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What Is Secondary Stress?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated Jan 26, 2024
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Secondary stress is a specific kind of stress and intonation that linguists define as a stress that is subjugated to another primary stress within a specific multisyllabic word. To put it a different way, the primary stress is the most stressed syllable in a word, and the secondary stress is the next most intensely stressed syllable. Linguists and other experts use primary and secondary stress along with other stress elements, such as tertiary tress, unstressed syllables, and other elements of language that have to do with the overall tone and cadence of language.

Considering primary and secondary stress in words, experts have identified various kinds of stress and intonation that may serve as primary or secondary stresses. One of these is called informational or “tonic” stress, where the pitch of the voice may indicate stress for a syllable. Another is sometimes called “true” or “phonemic” stress, where respiratory changes may produce the stress changes.

It’s important to note that secondary stress usually only applies to longer words of four or more syllables. In these longer words, it can be useful to break down the entire word by stress and examine where both primary and secondary stresses lie. For example, in the word “counterintuitive,” which includes six syllables, most experts generally agree that the fourth syllable receives the primary stress, and the first syllable receives the secondary stress. One way that people work with this stress designation is to explain that the stress of this word breaks it up into two parts, one starting with the first syllable, and the other starting with the fourth syllable.

Another popular element of stress is called the reduced vowel. Reduced vowels are extremely important to understanding more about the stress of the English language. For example, taking the word “deliberate,” linguists can break down the stress, and explain how the primary stress on the second syllable relates to three unstressed vowels in the remaining syllables. The first one is the “e” in the first syllable, in which the vowel is greatly shortened. The second is the “ate”, which is similarly reduced if the word is used as an adjective, but does receive a secondary stress if the word is used as a verb.

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