Monday, October 09, 2006

The Stress-timed Rhythm of English

I recently updated my book, Teach and Learn: Reflections on Communicative Language Teaching, and made it available on Kindle and as an inexpensive paperback. To enjoy a read, please click here.

English is timed by the syllables we stress. It is thus irregular in rhythm.

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Imagine yourself at public auditions in which four conductors are competing for the top job in an orchestra. Each competitor has to conduct the same piece of music, and each to the same metronome. As he waves his baton, the first conductor begins with the words, “One, two, three, four.” The second says “One and two and three and four.” The next says “One and a two and a three and a four.” And the last aspirant says “One and then a two and then a three and then a four.”

Which of these conductors will miscue the orchestra? The answer is “None.” Each of these four sentences takes exactly the same amount of time to say. This illustrates a key and yet peculiar feature of our language. It is called the stress-time rhythm of English.

Stress-timing: We can illustrate with almost any word of two or more syllables – for example, “syllable.” We stress this word using the pattern Ooo, placing primary emphasis on the first segment of the word. In English every long word has its own stress pattern. Think of the words “import” and “record,” for example. Both words can be pronounced using either the pattern Oo or the pattern oO. Which pattern you use fundamentally changes the meaning of the word.

Something else happens after you choose which syllable to stress. The pronunciation of the main vowel in the unstressed syllable changes, often to the sound ‘uh’ which is the single most common sound in the English language. This sound has its own special name, schwa, and about 30 per cent of the sounds we make when we speak English are the sound schwa. In English, schwa can be represented by any vowel.

For example, consider the following two-syllable words. The first word uses the stress patternOo; the second, the stress pattern oO. You will notice that in each case we pronounce the unstressed vowel as schwa, regardless of its spelling.

A: Atlas; Canoe
E: College; Reveal
I: Cousin; Disease
O: Anchor; Contain
U: Lettuce; Support

Statements with Noun Lists
Yes/No Questions
This practice of replacing unstressed vowels with schwa also occurs in connected speech – English as we use it in our daily lives. If I ask “Where are you from?” I will stress the word “from,” pronouncing the short ‘o’ sound quite clearly. If you answer “I’m from Sydney,” you will most likely reduce the ‘o’ to schwa. The reason is that you are likely to stress the word “Sydney” instead. This reduction of vowel is the key to the stress-timing of most forms of English.

It's worth noting that some English dialects from India, for example, are characterized by a syllable-timed rhythm. These comments refer to the English of Britain, North America  and Australia.

Native English speakers from those countries frequently use schwa in unstressed syllables. This is why it takes the same amount of time to say “One, two, three, four” as it does to say “One and then a two and then a three and then a four.” Reducing vowels enables us to speed through unstressed syllables. This is how we achieve the particular rhythm of English, in which stressed syllables are roughly equidistant in time, no matter how many syllables come in between.

Syllable-timed: Most of the world's other major languages have quite a different pattern. They are known as ‘syllable-timed’ languages. Each syllable receives approximately the same amount of stress as the others in a word or a sentence. These languages thus have quite a different rhythm from that of English. 

Vowels: When we learn to read, our teachers tell us that vowels are the characters a, e, i, o and u. Phonologically, though, a vowel is a speech sound in which the air stream from the lungs is not blocked in the mouth or throat. Usually, when we pronounce vowels we also vibrate our vocal cords.

We form the vowels in our mouths by moving five speech organs around. The most important of those organs is the tongue – language is the “gift of tongues” – and linguists often describe the vowels by the position of the tongue in the mouth. The vowels range from front to back and high to low. For example, the following ‘Sammy diagrams’ show the position of the tongue in the pronunciation of the high back vowel in the word “boot”, the low back vowel in the word “pot”, the high front vowel n the word “beat” and the low front vowel in the word “bat”.

The position of the tongue when we make vowel sounds is illustrated in the Sammies shown to the side and below.

Based on North American pronunciation, the words in the columns give examples of the 12 vowels in common use. Note that the vowel in “pot” is neither fully central nor fully back. The central vowels are essentially schwa, the sound that makes vowel possible.

In English, the high vowels, shifting from high to low, include the vowel sounds in beat, bit, bait, bet and bat. The central vowels are the mid vowels in machine and but. The back vowels, ranging from high to low, are in boot, book, boat and bought. The vowel in pot is an odd one. It is a low vowel, but it is neither fully central nor fully back.

The Sammy diagrams below, come from the book Teaching American English Pronunciation, by Peter Avery and Susan Ehrlich. So do the illustrations of how stress-timed language works.

Finally, a few graphics showing pronunciation patterns in North American English, also from Avery and Ehrlich.

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le radical galoisien said...

The latter was a bit more like phonetics than phonology ;). Anyhow, what I meant to say is that in Standard English of course, speech is stressed-timed, but there are various English dialects (not in England) that are syllable-timed.

I'll shamelessly plug in my country's Singlish again. We also borrow particles from Malay and Hokkien with fairly fixed tones like Chinese, such that you almost get a semi-tonal English.

But of course that was just a bit of trivia.

Anonymous said...

Here I am: 45 years old with an English major and don't remember having this explained so clearly. I have paid attention to Spanish- and Chinese-speakers and agree that they don't play with stresses in the way we do.

Thanks. This was very interesting.

steve said...

Thank you very much. What an excellently clear and concise explanation. It was just what I was looking for

r2g said...

Great stuff. Many English teachers have no knowledge of stress-timing in English. I hope they can take the time to read this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you it was very handy...

Claire Reed said...

Brilliantly put! I hope you´ll let me use your examples with my students...

Anonymous said...

thank you, u're really help me.. maybe u can adding the video of strees-timed rhythm ^^

Anonymous said...

good one, rhythm matters

Nancy said...

The adult English learners in my classes have really benefitted from seeing and hearing the transition from 1-2-3-4 to andthenaone-andthenatwo-andthenathree-andthenafour. They clap the time for me and I have to fit the words in. Thanks for your articles.

Martha Ann Kennedy said...

This is really awesome! I found it randomly, hoping to find an explanation to help a friend of mine who is a new ESL teaching with his first pronunciation class -- wonderful explanation and graphics!

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Unknown said...

Well done

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