9 jul. 2004

g r a p e z: Triangulating Language

"...you cannot have three consecutive unstressed or stressed syllables in English. That?s it. One of those three syllables will be more stressed or unstressed than the others, even if ever so slightly so."

Ham, cheese, eggs. [three syllables in a row, all stressed]

Break, break, break [Tennyson]

Veritably unimpressive. [a phrase containing five syllables in a row, all unstressed]

I think what Greg means is that, in examples like the second one, a polysyllabic word can take a secondary stress "UN-im-PRES-sive. VE-ri-TA-ble.

Stress is not a matter of infinite gradations, as I understand it. It is however, both relative and hierarchical. Greg's point is a valid one, as far is it goes: a string of unstressed syllables will tend to fall into constrasting binary or ternary patterns, when set against a metrical pattern. Thus a phrase like "In an inexplicable way," which contains four unaccented syllables when spoken normally, can be saved by the fact that there might be a secondary stress on IN and IN.

This is quite distinct from Liberman's point that "weak positions in the meter should not coincide with stress peaks." I'm not sure why he feels this description is overly technical. For me it is quite elegant.

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