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Do All Languages Have Word Accent? Synthesis Essay

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Updated: Dec 29th, 2019


Larry Hyman who is the author of the report on the universality of word accent is a linguistics professor at the University of California where he specializes in phonology. He has a keen interest in languages of the African people. Larry Hyman has conducted several award winning researches and is credited for numerous quality and informative publications in linguistics.

The report is published by the University of California in Berkley where the author is based. The main idea of Hyman’s report is to provide a clear argument on the contentious issue of word-level stress accent and to try to establish whether it is universally applicable in all languages.

Students, other scholars and enthusiasts of linguistics may find this report very handy in improving their knowledge on stress and accent. This paper is a critical review of the report on whether all languages have word accent.

Summary and Description

Hyman’s report uses a logical and very persuasive approach that focuses on a broad perspective of word-level accent and not the way it is perceived in traditional linguistic literature (Hyman, 2012). The report is divided into five sections addressing forty-nine items that look at the relationship between word stress and accent besides addressing the issue of universality of accent.

The first section, which is an introductory section, handles the initial four items and introduces the important issues that the report addresses. Hyman begins his report with a definition of word accent and distinguishes it from word stress in terms of inclusiveness and description. He asserts that since all languages have word stress, they must automatically have word accent.

In the second section, Hyman handles the definition of stress accent and embarks on the traditional definition of what makes up a stress accent system. Under item number five, he provides eight clear characteristics of a stress system. Hyman gives a description of a stress system that looks a lot like English then goes ahead to justify why metrical stress is very unambiguous in English.

Subsequently, the report looks at three different approaches that can be used to define stress accent. The first method (phonetic method) is about the phonetic manifestation of stress and focuses on the outlook and the intensity of the stressed syllables. The second approach proposed by the report is the functionality method, which concentrates on the communicative intentions that motivate stress accent.

The last approach is the formal technique that addresses stress using its structural characteristics. To determine the universality of stress accent, the author lists nine characteristics that make a stress accent canonical. He adds that a stress system that violates any of the items listed is non-canonical and cannot claim universality.

The third section of the report looks at languages that do not follow the conditions outlined in section two. It starts by listing five criteria that a canonical language needs to meet, but concedes that there are some languages that satisfy only part of the conditions set. Taking Kinga, a Bantu language as an example, the author looks at some of the problems that become evident as one tries to apply these principles to such a language.

He then introduces a distinction between pitch accent and stress accent. He refers to pitch accent as that which meets part of the properties of stress accent or demonstrates a collection of properties linked to the ones outlined.

Hyman supports a property-driven typology approach, which he believes avoids the labeling of languages and instead focuses on categorizing based on individual properties. This approach seeks to establish the extent to which specific properties of a language relate to the true definition of stress accent.

The author goes ahead to give examples of cases where certain languages lack word stress. He also identifies other problems that arise in an attempt to attain universality of word accent.

This section predominantly looks at problems that come up when comparing the conventional properties of pitch and duration (vowel length) with word accent. In the remaining sections (four and five), Hyman presents an interesting argument on the universality or specificity of word accent.


Broadly, an accent is the way people sound when they talk. The way each person uses the sound system is exceptional and special. Most people modify the way they speak in tune with others close to them. People share the way they pronounce words in a certain language.

Scholars of phonology call this pronunciation accent. Accent includes an amalgamation of consonants, vowels and other features of speech like length, tempo, emphasis, tone, cadence, and loudness (Riad & Gussenhoven, 2007). There are basically two types of accent. One is the primary language accent, which refers to the way different people pronounce words in their native languages (Yavas, 2006).

Such variations are influenced by the geographical environment of a person and the social group to which they belong. The other type is foreign accent and arises when people learn to speak languages other than their native tongue (Moyer, 2013). Therefore, stress is either labeled as a stress accent or dynamic accent (Moyer, 2004).

This report generates various fascinating observations on theoretical management of stress. I agree with Hyman’s property driven typology that bases most academic work about stress on descriptions learned from grammar.

The author certainly attains his goal of showing the reader in a series of well laid arguments what he means by the universality of accent and if they are indeed universal. The report is clearly written and easy to comprehend for anyone who wants to increase their understanding of stress accent and typology in phonology.

The main linguistic features of prosody are pitch, duration and loudness. Upon scrutiny of native speech, it is evident that there are approximately seventy percent sentences possessing pitch declinations (Everaert, Musgrave & Dimitriadis, 2009). Hyman gives a clear and professional distinction between pitch accent and word-level stress accent.

