Why did some languages develop phonemic stress but others did not?

Based on cursory Google searches, English and Russian have phonemic stress, but not Icelandic. English is far more closely related to Icelandic so I found this quite surprising. Did Old English have phonemic stress? At what point in a language's evolution does it gain or lose phonemic stress?

By phonemic stress, I mean that stress is part of the lexical item, e.g. insight is pronounced /ˈɪnsaɪt/ and incite is pronounced /ɪnˈsaɪt/, and stress is used to tell words apart in speech (can form minimal pairs).

  • If you use technical terms without giving examples of them, we have no idea what you mean by "lexical stress". Certainly some languages have predictable syllabic stress (in Spanish orthography, one marks stresses that don't follow the usual rule), and others don't. English, Russian, and German all have unpredictable syllabic stress. You may have been reading about something else. Not all languages have "stress" (usually a combination of high tone and high amplitude, with strong effect on sound qualities), and if they do, like Japanese, it may be a matter of tone.
    – jlawler
    Feb 11, 2023 at 17:23
  • @jlawler i meant that stress is lexically encoded. I would count Japanese among the languages I consider to have "lexical stress". I don't think Spanish counts as predictable? I checked the Wikipedia page on stress and what I was trying to ask about is called "phonemic stress" there, so I think I used the wrong term anyway. I've changed the question to use "phonemic stress" too.
    – minseong
    Feb 11, 2023 at 17:33
  • Yeah, "phonemic stress" means that stress is unpredictable and therefore should be marked in phonemic transcriptions. Like English. Unlike Latin, where the syllable containing the antepenultimate mora was stressed automatically. We'd say that stress was phonemic in English but not in Latin. But as I said, not all languages have "stress" on each word; there may be more going on, like intonation, lexical tones, or individual style.
    – jlawler
    Feb 11, 2023 at 17:44
  • Are you really talking about tonic accent?? In any language, if a word has more than a single syllable, one or the other syllable can be stressed.
    – Lambie
    Feb 11, 2023 at 18:59
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    @Lambie It’s phonemic in that, like phonemics, it can distinguish meanings on its own (form minimal pairs). ‘Phonemic stress’ is a standard term for the situation where stress in a language is not predictable and moving the stress is sufficient to create different words. ‘Tonic accent’ is an ambiguous term (especially when you also start talking about higher pitch), since it’s also used to refer to pitch accent, which English does not have. Feb 12, 2023 at 0:18

3 Answers 3


To answer the question in the title, it usually goes something like this, historically:

  • There's a predictable rule for where stress is placed. In Classical Latin, it goes on the penultimate syllable if it's heavy, and the antepenult otherwise.
  • This manifests in some very strong, very noticeable way. Vulgar Latin reduced many of its vowels in unstressed position.
  • Regular sound changes mess up the conditions that the predictable rule depends on. In later Latin, vowel length is lost (so "heavy" vs "light" syllables stop being distinct) and syncope removes some syllables.
  • But, the strong, noticeable manifestations of the stress are now learned as part of the individual words. The rule is gone, but the stress remains.
  • You now have lexical stress. Welcome to Romance.
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    There are exceptions to this, of course, such as Greek and Sanskrit (and, further back, Proto-Indo-European), where we have no evidence of any stage preceding the last. Feb 12, 2023 at 0:11
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    @JanusBahsJacquet No evidence, but that doesn't mean the previous stages didn't exist. The PIE accentual patterns must have come from somewhere, after all.
    – Draconis
    Feb 12, 2023 at 0:21
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    Certainly they must – but we don’t have any particular reason to believe that they came from a system that had predictable stress. It’s common enough for automatic stress systems to become phonemic by the process you describe, but it’s also very common for phonemic stress systems to become automatic (Proto-Germanic, Old Welsh, French, Czech, etc.). As with many other features of language, we can’t say that one is inherently more ‘primitive’ or likely than the other. Feb 12, 2023 at 0:26
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Oh, I definitely don't mean to say that one of them is more primitive or more likely—just that, over the long prehistory of (Pre-)Proto-Indo-European, it's most likely both had and lacked lexical stress at different points.
    – Draconis
    Feb 12, 2023 at 0:47
  • +1 for not repeating the term phonemic stress.
    – Lambie
    Feb 12, 2023 at 18:52

Your criteria for deeming something to be "lexical stress" kicks the can down the road, by stipulating that stress location in insight / incite is "part of the lexical item". Usually we say that something is "part of the lexical item" if it has to be stored in the lexicon, and is not the result of applying rules that give different surface forms. There is a well-known grammatically-based difference between nouns and verbs in English regarding the placement of stress, and insight / incite is a good example of that.

