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Alternating stress principle

The Alternating Stress Principle (based on Booij 1995, who calls it the Optimal Grid Principle) states that stressed syllables and unstressed syllables should alternate within a prosodic word.

Alternating Stress Principle
A prosodic word has an alternating stress pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.


The principle prohibits the occurrence of adjacent stressed syllables (Stress Clash) as well as that of adjacent unstressed syllables (Lapse). The majority of words in which secondary stresses occur follow this pattern; yet there are systematic exceptions. These exceptions are visible in words of more than three syllables. Let us consider words of four or five syllables as an example: if the fourth syllable from the left receives main stress (final stress in quadrisyllabic words, penultimate stress in pentasyllabic words), secondary stress is usually on the first syllable. If the Alternating Stress Principle was to be obeyed, the second syllable should receive secondary stress.

Table 1
Number of syllables PPAPU PAPU APU PU U
4 ˌσ σ σ ˈσ fonologie [ˌfo.no.lo.ˈɣi] phonology

economie [ˌe.ko.no.ˈmi] economy

4* σ ˌσ σ ˈσ fonologie [*fo.ˌno.lo.ˈɣi]

economie [*eˌko.no.ˈmi]

5 ˌσ σ σ ˈσ σ organisatie [,ɔr.ɣa.ni.'za.tsi] organisation

abracadabra [,a.bra.ka.'da.bra] abracadabra

5* σ ˌσ σ ˈσ σ organisatie [*ɔr.ˌɣa.ni.ˈza.tsi]

abracadabra [*a.ˌbra.ka.ˈda.bra]

Both fonologie [ˌfo.no.lo.ˈɣi] and ,econo'mie [ˌe.ko.no.ˈmi] violate the Alternating Stress Principle, as the second syllable is unstressed. Assigning secondary stress to the second syllable — [*fo.ˌno.lo.ˈɣi] and [*e.ˌko.no.ˈmi] would lead to an alternating stress pattern. Therefore, it seems that many words do not obey the Alternating Stress Principle. The stress pattern in the quadrisyllabic cases above are sometimes attributed to the influence of the so-called Hammock Principle, which expresses the requirement that the edges of prosodic words be stressed (Zwaardemaker and Eijckman 1928, Eijkman 1937, Schultink 1980, Booij 1981, Zonneveld 1983, Van Zonneveld 1985).

  • Booij, Geert1981Generatieve fonologie van het NederlandsAula paperbacksUtrecht / AntwerpenHet Spectrum
  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Eijkman, L.P.H1937Phonetiek van het NederlandsHaarlemDe Erven F. Bohn N.V.
  • Schultink, Henk1980Boundaries, word classes and the accentuation of derived words in DutchZonneveld, Wim, Coetsem, Frans & Robinson, Orrin W. (eds.)Dutch StudiesThe HagueSpringer Netherlands205-222
  • Zonneveld, Ron van1985Word rhythm and the Janus syllableThe Structure of Phonological Representations IIDordrechtForis133-142
  • Zonneveld, Wim1983Lexical and phonological properties of Dutch voicing assimilationvan den Broecke, M., van Heuven, V. & Zonneveld, W. (eds.)Sound Structures: Studies for Anthonie CohenDordrechtForis Publications
  • Zwaardemaker, H. & Eijckman, L.P.H1928Leerboek der PhonetiekHaarlemDe Erven Bohn