Phonetics - Unit Four - Lesson No. 25


Speech is perceived as a sequence of events in time, and the term ‘rhythm’ is used to refer to the way events are distributed in time. Obviously, examples of vocal rhythms are chanting as parts of games (for example, children calling words while speaking, or football crowds calling their teams’ names) or in connection with work (e.g. sailors’ chants used to synchronize the pulling on an anchor rope). In conversational speech the rhythms are vastly complicated, but it is clear that the timing of speech is mot random (Roach 2009b: 79).

Stress languages show a preference for well-formed rhythmic patterns, where strong and weak syllables are spaced apart at regular intervals (called feet). This is manifested by avoidance of adjacent stressed syllables (‘clash’), or by avoidance of strings of unstressed syllables (‘laps’). Nevertheless, stress languages vary in degree of rhythmicity. On one end of the spectrum, bounded languages occur, with perfectly alternating rhythms, oriented toward the left or right edge of the word. For example, Pintubi has stress on the initial syllable and following alternate non-final syllables.

  • ˈtj.ɭi.ˌri.ŋu.ˌ
    'the fire for our benefit flared up.'
  • ˈˌɻɪŋ.ka.ˌma.ra.ˌtja.ɻa.ka
    'because of mother-in-law


Types of rhythm

There are two types of rhythms: stress-timed rhythm and syllable-timed rhythm. In stress-timed rhythm, the stressed syllables give the impression of coming at regular intervals; if you pronounce the words in a regular ‘singsong’ manner, it’s possible to tap out the rhythm with a pencil. Stress-timing is a characteristic of languages such as English, Dutch, German, Danish, Russian and many others. For example,

       1. ˈJimmy’s ˈbought a ˈhouse near ˈGlasgow.
       2. ˈSally’s been ˈtrying to ˈsend you an ˈemail.

Other languages work on a different principle, syllable-timing, giving the impression of roughly equal length for each syllable regardless of stressing. In other words, the length of each syllable remains more or less the same as that of its neighbors whether or not it is stressed. French is an example of a syllable-timing language. For example,

Je voudrais descendre au prochain arret s'il vous plait
/Ʒvudre dɛˈsãdr | o prɔʃɛn aˈre | si vu ˈple|/
(gloss: I would go to the next step please.)
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