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Introduction to Syllable Priotiry Codes (SPCs)

Languages exhibit a wide range of stress patterns. Latvian, for example, simply places stress on the first syllable of a word. In contrast, Hindi exhibits a considerably more complex pattern. In Hindi, stress falls on the rightmost superheavy syllable in a word (excluding the final syllable), or on the final syllable if it's superheavy and there are no other superheavies. Otherwise, stress falls on the rightmost heavy syllable (excluding the final syllable). If all syllables to the left of the final are light, stress falls on the first syllable of the word (Hayes 1995:276).

In order to avoid such awkward prose descriptions of complex stress patterns, and to facilitate comparisons between the stress patterns of different languages, the Stress System Database uses Syllable Priority Codes, or SPCs, to describe patterns of primary stress (cf. Bailey, 1995).

Syllable Priority

Most primary stress systems can be described by conditional statements of the general form, "Stress syllable A if heavy, else syllable B if heavy, .., else syllable Y if heavy, else syllable Z." Given this general form, it is sufficient to simply list the syllables A, B, ..., Y, and Z. The syllable priority list for the stress pattern of Latvian is therefore just "1", meaning "Stress syllable 1." Hopi provides a slightly more complex example: "Stress syllable 1 if heavy, else syllable 2". This pattern is specified by the notation "12 / 2". This SPC has two priority terms, separated by "/". These terms are arranged in order of decreasing syllable weight. The first term specifies the relative priority among heavy syllables, so that syllable 1 receives stress if it is heavy, and failing that, syllable 2 receives stress if it is heavy. If neither of those conditions holds, then the second term determines that stress falls on syllable 2.

Directionality

Latvian and Hopi assign stress relative to the "left" edge or beginning of a word. In many languages the location of stress is determined relative to the "right" edge or end of a word. The SPC notation accomodates left versus right directionality by placing an "L" or "R" at the end of the syllable priority list to indicate whether the syllables are to be counted from the left or right edge (beginning or end) of a word. Complete SPCs for Latvian and Hopi would therefore be "1L" and "12/2L", respectively. The SPCs "1R" and "12/2R" designate mirror image stress patterns, like those of Cambodian and Hawaiian.

Levels of Syllable Weight

In many languages the location of stress within a word depends on the internal structure of syllables in the word. Languages differ with respect to which aspects of syllable structure are relevant for stress assignment, but all such "quantity-sensitive" stress systems operate on a rich-get-richer principle: Syllables which are already perceptually prominent in some way (e.g. by virtue of having a long vowel or a coda consonant), tend to attract stress. In other words, heavy syllables (the more prominent ones) tend to have higher priority than light syllables in the stress assignment process. The SPC notation makes the syllable priority explicit (as in the "12/2L" SPC for Hopi), without regard to the details of what counts as a heavy or light syllable in a particular language.

Some stress systems have more than two levels of syllable "weight". Pirahã, for example, distinguishes between 5 levels of syllable weight, with stress falling on the heaviest of the last three syllables in a word. In the event of a syllable weight tie, stress falls on the syllable which is closer to the end of the word. The SPC for the stress pattern of Pirahã is "123/123/123/123/1R". The slashes separate groups of syllable numbers which refer to syllables of the same weight class, beginning with the heaviest level of syllable weight and working down. This SPC may be read as "Counting syllables from the right edge of a word, stress falls on syllable 1 if it's in the heaviest weight class (class 5), else on syllable 2 if it's in weight class 5, else on syllable 3 if it's in weight class 5, else on syllable 1 if it's in weight class 4", and so on. Finally, "If there are no heavier syllables, stress falls on syllable 1."

Unbounded Stress

Though many languages evidently assign stress by counting a few syllables from the left or right edge of a word, other languages exhibit unbounded stress systems in which stress falls on the leftmost or rightmost heavy syllable, no matter how far it may be from the edge of a word. For these stress systems it is convenient to count syllables from one edge of the word and designate this thenear edge. The other edge of the word is the far edge.

In syllable priority lists, the numbers 1-4 refer to the first four syllables at the near edge. In addition, we must have a way to refer to syllables at the far edge. This presents something of a problem, since words come in all different lengths. For simplicity, the SPC notation uses the numbers 6-9 to refer to the last four syllables at the far edge of a word. Syllable 9 refers to the edgemost, farthest syllable, syllable 8 refers to the next-to-edgemost syllable, and so on. In a language with final stress, for example, stress is determined relative to the right edge of a word, so this is the near edge and the beginning of a word is the far edge. Syllable 1 in this case refers to the final syllable of a word of any length, and syllable 9 refers to the first syllable. This notation is viable because it's exceedingly rare that a description of a stress pattern must count more than three syllables from the near edge of a word. However, in using this notation, it's important to keep in mind that syllable number 9 stands for the concept "farthest syllable", and is not tied to words of a particular length.

Finally, two dots, "..", in a syllable priority list indicate unbounded continuation of a sequence. A stress system which places stress on the leftmost heavy syllable, for example, might be described with the SPC "12..89/9L" or "12..89/1L", or something similar, depending on the location of stress in words with no heavy syllables.

The SPC notation reduces the stress pattern of Hindi to "23..891/23..89/9R". This replaces the prose description above, which is repeated here for convenience:

In Hindi, stress falls on the rightmost superheavy syllable in a word (excluding the final syllable), or on the final syllable if it's superheavy and there are no other superheavies. Otherwise, stress falls on the rightmost heavy syllable (excluding the final syllable). If all syllables to the left of the final are light, stress falls on the first syllable of the word.

Weight Designators and Bottom-up Stress 

Primary stress in most languages can be described in terms of syllable priorities within descending levels of syllable weight, as in the "123/123/123/123/1R" SPC introduced above for Pirahã. Occasionally it is necessary or helpful to explicitly identify the level of syllable weight for a list of syllable priorities. This is done by including a Weight Designator of the form "@wn" at the end of the group of syllable priorities. The stress pattern of Pirahã, for example, could be rendered more explicitly as:

123 @w5 / 123 @w4 / 123 @w3 / 123 @w2 / 1 R

In some languages the location of primary stress depends on how a word is parsed into metrical feet (indeed, many theoretical treatments of stress assume this is the normal case). Primary stress in Wargamay, for example, falls on the first or second syllable, whichever is an even number of syllables from the end of the word (Hayes 1995:140; my description of Wargamay here is simplified somewhat for exposition). This stress pattern can be analyzed in terms of metrical feet, assuming a word is parsed from right to left into bisyllabic feet. Primary stress then falls on the first syllable if it is "stressed", i.e. if it is the head of a foot. Otherwise primary stress falls on the second syllable. When syllable priority for primary stress evidently depends on the distinction between foot heads and nonheads, the Weight Designator "@s" is used (foot heads often, but not always, correspond to secondary stresses). The SPC for Wargamay is thus "12@sL", which should be accompanied by a description of foot construction in the language.

Examples

Syllable Priority Code examples
SPC Location of Primary Stress Sample Languages
2 2 Dakota, Spanish, Polish
23/3 2 if heavy, else 3 if heavy, else 3 Latin
123@w3/23@w2/3 1 if superheavy, else 2 if superheavy, else 3 if superheavy, else 2 if heavy, else 3 if heavy, else 3 Manam
12..89/1 nearest heavy if any, else nearest syllable Mongolian, Russian, Mayan
12..89/9 nearest heavy if any, else farthest syllable Komi, Eastern Cheremis