Stress Timed vs. Syllable Timed


Isochrony is the fancy word that describes the rhythmic division of time into equal portions by a language. When referring the rhythm, this is talking about one of the variables of prosody, others being intonation, stress and tempo of speech.


Now, although wikipedia has postulated 3 alternative ways in which a language can divide time, the focus will be on the distinction between syllable-timed and stress-timed languages and the rhythmic differences.

  1. The duration of every syllable is equal (syllable-timed);

  2. The duration of every mora is equal (mora-timed).

  3. The interval between two stressed syllables is equal (stress-timed);

English is a stress-timed language. This means that the interval between two stressed syllables is equal. It also means that the duration of every syllable is not necessarily equal.

Dogs chase cats

The dogs chase cats

The dogs chase the cats

The dogs will chase the cats

The dogs will be chasing the cats

If English was a syllable-timed language, then as we add more words to the sentence, it should theoretically get longer and longer. This does not happen. Instead, unstressed syllables/words are said quicker.

The dogs will be chasing the cats


In English, the time it takes to say something does not depend on the number of syllables.

If you are transitioning to English from a syllable-timed language, the rhythm of your English speech may sound foreign or overly cautious because you will tend to give equal stress to each syllable.

A quick internet search will help you figure out whether your native language is a syllable-timed or syllable-stressed language but I've included a few examples.

Syllable-stressed:

English, Thai, German, Russian, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch

Syllable-timed:

French, Italian, Spanish, Icelandic, Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin

If you try to apply the same rhythm to English as you would a syllable-timed language, then it may come across as boring, mundane, unexpressive and robotic.

Typically, stressed syllables and words will include content words. These will include: main verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs and negative auxiliaries.

Words that are more typically left unstressed include structure words. These will include: pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs.

In order to work on this, read a newspaper out loud. Think about which words should be stressed and which words shouldn't. Practice saying words quicker or slower depending on whether they are content or structure words.

References:

English as a second language/Pronunciation. (n.d.). Retrieved July 23, 2017, from https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/English_as_a_second_language/Pronunciation

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