Skip to main content

On the replicator dynamics of lexical stress: accounting for stress-pattern diversity in terms of evolutionary game theory*

  • Andreas Baumann (a1) and Nikolaus Ritt (a1)

This paper accounts for stress-pattern diversity in languages such as English, where words that are otherwise equivalent in terms of phonotactic structure and morphosyntactic category can take both initial and final stress, as seen in ˈlentilhoˈtel, ˈenvoydeˈgree, ˈresearch Nreˈsearch N and ˈaccess Vacˈcess V. Addressing the problem in general and abstract terms, we identify systematic conditions under which stress-pattern diversity becomes stable. We hypothesise that words adopt stress patterns that produce, on average, the best possible phrase-level rhythm. We model this hypothesis in evolutionary game theory, predict that stress-pattern diversity among polysyllabic word forms depends on the frequency of monosyllables and demonstrate how that prediction is met both in Present-Day English and in its history.

Corresponding author
Hide All

For constructive comments on earlier versions of this paper we owe thanks to Donka Minkova, Elan Dresher, Heinz Giegerich, Kenny Smith and Simon Kirby, three anonymous reviewers and the editors of Phonology. Obviously, any remaining errors are ours.

The appendices mentioned in the paper are available as online supplementary materials at

Hide All
Altmann, Eduardo G., Pierrehumbert, Janet B. & Motter, Adilson E. (2009). Beyond word frequency: bursts, lulls, and scaling in the temporal distributions of words. PLoS ONE 4. Available at
Anderson, John M. (1986). Suprasegmental dependencies. In Durand, Jacques (ed.) Dependency and non-linear phonology. London: Croom Helm. 55133.
Attridge, Derek (1982). The rhythms of English poetry. London & New York: Longman.
Baayen, R. Harold, Piepenbrock, Richard & Gulikers, Leon (1995). The CELEX lexical database. Philadelphia: Linguistic Data Consortium.
Baxter, Gareth J., Blythe, Richard A., Croft, William & McKane, Alan J. (2009). Modeling language change: an evaluation of Trudgill's theory of the emergence of New Zealand English. Language Variation and Change 21. 257296.
Blevins, Juliette (2004). Evolutionary Phonology: the emergence of sound patterns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Boer, Bart de (2000). Self-organization in vowel systems. JPh 28. 441465.
Boer, Bart de (2002). Evolving sound systems. In Cangelosi, Angelo & Parisi, Dominic (eds.) Simulating the evolution of language. London: Springer. 7997.
Brighton, Henry, Smith, Kenny & Kirby, Simon (2005). Language as an evolutionary system. Physics of Life Reviews 2. 177226.
Burzio, Luigi (1994). Principles of English stress. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bybee, Joan (2001). Phonology and language use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bybee, Joan (2007). Frequency of use and the organization of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bybee, Joan, Chakraborti, Paromita, Jung, Dagmar & Scheibman, Joanne (1998). Prosody and segmental effect: some paths of evolution for word stress. Studies in Language 22. 267314.
Chomsky, Noam & Halle, Morris (1968). The sound pattern of English. New York: Harper & Row.
Christiansen, Morten H. & Chater, Nick (2008a). Language as shaped by the brain. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31. 489509.
Christiansen, Morten H. & Chater, Nick (2008b). Brains, genes, and language evolution: a new synthesis. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31. 537558.
Croft, William (2000). Explaining language change: an evolutionary approach. Harlow: Longman.
Dawkins, Richard (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dennett, Daniel C. (1987). The intentional stance. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Domahs, Ulrike, Plag, Ingo & Carroll, Rebecca (2014). Word stress assignment in German, English and Dutch: quantity-sensitivity and extrametricality revisited. Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics 17. 5996.
Donegan, Patricia J. & Stampe, David (1979). The study of natural phonology. In Dinnsen, Daniel A. (ed.) Current approaches to phonological theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 126173.
Donegan, Patricia J. & Stampe, David (1983). Rhythm and the holistic organization of language structure. In Richardson, John F., Marks, Mitchell & Chukerman, Amy (eds.) Papers from the parasession on the interplay of phonology, morphology, and syntax. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society. 337353.
Donegan, Patricia J. & Stampe, David (2009). Hypotheses of Natural Phonology. Poznań Studies in Contemporary Linguistics 45. 131.