The sound pattern of English is a classic analysis of English phonology which completely predicts stress (making it entirely non-lexical), at the cost of some abstractness (for example positing a consonant cluster in vanilla as opposed to none in Pamela). There are other somewhat less-abstract analyses, for example Hayes' analysis that says that certain things are "ignored" (extrametrical), which reduces to enclosing part of the string in parentheses and "not seeing" that part of the string when you apply the stress rule. Ultimately, there is some lexical marking, even if you don't mark stress itself in the lexicon.

At the level of data, the pertinent question is what creates the surface data that makes one think that there is "lexical stress". There really is no single answer other than to say "because it's not possible to predict", but we also have to include some condition like "based on any reasonable analysis of underlying forms". For example, many dialects of Arabic have a Latin-like stress system which stresses the last heavy syllable within a final window of three syllables (otherwise, stress is on the antepenult). But some (many) of those dialects also split up final consonant clusters with epenthetic [i]. The interaction of these rules is the surface stress contrast [ˈkatabat] 'she wrote' vs [kaˈtabit] 'I wrote' from /katabt/. There are ample grounds for distinguishing the endings /t/ vs /at/, and it is perfectly reasonable to maintain that Arabic stress is predictable, just not totally trivial. It is not trivial to the point that it can be left off of (good) transcriptions, but it is not memorized.

Latin had a contrast between long and short vowels, which was lost in the Romance languages, but still resulted in some positional contrasts in Romance (under the reasonable assumption that the modern languages do not covertly maintain historical vowel length). The broad answer is that via historical changes, a transparent stress system can become opaque due to changes in the conditioning factors. But the specific reason for lexical stress in Slavic is different from the specific reason in Romance.

The opacity of English stress is very much connected to competing lexical sources, in that Germanic vs. Romance vocabulary had different surface stress patterns. Place names famously exemplify the principle that you need to know the etymology to know the stress – people from outside the Pacific Northwest tend to use "general rules" to stress words like Yakima, and there is local variation in more-obscure names like Swinomish. Algonkian place names follow different rules, which people from Maine know, but I don't know (except from having read the stress literature). English stress is not entirely memorized, but it is at least highly memorized.

Whether or not one should deem Japanese to have "lexical stress" is a matter of substantial controversy – the alternative is that it is a restricted tone language. The Tokyo system is pretty restricted, but some dialects (e.g. Ibukijima) are, at least in terms of surface contrasts, similar to West African tone languages. I have seen highly-restricted tone languages being described as having "lexical stress" (certain Bantu languages such as Safwa). There isn't a particularly good argument one way or the other for declaring that Safwa has lexical stress vs. restricted tone.


The presumption of the questions is not true, German has phonemic stress as illustrated by, e.g., this minimal pair:

'umfahren : um'fahren 
(Er fährt den Fußgänger um 'he runs down the pedestrian' : Er umfährt den Fußgänger 'he drives around the pedestrian')

and there are a lot more verbs fitting this pattern.

  • FYI, I’ve edited the question to use an example that does have predictable stress instead, so this answer (which is really more of a comment) is no longer relevant. Feb 12, 2023 at 0:19
  • This make the whole question moot, because German is a peer West Germanic language to English and the perceived difference calls for an explanation. If Icelandic is really relevant here is not clear. Feb 12, 2023 at 9:19
  • I don’t see how substituting Icelandic makes anything moot. English and Icelandic are still both Germanic and much closer to each other than English and Russian. The question has nothing to do with exactly how closely related English and German in particular are – that was just an example to show that stress systems do not necessarily match even in fairly closely related languages. The question could as well have used Macedonian (fixed stress) and Bulgarian (phonemic stress), both of which are Eastern South Slavic languages. Feb 12, 2023 at 12:14

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