroit is very common (at least among people who actually live in the general area of Detroit). I'm also not sure about police; I've definitely heard it with a full vowel in the first syllable, but I think the stress is usually on the second syllable (so, rhythmically analogous to the last two syllables of "Little Bo Peep"). – ruakh Aug 4 '16 at 17:48
  • @Matt: (To your general point, though: yes, if we broaden scope beyond Standard English, we'll find more words where stress placement varies between dialects. In fact, even within Standard English, there are a lot of words where stress placement varies; it's just that these are vastly, vastly outnumbered by words where it doesn't. And I think that probably remains true even when we consider dialects that aren't considered "Standard English".) – ruakh Aug 4 '16 at 17:50

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