Dresher, B. Elan & Lahiri, Aditi (2005). Main stress left in Early Middle English. In Fortescue, Michael, Jensen, Eva Skafte, Mogensen, Jens Erik & Schøsler, Lene (eds.) Historical linguistics 2003: selected papers from the 16th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Copenhagen, 11–15 August 2003. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: Benjamins. 7585.
Dresher, B. Elan & Lahiri, Aditi (2015). Romance loanwords and stress shift in English: a quantitative approach. Paper presented at the 2nd Edinburgh Symposium on Historical Phonology, University of Edinburgh. Available (August 2017) at
Dressler, Wolfgang U. (1985). Morphonology: the dynamics of derivation. Ann Arbor: Karoma.
Dziubalska-Kołaczyk, Katarzyna (2009). NP extension: B&B phonotactics. Poznań Studies in Contemporary Linguistics 45. 5571.
Fitch, W. Tecumseh (2013). Rhythmic cognition in humans and animals: distinguishing meter and pulse perception. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience 7:68. 116.
Fullwood, Michelle A. (2014). Asymmetric correlations between English verb transitivity and stress. BLS 40. 125138.
Giegerich, Heinz J. (1985). Metrical phonology and phonological structure: German and English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Halle, Morris (1998). The stress of English words 1968–1998. LI 29. 539568.
Hay, Jessica S. F. & Diehl, Randy L. (2007). Perception of rhythmic grouping: testing the iambic/trochaic law. Perception and Psychophysics 69. 113122.
Hayes, Bruce (1982). Extrametricality and English stress. LI 13. 227276.
Hayes, Bruce (1984). The phonology of rhythm in English. LI 15. 3374.
Hofbauer, Josef & Sigmund, Karl (1998). Evolutionary games and population dynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hutton, John (1998). Stress in Old English, giet ongean . Linguistics 36. 847885.
Hyde, Brett (2007). Non-finality and weight-sensitivity. Phonology 24. 287334.
Hyde, Brett (2011). Extrametricality and non-finality. In van Oostendorp, Marc, Ewen, Colin J., Hume, Elizabeth & Rice, Keren (eds.) The Blackwell companion to phonology. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell. 10271051.
Jäger, Gerhard (2008). Applications of game theory in linguistics. Language and Linguistics Compass 2. 406421.
Jäger, Gerhard & Rosenbach, Anette (2008). Priming and unidirectional language change. Theoretical Linguistics 34:2. 85113.
Jespersen, Otto (1912). Growth and structure of the English language. 2nd edn. Leipzig: Teubner.
Jespersen, Otto (1928). Monosyllabism in English. Proceedings of the British Academy 14. 341368.
Kager, René (1989). A metrical theory of stress and destressing in English and Dutch. Dordrecht: Foris.
Kager, René (2005). The factorial typology of rhythmic licensing constraints. Phonological Studies 5. 147155.
Kelly, Michael H. (1988). Rhythmic alternation and lexical stress differences in English. Cognition 30. 107137.
Kelly, Michael H. (1989). Rhythm and language change in English. Journal of Memory and Language 28. 690710.
Kiparsky, Paul (1966). Über den deutschen Akzent. Studia Grammatica 7. 6998.
Kiparsky, Paul (1979). Metrical structure assignment is cyclic. LI 10. 421441.
Lass, Roger (1992). Phonology and morphology. In Blake, Norman (ed.) The Cambridge history of the English language. Vol. 2: 1066–1476. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 23155.
Lass, Roger (1997). Historical linguistics and language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lee, Ming-Wei & Gibbons, Julie (2007). Rhythmic alternation and the optional complementiser in English: new evidence of phonological influence on grammatical encoding. Cognition 105. 446456.
Liberman, Mark & Prince, Alan (1977). On stress and linguistic rhythm. LI 8. 249336.
Maynard Smith, J. & Price, G. R. (1973). The logic of animal conflict. Nature 246. 1518.
McCrohon, Luke (2012). The two-stage life cycle of cultural replicators. Theoria et Historia Scientiarum 9. 149170.
McMahon, April M. S. & McMahon, Robert (2013). Evolutionary linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Minkova, Donka (1997). Constraint ranking in Middle English stress-shifting. English Language and Linguistics 1. 135175.
Mitchener, W. Garrett (2003). Bifurcation analysis of the fully symmetric language dynamical equation. Journal of Mathematical Biology 46. 265285.
Mitchener, W. Garrett & Nowak, Martin A. (2004). Chaos and language. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 271. 701704.
Mühlenbernd, Roland & Wahle, Johannes (2016). Self-organization in sound systems: a model of sound strings processing agents. In Roberts, Séan, Cuskley, Christine, McCrohon, Luke, Barceló-Coblijn, Lluís, Feher, Olga & Verhoef, Tessa (eds.) Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on the Evolution of Language. Available (August 2017) at
Niyogi, Partha (2006). The computational nature of language learning and evolution. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Nowak, Martin A. (2000). The basic reproductive ratio of a word, the maximum size of a lexicon. Journal of Theoretical Biology 204. 179189.
