Sentence stress in presidential speeches


Sentential prominence is not represented in writing, it is hard to measure phonetically, and it is highly variable, yet it undoubtedly exists. Here we report preliminary findings from our study of sentential prominence in the inaugural addresses of six US presidents. We confirm the familiar hypothesis that sentential prominence has two sources (Jespersen 1920): it is partly MECHANICAL and depends on syntax (Chomsky and Halle 1968, Liberman and Prince 1977, Cinque 1993) and partly MEANINGFUL in that it highlights informative material (Bolinger 1972). Both contribute independently to perceived prominence. Pursuing the view that sentential prominence is a matter of STRESS, we provide evidence for the linguistic reality of the Nuclear Stress Rule (Chomsky and Halle 1968) as well as the view that information coincides with stress peaks in good prose (Bolinger 1957). We also observe that part of speech matters to sentence stress: noun and adjective stresses are loud and mechanical; verb and function word stresses are soft and meaningful. We suggest that this may explain why parts of speech differ in word phonology as well.

Prosody in Syntactic Encoding, Linguistische Arbeiten 573, ed. Gerrit Kentner and Joost Kremers