accent

accent, in speech, emphasis given a particular sound, called prosodic systems in linguistics. There are three basic accentual methods: stress, tone, and length. In English each word has at least one primary stressed syllable, as in weathˈer; words of several syllables may also have secondary stress as in elˈe-vaˌtor. In English, vowels in unaccented syllables are often pronounced as ə regardless of the orthographic letter. Thus, the vowels of the second syllables in cirˈcus, naˈtion, therˈmos, easˈily, saunˈa, and sorˈrel are all pronounced the same. Sentence stress, known as intonation or contour, includes three basic patterns: the statement, It's a dog, where the pitch pattern is level-high-low; the yes/no question, Is it a dog? where the pattern is level-high pitch; and the command, Catch him! which begins high and ends low. Both word stress and sentence stress occur in English. However, emphasis of certain words within a sentence is optional. Tonal languages, such as Chinese and Swedish, have a system of high:low and/or rising:falling tones. Duration or length of sounds (quantity) is used in some languages to create systematic differences. No language uses all three types of accentual systems. In writing, accent is also used to show syllable stress as in Spanish María (acute accent) and Italian pietà (grave accent). Such written symbols, misleadingly termed accents, are often used only to signal specific pronunciation rather than stress, as in French élève. The word accent in English is also understood to mean the pronunciation and speech patterns that are typical of a speech community; it also denotes the particular manner of uttered expression that lends a special shade of meaning, as when one speaks in harsh or gentle accents. See also ablaut and phonetics.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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