Nowak, Martin A. (2006). Evolutionary dynamics: exploring the equations of life. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Belknap.
Nowak, Martin A. & Komarova, Natalia L. (2001). Towards an evolutionary theory of language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 5. 288295.
Nowak, Martin A., Komarova, Natalia L. & Niyogi, Partha (2002). Computational and evolutionary aspects of language. Nature 417. 611617.
Nowak, Martin A., Plotkin, Joshua B. & Jansen, Vincent A. A. (2000). The evolution of syntactic communication. Nature 404. 495498.
Oostendorp, Marc van (2005). Stress and metrical structure. Available (August 2017) at
Paul, Hermann (1920). Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte. 5th edn. Halle: Niemeyer.
Pierrehumbert, Janet B. (2001). Exemplar dynamics: word frequency, lenition and contrast. In Bybee, Joan & Hopper, Paul (eds.) Frequency and the emergence of linguistic structure. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: Benjamins. 137157.
Pierrehumbert, Janet B. (2012). The dynamic lexicon. In Cohn, Abigail C., Fougeron, Cécile & Huffman, Marie K. (eds.) The Oxford handbook of laboratory phonology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 173183.
Ritt, Nikolaus (2004). Selfish sounds and linguistic evolution: a Darwinian approach to language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ritt, Nikolaus (2012). Middle English phonology in the digital age: what written corpora can tell us about sound change. In Nevalainen, Terttu & Traugott, Elizabeth Closs (eds.) The Oxford handbook of the history of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 8186.
Ross, Don (2016). Game theory. In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.) Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy archive (Winter 2016 edition).
Schane, Sanford (2007). Understanding English word accentuation. Language Sciences 29. 372384.
Schlüter, Julia (2005). Rhythmic grammar: the influence of rhythm on grammatical variation and change in English. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Sherman, Donald (1975). Noun-verb stress alternation: an example of the lexical diffusion of sound change in English. Linguistics 13. 4372.
Smith, John Maynard (1982). Evolution and the theory of games. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, Kenny & Kirby, Simon (2008). Cultural evolution: implications for understanding the human language faculty and its evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. B 363. 35913603.
Solé, Ricard V. (2011). Phase transitions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Sonderegger, Morgan & Niyogi, Partha (2010). Combining data and mathematical models of language change. In Proceedings of the 48th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics. Association for Computational Linguistics. 1019–1029.
Sonderegger, Morgan & Niyogi, Partha (2013). Variation and change in English noun/verb pair stress: data and dynamical systems models. In Yu, Alan C. L. (ed.) Origins of sound change: approaches to phonologization. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 262284.
Stampe, David (1979). A dissertation on Natural Phonology. New York: Garland.
Tallerman, Maggie & Gibson, Kathleen R. (eds.) (2012). The Oxford handbook of language evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vennemann, Theo (1986). Neuere Entwicklungen in der Phonologie. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Wang, William S.-Y., Ke, Jinyun & Minett, James W. (2004). Computational studies of language evolution. In Huang, Chu-Ren & Lenders, Winfried (eds.) Computational linguistics and beyond. Taiwan: Academia Sinica. 65108.
Wedel, Andrew (2006). Exemplar models, evolution and language change. The Linguistic Review 23. 247274.
Wedel, Andrew (2009). Resolving pattern conflict: variation and selection in phonology and morphology. In Blevins, James P. & Blevins, Juliette (eds.) Analogy in grammar: form and acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 83100.
Wolfram Research, Inc. (2016). Mathematica. Version 11.0. Software package. Champaign, Ill.
Yang, Charles D. (2000). Internal and external forces in language change. Language Variation and Change 12. 231250.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0952-6757
  • EISSN: 1469-8188
  • URL: /core/journals/phonology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Baumann and Ritt supplementary material
Appendices A-B

 PDF (219 KB)
219 KB


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 17
Total number of PDF views: 231 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 454 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 19th December 2017 - 18th August 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.