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Stress: highlighting words by making syllables stand out

You may recognize the term usually used in your own language: in Norwegian, stress is called tryk, aksent, betoning; in Swedish betoning; and in Danish tryk.

In Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, there is a shift between stressed and unstressed words in speech. The results is called rhythm. Rhythm is the topic of this section. Exercise (6)-(9) treat the basics about stress. Exercise (10)-(12) will move you from word stress to utterance stress.

Now to an important point: words are not stressed. Only one syllable in every word is stressed. But we think of it as the whole word being stressed. That is what our brains interpret.

Now, which syllables are stressed? Speak the words aloud and circle the strongest syllable in each word.

(6)         Choose your native language or the language you know best! Speak the words aloud and cirkle the stressed syllable.

  1. Swedish: woman explain mother tongue variety mother tongue variety
  2. Danish: female explain mother tongue variety mother tongue variety
  3. Norwegian: woman explain mother tongue variety mother tongue variety

Now, what is the last word of these two questions? What are you supposed to have seen?

(7)         a.     Norwegian and Swedish speakers (and non-native Danish speakers)

(7)         b.     Danish speakers

Maybe you had to think hard before you understood that last word. If you Danish native speakers did not have to think hard with the Swedish question, maybe it was because you are already familiar with the English stress pattern of thatword.

The wrong stress placement is so confusing to a native speaker that he or she may fail to recognize the word even if he/she understands the individual speech sounds in the word.

However, there are not very many related words with different stress placement between Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. Deviant stress probably does not cause much problem for comprehension of the neighboring languages.

Are there rhythmic differences?

There may be some differences in rhythm between the Scandinavian languages, for example in the relation between the stressed and unstressed syllables. Of course, there are also personal differences between speakers, but in our project group, we thought that some languages and some languages, and some language varieties, tended to sound more staccato than the others in general. “Staccato” is a musical term and means that the tones in music are cut short or apart. Here, we mean that the speakers spoke their syllables fast and short, especially in the unstressed syllables. In contrast, the other speakers sounded like they spoke the unstressed syllables a little calmer and longer in comparison to their stressed syllables. What do you think? (There is no answer, just listen and decide for yourself what you think.)

(8)         Compare the melodiousness of the languages and varieties in the question “Do you speak another language?”

  1. Central Swedish
  2. Scania Swedish
  3. Copenhagen Danish
  4. Funen Danish
  5. South East Norwegian
  6. South Norwegian
  7. If you want to compare more utterances, listen to all questions in the text Overview: Intonation in different question types and to the questions on the webpages that are linked from that overview

    Syllables carry stress, but words are highlighted

    When talking about stressed and unstressed syllables: what is a syllable?

    A syllable usually has a vowel in the middle. It may consist of only a vowel (for example ö “island), but usually there are consonants before or after it, or both, for example mo-ders-mål.

    In school, children are sometimes taught to recognize syllables by clapping their hands rhythmically when speaking a word, and it’s not a bad method. Try it out: How many syllables are there in these words? And watch out: some words do not fit the simple explanation “one vowel per syllable”!

    (9)         How many syllables are there in the following words? Choose the language you know best and speak the words aloud.

    1. Swedish: skolbarnen                 varietet     öar     nation
    2. Danish:    skolebørnene           varietet     øer     nation
    3. Norwegian: skolebarnene     varietet     øer     nation

    Primary versus secondary stress

    Now, things will get a little more complicated.

    Look at (and listen to) the syllables in two parallel Swedish expressions in (10)-(11). In the first phrase in (10), efter arbetet (“after work”), there are two words with one stress each. There is one stress on EF-(ter) and one stress on AR-(betet). The stressed syllables are longer than the unstressed syllables, EF- is about 235 milliseconds long, and AR- is about 222 milliseconds long. They are much longer than the unstressed syllables, which can be seen from the visualization. 


    (10)Stress and duration: two words, two primary-stressed syllables     

    In the second phrase, efterarbetet (“the work remaining when a bigger task is finished”), the two words have been put together into one single compound word. See (and hear) what happens to the second stress on AR-:


    (11)      Stress and duration: one compound word, one primary-stressed syllable

    Ar- is still stressed, but it is now a much weaker kind of stress. There strongest stress is on EF-(ter), which is approximately as long as in (11): 227 milliseconds. EF- carries what is called a primary stress. There is usually only one primary stress in a Scandinavian compound, and that is on the first word in the combination. Therefore, ar-(betet) now only carries a secondary stress. You can see and hear that it is shorter than the primary-stressed syllable EF-. You can also compare it to AR- in example (10) above. It is now much shorter, only about 124 milliseconds long.


    Now let us sum up stress. In this introduction of stress, have presented three degrees of stress:


    Table 1. Three degrees of stress

    Degree of stress


    Phonetic features

    unstressed syllable

    Not very noteworthy information


    secondary stressed syllable

    Here’s some noteworthy information

    • Stressed syllable: longer duration, louder and clearer speech sounds, long vowel sounds can be used
    • Primary stressed syllable is usually the longest and most salient syllable in a word

    primary stressed syllable

    Here’s important information

    (The perceived duration of syllables also has to do with phonetic and phonological factors, but we are not going into such detail here.)


    Stress in utterances

    When you speak words one by one, all of them get a stressed syllable. But when they are combined into longer phrases and utterances, only some of the words actually get stress. In the following Danish utterance What study program do you take?, there are two clearly stressed words. Both have primary stress, but one is more stressed than the other. Which word has the strongest stress? Which word has the second strongest stress?


    (12)       This utterance has two stresses. Which two words are signaled as being stressed by the accented syllables, and which word has the strongest stress?

    In this section, stress and rhythm was explained. Rhythm is important in the Scandinavian languages because rhythm interacts with intonation, but rhythm is not a tonal feature.

    The primary stressed syllables of really important words in an utterance are usually also marked by changing the tone in certain ways, i.e., the speaker moves the voice to a higher or lower tone around the primary stressed syllables to make them stand out even more. You probably know the meaning of the word “monotone”; “melodic” is the opposite. Primary stressed syllables with tonal marking are called accented syllables. Accent melodies are explained in Accents: highlighting words by changing the tone, and the way that accent melodies spread over whole accent groups is the topic of Accent groups: chunks of speech formed by accent melodies.



    Abelin, Åsa & Thorén, Bosse. 2016. “Identification of stress, quantity and tonal word accent in Swedish.” Abstract, Conference New Sounds 2016, Aarhus University.

    Alm, Maria. Personal anecdotal evidence of word recognition failure with accompanying need for communicative problem solving caused by unexpected stress placement in a second language, for example Danish ‘VIDunder vs. Maria’s stress placement vi’DUNder in Swedish; German dy’NAmo vs. DYnamo in Swedish.

    Bruce, Gösta. 1998. General and Swedish prosody . Practical Linguistics 16. Lund: Department of Linguistics.

    Kristoffersen, Gjert. 2000. The Phonology of Norwegian. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

    Grønnum, Nina. 2005. Phonetics and phonology: General and Danish. Copenhagen: Akademisk forlag.

Last Updated 09.02.2023