Tag Archives: word stress

When linguistic terms collide

After publishing my recent post about Spanish commands and accent marks, which featured a short PowerPoint on this topic, I posted the same PowerPoint on the /r/Spanish subreddit and also on a few Facebook groups for Spanish teachers. I got unexpected pushback in those media about Anglicisms in the PowerPoint: Spanish words that I used with an English meaning. Specifically, I used the word estrés to refer to phonological (spoken) stress, i.e. a word’s most prominent syllable, and the word acento to refer to the written accent mark. Both these uses reflect English usage rather than standard Spanish.

Strictly speaking:

  • In Spanish estrés refers to physical or psychological stress. The correct translation of phonological stress (in the English sense) is acento, as in El acento recae en la penúltima sílaba ‘Stress falls on the next-to-last syllable.’ One can also refer to the sílaba tónica (the ‘stressed syllable’), as in La sílaba tónica es la penúltima ‘The stressed syllable is the next-to-last one.’
  • The normal Spanish term for the written accent mark is tilde, which in English refers specifically to the ~ that turns an n into an ñ.

This table summarizes the above:

MeaningStandard Spanish termAnglicized term
phonological stressacento
sílaba tónica
written accent marktildeacento

I used the Anglicized terms because the related topics of phonological stress and written accent marks are already very challenging on their own. First, the rules that govern phonological stress in Spanish, and which underlie the language’s use of written accent marks, are simple to a linguist but not to a layman. For instance, although the primary use of accent marks is to indicate exceptions to the basic stress rules of Spanish, such as caFÉ or teLÉfono, where one would expect penultimate stress (as in HAbla) since the words in a vowel, this pattern fails if a word ends in an -n or -s, as in HAblan or HAblas. It also doesn’t explain the written accent in words like ¿Qué? ‘What?’ and más ‘more.’ Second, even if students understand these rules, they are not used to paying attention to phonological stress: they are generally unaware, for instance, that English features word pairs such as proJECT (verb) and PROject (noun). So mastering this topic requires picking up an ‘ear’ for an aspect of language that one has blissfully ignored for years or even decades.

I should add that native speakers of Spanish also have difficulty with accent marks, just as native speakers of English have difficulty with apostrophes.

Fordham’s curriculum doesn’t allow time to teach a full lesson on accent marks, so instead I present the topic in short bursts, as needed. For example, my second-semester students recently learned command forms such ¡Duerme! ‘Sleep!’, ¡Duérmete! ‘Fall asleep!’, ¡Sé! ‘Be!’ and ¡Ve! ‘Go!’ This topic inevitably raises the question of which commands have accent marks and which don’t — and why. The PowerPoint in my earlier post answers this question accurately and quickly. It does so in part because it uses the anglicized terms estrés and acento instead of the proper Spanish counterparts. Having to explain the Spanish meanings of acento and tilde would gum up the works. So in this case I believe that the ends justify the means. I suspect that many Spanish teachers do the same.

Two other factors besides pragmatics justify my use of the Anglicized terms. The first is that both wordreference.com and linguee.es, both of which are reputable resources, give ‘accent mark’ (or ‘stress mark’) as one meaning of the word acento (although estrés never means phonological stress). The second is that Spanish has a long history of adding Anglicized meanings to existing vocabulary. Some examples are estrella meaning ‘celebrity’ (like English star), modelo meaning ‘fashion model,’ and blanco meaning ‘blank space to fill in.’ While purists may frown on such usages, I like to point out that Simón Bolívar, the great South American revolutionary hero, used papel ‘paper’ in the English sense of ‘newspaper’, and americano ‘American’ to mean someone from the United States, rather than the American continents more generally—a usage that is anathema to many contemporary Hispanics.

If Bolívar could get away with papel and americano, surely the gods of Spanish will forgive my use of estrés and acento in the service of pedagogy?

Stressing about “porque”

I thought there was nothing left for me to learn about Spanish stress, a topic that encompasses both pronunciation — which syllable in a word is given the greatest acoustic prominence — and writing — the use of accent marks to indicate irregular stress (inter alia). After all, I wrote my dissertation about how children learn the relevant pronunciation rules, then spun off two papers on this topic (here and here). More recently I devoted one question in my book to spoken stress, and one to accent marks. And accent marks are always a favorite topic for me to teach, both to students and to native speakers, who are uniformly delighted to learn how systematic this part of Spanish orthography is. My top recommendation for an online summary, with some nifty exercises, is here.

So it was surprising when a conversation with a student made me question, in a small way, my understanding of this topic. I had been going over the stress rules with this student, including the basic rule that words that end in a vowel are stressed on the next-to-last syllable. (Think HEcho, partiCIpa, todopodeROso, and desafortunadaMENte.) She then asked if porque ‘because’ was an exception to this rule.

This question threw me for a loop. Porque is related both to the interrogative ¿por qué? ‘why?’ and the noun porqué, which also means ‘why’, as in el porqué de una decisión ‘the why of a decision’. These two words/phrases both stress the qué, and the student assumed that porque did as well. When I said porque out loud, at first I thought I stressed the que. But the more I repeated the word, the less certain I became of my own stress placement — a kind of Heisenberg effect.

Fortunately, we live in a time that is rich in language resources. I was able to pull up wordreference’s listing for porque, which includes recordings of Mexican, Spanish, and Argentinian pronunciations. These pronunciations are divided: the Mexican pronunciation stresses the que, but the other two clearly stress the por. I then checked on Forvo, a crowd-sourced pronunciation dictionary. Again, the Mexican pronunciations stress the que, and the others — from Spain, the DR, and Argentina — stress the por. However, some examples provided of porque in context — for example, this one, recorded by a speaker from Spain — are more Mexican-style.

So the correct answer to my student’s question seems to be that in general, porque follows the rules of Spanish stress, but not in Mexico, and not always in Spain, either.