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Metrical Stress Theory

Julie Nelson, Cailey Moe, and Trang Nguyen

Metrical phonology is...
...a group of subtheories of generative
phonology which attempt to categorize
stress and stress rules.

...differs from generative phonology in that
it does not treat stress as a segmental
feature pertaining specifically to vowels.

...organizes stress into rhythmic hierarchies.
These are the faces of metrical phonology!
a brief history...
...metrical stress theory was a response to Chomsky &
Halle's (1968) proposal of a linear analysis that stress is
...Liberman (1975) created the theory in his
doctoral dissertation
...other major contributions: Liberman & Prince
(1977), Halle and Vergnaud (1978), Hayes (1981,1984,
a brief history...

...it can be considered a sort of sister
theory to auto-segmental theory

...its authors sought to provide alternatives
to generative theory such as rule variables

...another way to represent stress in
stress languages at the same time denoting
its hierarchical characteristics.

briefly,generative theories of stress

-Generative stress rules are linear and may
be considered too simplistic by some
-Stress is treated as a segmental feature
[+stress], [-stress], [1stress], [2stress]
-Doesn't account for the hierarchical and
relational properties of stress
A sample stress rule (generative)
Penultimate stress (vowel-counting

V [+stress] / ___ C
Assign stress to the second-to-last vowel in the word.
Building Syllables
All syllables have:
An onset: "The consonant or sequence of consonants at the
beginning of a syllable"
A coda: "The consonant or sequence of consonants at the end of a
And a nucleus: "The vowel or diphthong found at the syllable's
core and functioning as its sonority peak"

Syllable Structure

Syllable Construction
When building syllables, first assign the

Syllable Construction
Next, attach any consonants to the following

Syllable Construction
Finally, if necessary, attach any consonants
not yet syllabified with the preceding

In some languages, Onset Formation appears
to be word bounded, like in German:

Syllable Construction
In other languages, like Spanish, Onset
Formation can cross word boundries:

Syllable Weight
Heavy Syllables:
End in a consonant (aka 'closed syllable')
Have a long vowel or diphthong (aka

Light Syllables:
End in a short vowel (open)

Syllables that end in a consonant are heavy,
ones that end in a vowel are light.
Generative Representation of
Heavy/Light Syllabification

More about syllables...
Every syllable must have a nucleus.
Depending on the language, onset and coda
are not required.

Arabic:Every syllable must have an onset

Samoan: codas are illegal
Metrical Theories of Stress
A summary of the typological properties of stress:
Every content word has to have at least 1 stressed syllable
In every word or phrase there is one syllable which is stronger than the
Stress is not usually assigned on grammatical words
Rhythmic distribution:
Syllables bearing stress tend to occur in roughly equal distances
Stress Hierarchies:
Some stresses are stronger than others within a word or phrase boundary
(primary, secondary, tertiary stresses, etc.)
Stress doesn't assimilate like sound features like [round] or [front] do

Metrical representations of stress
1. Metrical tree (Liberman 1975, Liberman & Prince 1977,
Hayes 1984)

Metrical trees usually have a similar format to syntactic trees

Metrical Representations of Stress
2. Metrical Grid (Liberman & Prince, 1977)

Primary stress
Secondary stress
syllable =>

3. Bracketed Grid (Halle & Vergnaud, 1987)

Grids, continued
Grids are ways to represent certain stress

Grids, continued
Grids roughly correspond to the categorical
levels of stress

In this way, they convey similar information
to what can be found on trees

Parameters of Stress
1. Foot Boundedness

2. Foot Dominance

3. Quantity-sensitivity

4. Directionality vs Iterativity

1. Boundedness
Motivated by culminativity and exhaustivity.
Culminativity: Every content word must have at
least one stress.
Exhaustivity: Every syllable has to be organized
into feet.
Bounded feet can have no more than 2 syllables
(feet are binary or degenerate at the syllabic level of
Unbounded feet can have any number of
Words with an odd number of syllables begin or end
with a degenerate foot.
1. Boundedness

Ex: What types of foot are these?
2. Foot Dominance
Left dominance:
left nodes of feet are stressed
Feet are trochaic (a)
Ex: 'problem, ('holi)day,
'what a ('failure)
Right dominance:
Right nodes of feet are stressed
Feet are iambic (b)
Ex: re'port,
(My 'head) (was 'hot)

3. Quantity Sensitivity (Q-sensitivity)
Syllable weight influences how stress feet are assigned.
Q-sensitive language: heavy syllables get stressed.
English is Q-sensitive:
Light penult: stress goes to preceding syllable.
Ex: 'Canada, 'metrical, 'visible, 'ultimate
Heavy penult: gets the stress
Ex: A'genda, ho'rizon, de'cided, 'mango

Q-determined (Obligatory Branching): means Q-sensitive,
but with the extra requirement that the dominant syllable node
be heavy.

3. Quantity Sensitivity (Q-
Q-insensitive language: heavy syllables may occur in
stressless position. Another way of understanding: syllables
are treated as having equal weight.
French is Q-insensitive. Examples anyone?
4. Directionality vs Iterativity
Directionality: The assignment of feet starts from the left
and goes right or vice-versa
English likes right-to-left, trochaic foot formation.
Ex: restoration => resto('ration) => ('resto)('ration)
Iterativity (bidirectionality): assign a foot at one edge, then
go to the other edge and assign feet iteratively.
Ex: Piro language

Non-iterativity: other cases (words have one single foot at
the edge. Ex: monosyllable or bi-syllable words)

[X] does not conform to metrical rules &
occurs at peripheral locations.
Ex: why is it as'paragus
but not ('aspa)('ragus)
'gus' is extrametrical --> poor thing gets a
degenerate foot (exhaustivity)
Tree construction is right to left and trochaic:

* * * * * * * < * > * (* *)< * >
asparagus => aspara<gus> => as('para)(gus)
More examples: ('visi)('bili)ty, re('peti)tive,
The future of metrical phonology

Can regularities be accounted for by
transformational rules or by output

How does prominence in syllables affect
stress in syllables?

Research in languages with ternary rhythm.
Hammond, M. (1995) Metrical Phonology. Annual Review of Anthropology
24 (pp. 313-342)
Hayes, B. (1995). Metrical stress theory: Principals and case studies.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Hayes, B. (2009) Introductory Phonology. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing: West
Sussex, UK.
Hogg, R. & McCully, C.B. (1987) Metrical Phonology: A Coursebook.
University of Cambridge Publishing: New York, NY.
Kager, R. (1995) The metrical theory of word stress. In The handbook of
phonology, Goldsmith, J (ed.) (pp. 367-402) Blackwell Publishing: Cambridge,
McCarthy, J. & Hayes, B. (2003) Metrical phonology. Linguistics department
faculty publication series. University of Massachusetts Publishing. Retrieved
Metrical Phonology. (n.d) Wikipedia. Retrieved from