ACCENT AND DURATION
What determines the stress or accent in English words and sentences? What precisely does it mean to say, for example, that we stress the first syllable in the word "rabbit" and the second syllable in the word "omit"? What exactly does the voice do to create that audible, distinct accent? (A term that for now I will use interchangeably with "stress.")
at first. Just considering the question can, in itself, help one to hear more about the sounds of the words we speak.
increased loudness or volume is not completely satisfactory, as a little experimentation will suggest. Consider what a speaker does to distinguish between, say, the first word and the last word of the following sentence:
Turning the volume down or up has some relation to what our voice does, but fails to explain the delicate but quite distinct difference that virtually all speakers can indicate and virtually all listeners can detect.
which happens also to be a one-syllable word, is neither stressed nor unstressed, by itself. It is neither short nor long, by itself.
syllables near it, when one says "bitter" or "reiterate" or "she had wit." It is conventionally unstressed when one says "italicize" or "rabbit" or "Pat had it."
stress on a syllable in English is not inherent in the sound, but relative. A syllable is stressed or unstressed only in relation to the syllables around it. As a corollary, accent is a matter of degree. This knowledge is useful because if accent or stress is a matter of degree, we can hear interesting rhythms even in a line where the basic structure is the simple pattern of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables. For example:
It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make man better be.
Each of these two lines is made of four pairs of syllables. Each pair of syllables is arranged so that the second one has more accent than the first: "is" sticks out just a bit more than "It" in the very light first pair; and "grow" sticks out more than "not" in the rather heavy second pair; and "like" sticks out quite a lot more than "-ing"; and "tree" definitely sticks out more than "a." In the final pair of the line ("a tree"), the difference between the unstressed first syllable and the stressed second syllable is greater than in the earlier pairs. We could analyze the second line similarly, noting that the considerable pause early in the line also varies the rhythm.
of four pairs, each pair ascending in accent from first syllable to second, the actual rhythm of the words is not singsong or repetitious, because so much varies. Unless you make the mistake of pronouncing the words in some special, chanting or "poetic" manner, you can hear both the pattern and the constant variation. The degree of accent varies and the degree of difference between the unstressed and stressed syllable also varies, from one pair to the next.