In linguistics, “stress” is when one syllable is pronounced with more emphasis than other syllables around it. English has a stress accent, as in the following two examples:
This example shows that stress can potentially change the meaning of a word in English. This is what linguists call “phonemic stress.” Arabic has a stress accent, but it’s typically not phonemic, i.e. it can’t change the meaning of a word. Although in some dialects it can be considered marginally phonemic. Before we can understand the rules of stress placement in Arabic, we need to understand something about syllable structures.
Syllabes are ways to break up bits of language in time. The word pro.duce has two syllables, pro.duc.tion has three, and pro.duc.ti.vi.ty has five. Syllables can also be broken up into smaller parts. The word dig has one syllable, with /d/ as the onset, the vowel /i/ as the nucleus, and /g/ as the coda.
Arabic syllables must always have both an onset and a nucleus. Codas are optional. So if we take the Classical Arabic utterance شربت الماء الحارة (“I drank the hot water”), we can break it into syllables as follows:
Some of these syllables have short vowels, others have long vowels. Some have codas, others lack codas. Both of these factors determine the “weight” of the syllable. Arabic has 3 weights for syllables:
Heavy Syllable—a syllable that has (short vowel + coda) OR (long vowel – coda)
Superheavy Syllable–a syllable that has (long vowel + coda)
Based on these definitions we can color-code the above utterance according to syllable weight. Light syllables are green, heavy syllables are blue, and superheavy syllables are red.
Placement of stress in Levantine Arabic
Levantine Arabic has a pattern of stress placement similar to that of Latin. Some terminology: final syllables are those at the end of the word, penultimate syllables are second to last, and antepenults are third to last. In transcriptions below, bold text indicates that a syllable is stressed. Here are the rules.
1) Words that have only one syllable put the stress on that syllable, unsurprisingly.
bēt بيت “house”
2) Words that have two syllables put the stress on the penultimate syllable, unless the final syllable is superheavy in which case it takes stress.
ka.tab كتب “he wrote”
ba.nāt بنات “girls”
3) Words that have three or more syllables follow a set of rules based on these conditions:
da.ra.jāt درجات “degrees”
ħa.rār.tu حرارتو “his temperature”
ma.kā.tib مكاتب “offices”
mad.ras.ti مدرستي “my school”
mad.ra.se مدرسة “school”
ka.ta.bū كتبو “they wrote”
Things that move stress around
In English, adding morphological endings to a word can change the placement of stress.
Similarly in Arabic, some morphological endings can change where stress is placed.
jā.yib.lak جايبلك “bringing for you”
In the first word, the final syllable yib isn’t superheavy so the one before it takes the stress. But in the second word yib has now become the penult and it’s heavy, so it takes the stress. Here’s another example:
ka.ta.bū.hā كتبوها “they wrote it (f.)”
In the first word, stress defaults on the antepenult (ka) because the final (bū) isn’t superheavy and the penult (ta) isn’t superheavy or heavy. But in the second word, with the addition of another syllable, bū has become the penult and it’s heavy, so by the rules it must now take the stress.
The 3rd person masculine pronoun, when attached to a noun or verb, is usually a final –u, e.g. bētu “his house.” But when the word it’s attached to ends with a long vowel, then instead the pronoun is -h, e.g. fīh “in him.” The addition of this pronoun can affect the placement of stress.
ka.ta.būh كتبوه “they wrote it (m.)”
In the second example the final syllable has become superheavy, so it takes the stress. However, the vast majority of speakers do not pronounce this final –h sound, and so the presence of the 3rd person masculine pronoun is felt only by the change in stress placement.
Things that don’t move stress around
The definite article has no effect on the placement of stress.
ʔᵉl.ma.ra المرة “the woman”
In the second word, neither the final nor the penultimate syllable meet the qualifications to take stress, so you’d expect the antepenult ʔᵉl to take it. But it doesn’t, because it’s the definite article.
We’ve previously seen how Levantine Arabic adds epenthetic vowels when too many consonants get clustered together, especially near the ends of words. This epenthetic vowel sounds similar to a short /i/ vowel. The epenthetic vowel almost never has an effect on the placement of stress—the language pretends it doesn’t exist when it places stress.
bi.nᵉt.nā (sounds like bi.nit.nā) بنتنا “our daughter”
In the second word we might expect nit to take stress because it’s the penult and it’s a heavy syllable. But because the vowel is actually an epenthetic vowel (nᵉt), it doesn’t count, so stress still goes on the antepenult syllable.
There is one exception where the epenthetic vowel does takes stress, and that’s when you have the sequence [past tense verb] + li + [pronoun ending]. Conjugations of verbs like this can put a bunch of consonants next to each other, and so an epenthetic vowel is often needed to break them up.
جبتلك jibtᵉllak “I brought for you.”
Since combining jibt with lak would normally produce a 3-consonant cluster—which Levantine Arabic rarely tolerates—an epenthetic vowel is inserted to break up the cluster, and the /l/ consonant is doubled. We can analyze the syllables of this word as follows:
Cases like this are the one exception where a consonant with an epenthetic vowel receives stress. But when this occurs, the epenthetic vowel consistently takes the stress.