Stress is good. That’s why Shakespeare could never have been French. (Say what? Read on for an explanation.)

No, not that kind of stress! We’re talking about stressing syllables, not your mind.

English poetry and prose alike depend heavily on stress—especially poetry.

In prose, if you get the stress wrong, your words may be incomprehensible. Or you may sound like a foreigner. Or even like a robot.

Monolingual anglophones may assume that all languages have this property. But they don’t. Some languages have stress. Some have tone. Some have both. Some have neither. In the five-minute video below—which you absolutely should watch as soon as you’ve finished this paragraph—Tom Scott uses straightforward explanations to show lexical stress (examples like the English contrast of “a cóntest” vs. “to contést”) and prosodic stress (“you did it” vs. “You did it”). He observes that lexical stress doesn’t exist in French, which means that the characteristic rhythm of Shakespeare’s poetry and prose can’t exist. OK, so watch the video…

One additional point that Scott doesn’t have time to get to: why does the absence of contrastive lexical stress in French sound to us like it’s always the last syllable that is stressed? I mean, he points out the phenomenon, but he doesn’t explain it. It’s because the default English stress, especially for nouns, is earlier than the last syllable, most often the first in fact, so the relatively flat lexical stress of French sounds in contrast like the last syllable is stressed. You can hear something similar in Japanese, which also does not use lexical stress, but there we expect second-syllable stress in English—so we naturally say “tempúra” in English, making the unstressed “tempura” in actual Japanese sound to us like “témpura.” If you can’t pronounce French and Japanese correctly—and most of us can’t—you can get away with more convincing mispronunciations by stressing the last syllable in French and the first in Japanese.

Categories: Linguistics