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Content words (i.e. verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs) are stressed in both German and English as opposed to function words (prepositions, pronouns, articles..). However, in English (at least in American accent) in neutral speech, content words aren't equally stressed, but some words are more pronounced than the others.

Examples (words in bold are more pronouncedly stressed):

A nice car- ein schönes Auto

A really nice car- ein wirklich schönes Auto

Bob Smith- Bob Smith

Bob's brother- Bobs Bruder

Zinc oxide- Zinkoxid

New York- New York

History of Africa- Geschichte von Afrika

The white house (its color is white)- Das weiße Haus

The White house (of the American president)- Das Weiße Haus

Does German have a tendency to stress some content words more than the others? Does it follow the English pattern? Is it in German more of equally stressed content words?

Note: I fully understand that we can stress ANY word in a sentence contrastively to emphasize it. I also understand that German tends to stress more the last lexical word in a phrase. However, my question is not about these situations, it's not about stressing content words contrastively or when they occur as the last lexical word.

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I disagree with most items in Jankas list. You don't stress words, you stress syllables. I think more correct are:

  • ein schönes Auto
  • ein schönes rotes Auto
  • ein wirklich schönes rotes Auto
  • Bob Smith
  • Bobs Bruder
  • Bob und Cyril Smith
  • Zinkoxid
  • Abdeck- und Zinkoxidsalbe
  • New York
  • San Francisco
  • Bad Harzburg
  • Geschichte Afrikas
  • Das weiße Haus
  • Das Weiße Haus

If you have more than one stressed syllable in one sentence of phrase, it strongly depends on the context, which of those syllables gets the most stress.

In the 3rd example (ein wirklich schönes rotes Auto) in most situations you would give the biggest stress to wirk in wirklich, but there might be situations where you want to stress another word.

I never heard any difference between any house with a white facade and the US-presidents home. Because its part of a proper name, you just capitalize »Weiße« in case of the presidents home, while you leave it lower case if it is just any house, but you do not pronounce or stress it differently.


Addendum

Abdullah asked in his comment:

... My question if I may put it in another words, for example in ein schönes Auto, which syllable do you think is more pronounced schö or Au? Or they are equally stressed and take the same duration of time and voice power? This applies for the rest of my examples.

As I already tried to explain: This strongly depends on the context. I give you two examples:

  1. A: Warum musst du deine alte Rostlaube direkt vor meinem Hauseingang abstellen? Wie sieht das denn aus? Kannst du deine schäbige Karre nicht schräg gegenüber, vor dieser baufälligen Hütte abstellen? Dort würde sie besser hinpassen als vor meine Villa.
    B: Jetzt pass einmal auf, mein Freund. Mein Auto ist weder eine alte Rostlaube noch eine schäbige Karre. Ich gebe zu, es ist nicht mehr ganz neu, aber ich finde, es ist ein schönes Auto. Es hat eben Charakter, ganz im Gegensatz zu dir.

    Here A says to B that B's car is rusty, old and shabby, but B is defending this car. B wants to highlight, that the car is beautiful, and therefore the word »schönes« is much more stressed than every other word in B's speech.

  2. C: Na, Fräulein Tochter, du wirst ja bald 18. Was wünscht du dir denn zum Geburtstag? Möchtest du eine schöne Handtasche, oder vielleicht ein schönes Kleid?
    D: Ganz ehrlich? Ich will lieber ein schönes Auto. Es muss auch gar nicht teuer sein.

    Here one of the parents asks a young lady what she wants for her 18th birthday. A beautiful handbag? Or a beautiful dress? In her answer the daughter wants to put the focus on the fact, that it better should be a car, and so here the word Auto is stressed more than anything else in the whole speech.

This applies for the rest of all examples.

  • 2
    I think we are talking about two different things here. The question was about the English habit of "naturally" emphasizing certain words in a sentence, not about how to choose the stressed syllable in a word. – Janka Sep 25 '18 at 15:34
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    Thank you very much. I do agree that we don't stress words, but we stress the stressed syllable in that word. That is definitely the case in English. My question if I may put it in another words, for example in ein schönes Auto, which syllable do you think is more pronounced schö or Au? Or they are equally stressed and take the same duration of time and voice power? This applies for the rest of my examples. – user34137 Sep 25 '18 at 15:36
  • @Abdullah: See the addendum in my answer. – Hubert Schölnast Sep 26 '18 at 7:12
  • An ordinary simple man who doesn't know what AIDS stands for, opens his dictionary and starts reading: "Aids bezeichnet eine spezifische Kombination von Symptomen, die beim Menschen infolge der durch Infektion mit dem Humanen Immundefizienz-Virus (HI-Virus, HIV) induzierten Zerstörung des Immunsystems auftreten." This man doesn’t want to stress any word contrastively to make a special point or to draw attention or emphasis to it. He doesn't want to know or even care about specific details. I deduce from your answer, such content words in bold receive the same stress power? – user34137 Sep 26 '18 at 9:13
  • @Abdullah: Another simple man might read the same sentence with other stress-points: »Aids bezeichnet eine spezifische Kombination von Symptomen, die beim Menschen infolge der durch Infektion mit dem Humanen Immundefizienz-Virus (HI-Virus, HIV) induzierten Zerstörung des Immunsystems auftreten.« And a thrid person might set his/her focuses even to other words. It really depends very strong on the context. The stress power is not equal. It varies in a wide range, depending on the speakers mood and intention. – Hubert Schölnast Sep 26 '18 at 9:37
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The natural stress is on the most "topical" part of an item. English is similar but there is sometimes a dispute which part of an item is the topic:

ein schönes Auto

ein schönes rotes Auto

ein wirklich schönes rotes Auto

Bob Smith

Bobs Bruder

Bob und Cyril Smith

Zinkoxid

Abdeck- und Zinkoxidsalbe

New York

San Francisco

Bad Harzburg

Geschichte Afrikas

Das weiße Haus

Das Weiße Haus

  • Thank you a lot. Could you please elaborate more about what you mean by topical part? Is it the determiner that conveys the new information? I know Geschichte von Afrika is stilted but I used it on purpose to see where the stress would fall in relation to von, will it also be on Geschichte? – user34137 Sep 25 '18 at 12:47
  • Yes, the determiner that conveys new or most specific information. For either Geschichte Afrikas and Geschichte von Afrika, the "natural" stress would be on Geschichte, because that's the natural topic. It's about history, not about anything else someone could tell about Africa. – Janka Sep 25 '18 at 12:52
  • Hmmm... I would stress as San Francisco and Bad Harzburg, but also die Geschichte Afrikas. – Rudy Velthuis Sep 25 '18 at 16:40
  • I may be a matter of personal preference then. – Janka Sep 25 '18 at 20:02

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