In this regard, the report compares favorably to other literature of its nature and can be useful as a complementary material to be used alongside other scholarly works. Hyman certainly demonstrates why he is considered an authority in phonology and why his studies of African languages are highly recommended for students of linguistics and budding scholars.

Following a string of insightful approaches, Xu argues that there is no specific universal form for the intonation of an utterance (2001). Therefore, the superficial F0 declination is influenced by the role of various sources, for instance the decline produced by L tone. It might also be influenced by a fresh topic or focusing on utterance.

The relationship between accent and such intonation can be explored by assessing the influence of placing word accent on the down-step of intonation and looking at the integration of accent and intonation.

This comparative approach is well elaborated in Hyman’s report. Shih (2001) notes from her study on a collection of sentence syllables that the initial sentences have higher F0 values and pitch levels compared to the later ones. Her study concludes that accent and intrinsic F0 in vowels are universally found in all languages.

Word accent is global and tongue-specific for any language. According to Gussenhoven, such universality is found in the paralinguistic meanings of pitch deviation (2004). Specificity as outlined in Hyman’s report lies in the meanings attached to words of different languages.

Some languages combine stress accent and pitch accent in that the stressed syllables with accent can possess more than one tone while syllables that are not stressed do not have a tone. An instance of such pitch accent is found in the Serbo-Croatian accent.

The comparative method employed by Hyman when looking at word stress and word accent in different languages helps in understanding the universal or specific nature of word accent. Different languages such as Chinese, Turkish, or Mohawk present added platforms in exploring universality. In Chinese, a word consists not only of consonants and vowels, but also the pitch with which it is spoken.

This suggests that a syllable like ‘ma’ spoken with a high pitch is very different from the one spoken in a low pitch in mandarin. The first case has the meaning of mother while the second means hemp. The same syllable, when spoken with a high falling tone means to scold. However, the fact that most of the languages Hyman uses as examples are Bantu limits the scope of his report.

A report of this nature aimed at establishing universality ought to incorporate more examples from different categories of languages. Nevertheless, it is understandable why Hyman prefers the use of Bantu languages as examples since his main research specializes in African languages.

It is important not to confuse pitch accent and word-level stress. Pitch accent is not globally established in all stress languages. According to Rialland & Robert, Wolof language has word-level stress but does not have phrase-level pitch accent on the stressed syllables (2001). The general definition of stress adopted by Hyman in items seven and eight gives us a clear direction of his philosophy regarding the concept.

He proposes that a stress system is obligatory and cumulative, and must have a syllable or syllables. This definition provides a clear understanding of what qualifies as a stress system thereby avoiding ambiguity. Hyman also makes an important point that a lexical word has only one stress. The best thing about the report besides its clarity is the way points are organized in a coherent flow with thoughts that are well illustrated.


A better understanding of this report requires one to follow Hyman’s other writings on the subject as well as those of other authorities on stress and accent. Though a comprehensive typology for addressing the universality of word-level accent is yet to be formulated, Hyman’s work certainly makes an important contribution to the body of literature that is useful in this endeavor.

His approach is easy to comprehend and apply to other studies of this nature. Consequently, the value of this report to phonology must not be underestimated, and the material should be recommended in linguistics together with other scholarly articles and reports written by Hyman.


Everaert, M., Musgrave, S. & Dimitriadis, A. (2009). The use of databases in cross-linguistic studies. New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Gussenhoven, C. (2006). Between stress and tone in Nubi word prosody. Phonology, 23(2), 193-223. DOI: 10.1017/S0952675706000881

Hyman, M. L. (2012). Do all languages have word accent? Web.

Moyer, A. (2004). Age, accent, and experience in second language acquisition: An integrated approach to critical period inquiry. New York, USA: Multilingual Matters.

Moyer, A. (2013). Foreign accent: The phenomenon of non-native speech. New York, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Riad, T. & Gussenhoven, C. (2007). Typological studies in word and sentence prosody. New York, USA: Walter de Gruyter.

Rialland, A. & Stephane, R. (2001). The intonational system of Wolof. Linguistics, 39(5), 893–939.

Shih, C. (2001). Generation and normalization of tonal variations. Journal of Chinese Linguistic, 2001(17), 32-52.

Xu, Y. (2001). Sources of tonal variations in connected speech. Journal of Chinese linguistics, 2001(17), 1-31.

Yavas, M. (2006). Applied English phonology. Australia: Blackwell Publishing.

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