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In English, lexical stress is occasionally used to differentiate words with the same consonant and vowel phonemes and that have related meanings. (Please forgive the incomplete definitions.)

re ˈpeat = do again
ˈre peat = something done again

con ˈtrast = to describe differences
ˈcon trast = salient difference

in ˈsult = to demean or belittle
ˈin sult = a demeaning or belittling act--verbal or otherwise

ˈdis charge = something that leaves Y
dis ˈcharge = prompt or cause X to leave Y

Even so, English words differentiated by lexical stress don't always have related meanings:

ˈob ject = solid or tangible thing
ob ˈject = protest

ˈsub ject = topic, living object of an experiment
sub ˈject = inflict upon

My question is "are there languages that use lexical stress exclusively or almost exclusively to differentiate words that have the same phonemes but do not have related meanings?

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  • Your examples "object" and "subject" do have related meanings, but their relation is unclear to me. In answer to your question I have a feeling that Ainu satisfies your criterion but I'm unable to think of any examples right now May 5, 2023 at 8:08
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    It’s common enough for languages to have non-related pairs that are distinguished only by stress, but by ‘exclusively’, do you mean whether there are languages where there are no stress-differentiated word pairs that have related meanings at all? For example, Spanish has unrelated cases like caso ‘case’ and casó ‘s/he married’ which are distinguished by stress, but there are also regular stress-based distinctions within the verbal paradigm (caso ‘I marry’ vs casó ‘s/he married’; casara ‘that I/s/he would marry’ vs casará ‘s/he will marry’) – so would you discount Spanish? May 5, 2023 at 10:11
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    Sp: pápa, potato; papá, dad. May 5, 2023 at 11:58
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    First of all, you need to say verbs versus nouns. Presenting them together is confusing.
    – Lambie
    May 5, 2023 at 15:02

5 Answers 5

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I have some examples from Russian.

  • дорога means "road, path" if the stress is on second syllable, but with the stress on the third syllable, it's an inflection of the word for "dear" or "expensive".

  • мука means "flour" with the stress on the second syllable but "torment" with the stress on the first syllable

  • стоит means "he/she/it is standing" with the stress on the second syllable but "he/she/it is worth [something]" with the stress on the first syllable

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    Russian /daro'ga/ and /daraga'/ are written the same, but the vowels are different. Similarly /stait'/ and /sto'it/.
    – fdb
    May 5, 2023 at 12:19
  • @fdb You are right about many dialects of course (not dialects with оканье), and something similar goes for мука. But in the context of OP's question, this matter of vowel reduction is secondary to stress placement because it is not a phonemic feature May 5, 2023 at 13:33
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While consóle (provide comfort to) and cónsole (type of electronic device) are technically related, their meanings are distant enough that I doubt many English-speakers are aware of their shared history.

It goes back to French sculptors putting Christian iconography on certain architectural features, which led to a derivative of consoler (provide comfort to) being used for those features. In the 1800s the name of the architectural feature was applied to the control system of an organ (the musical instrument), which led to it being extended to control systems for all sorts of things (as in "operator's console"), and then through metonymy to many types of electronic devices that use such control systems (as in "video game console").

People not familiar with the history of French architecture and pipe organs generally consider them unrelated words that just happen to look alike by coincidence.

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For some truly unrelated words, English has entránce (to put someone into a trance) and éntrance (a way to enter a space).

These two have different, and fairly transparent, morphology: en + trance, and enter + ance. As a result, I doubt any English-speakers consider them related.

(Adding as a separate answer so they can be voted up or down separately.)

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  • They also have different phonemes! May 7, 2023 at 13:07
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Though not lexical stress, Japanese uses different pitch accent patterns to differentiate words:

sàké 'alcohol, sake'

sáꜜkè 'salmon'

It could get more complex when you consider attaching clitics:

hànáꜜ 'flower'

hàná 'nose'

These two sound the same when standing alone, but if you attach a clitic, like =ga (subject marker), =wa (topic marker), etc., the clitic will be low for flower but high for nose

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German has things like wi’dersprechen “contradict” and wiederspre’chen “speak again”. (Same vowel sounds, but with artificial orthographic distinction.)

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  • @Героямслава. Fair enough.
    – fdb
    May 5, 2023 at 14:17

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