So, I was just writing a sentence along the lines of "...the sales person will not enter the information....".

I went back and wrote it as "...the sales person will not enter the information...." to make sure we don't lose track of the key bit. If I were speaking that phrase, I would emphasize the 'not'. [I'm guessing there's a linguistic word describing how one stresses some important point in a sentence. I just don't know it.]

I also understand that not all languages have a grammatical construct such that negation is a separate word and/or used in that particular word order. Does that mean a language with "not" as a suffix stresses the suffix to underscore a point?

More generally, do all languages use what I'm calling "stress" or "emphasis" to underscore points? Is that the same thing as asking if all languages of some sort of tonality? Are there languages with zero stress in this regard but use some other means like word order or syntax or some other bit I can't even think of?

If this phenomenon is indeed universal, does that say something about the genetic proclivity for language? If not universal, does it suggest the opposite?

  • 1
    Yes, but ... Every language has its own ways to emphasize things. Leaving out ftf emphasis like eyerolls and pounding on the table, language is sound and sound has only loudness (volume), pitch (tone), and rhythm (sequence) to vary. Most emphasis phenomena are amalgams of these.
    – jlawler
    Feb 25, 2019 at 23:58
  • @jlawler what does ftf mean? Feb 26, 2019 at 14:30
  • 1
    "Face-to-face", i.e, in person communication, with gestures, body language, and facial expressions as well as language.
    – jlawler
    Feb 26, 2019 at 20:24

3 Answers 3


More or less by definition, "emphasis" means "communicating importance". In spoken language there is a common method of signalling importance, via "intonation". Written forms of languages can do the same thing, using capital letters, bold face, underlining, italics, and other combinations. Not all languages are written, so not all languages use graphic methods.

Intonation is a thing that exists in all spoken languages, and the extra lung power, louder and higher pitch thing appears to be universal as a possibility, although as a cultural matter there it is not conventionally implemented the same way (just as people differ in the extent to which they shout in interwebs posts). It is not limited to language, and there are analogs to emphatic speech in music; pounding on a table has an analogous effect and isn't about language. Since it's not just about language, it's not evidence of anything specific to language. However, there may be grammar-specific methods of signalling what vocal emphasis signals, and that stuff is not universal (it's learned on a language-specific basis).

I would be interested to get data on cross linguistic analogs in signed languages (not just ASL, but that would be a good start).


More generally, do all languages use what I'm calling "stress" or "emphasis" to underscore points?

No, they do not all do that. Some languages prefer to use word-order. For example Swahili,

gari langu nzuri
car  my    good

"my good car".

gari nzuri langu
car  good  my

"my good car" (not the other one I own).

This second phrase will usually be spoken with no difference in tone or loudness, and the text will not need any formatting.

  • 2
    In Swahili, word order does provide a means of expressing focal differences that are typically realized in English with intonation. However, emphatic intonation is commonly used in Swahili as well. See Maw & Kelly Intonation in Swahili.
    – user6726
    Feb 26, 2019 at 21:03

Not necessarily, some languages (like my native), express importance by repetition in the discourse. For example:

Did that woman die? [tmmut temghat nni] [tmmut]? 'Berber Language'

This type of repetition is only visible in interrogative senteneces.

  • So interesting! So, in no circumstances do you emphasize a particular word or syllable via volume or speed? Feb 26, 2019 at 20:44
  • we emphasize the word in question like 'tmmut' (died), the speed is not affected, I guess, I'm now repeating the word, and I think the speed is non-affected.. it's like you're saying literally in English 'did that woman die, die' the only difference is that English is SVO, Berber is VSO, so I think if it was SVO where the interrogative ends up with the verb would not be repeated. At first I looked at this a clitic-doubling phenomenon because also the demonstrative doubles in Berber to express emphasis like in 'zrix ayaz-in win' 'I saw that man that', the demonstrative is repeated
    – Tsutsu
    Feb 26, 2019 at 20:51
  • Amazing. I only speak English so it’s very hard for me to wrap my brain around that. Feb 26, 2019 at 20:52
  • are you working on a project? or just doing random research?
    – Tsutsu
    Feb 26, 2019 at 20:55
  • 1
    good then, there is a great deal of variation in languages, I wish you good luck :)
    – Tsutsu
    Feb 26, 2019 at 20:57

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