Linguistic Rhythm


Traditionally, since the days of Arthur Lloyd James and Kenneth Lee Pike, languages have been divided into two broad types: syllable-timed and stress-timed. French was considered the archetypal syllable-timed language (Lloyd James called this ‘machine gun rhythm’), in which each syllable had a similar duration, and English, probably the language whose rhythm has been studied most intensively, and mostly by native English speakers, the archetypal stress-timed language, in which stresses occur at approximately equal intervals of time. Doubt has been cast on this classification, because the measurements taken by phoneticians using ever more sophisticated machines have shown that neither syllables nor stresses are truly isochronous.

Phoneticians need to consider the case of music, which is, like language, a form of “organised sound”, and which also consists of variation in pitch, timing and intensity. Drum machines create mathematically exact rhythms, which humans cannot do. Human performers, on the other hand, produce interpretations of musical works which are not mathematically precise, but are still, nevertheless, rhythmical. Bach is considered to be one of the most scientific of composers, but electronic renderings of his music, while rhythmically precise, are lifeless. Performances by a human interpreter, however, can move the listener deeply. Composers using ‘Sibelius’, or one of the other suites of music software, find that they have difficulty using a (piano) keyboard to play in the rhythm that they want to be recorded, because the software recognises the minute differences of duration between the notes, and transcribes what it “hears”, leading to tiny fractions of beats being notated when they are not intended.

It is perhaps no accident that many phoneticians through the years have also been proficient musicians. As phoneticians, we need to learn more about the way in which we hear musical rhythm, and apply that knowledge to how we hear language. It has often been reported that interlocutors take up each other’s rhythms in a conversation. How can they do this if there is no rhythm to take up? Measuring durations of sounds in milliseconds will not work: rubato, accelerandi and rallentandi cannot be accounted for in such terms. Instead, a more impressionistic approach is needed, that will allow for the nuances of expression that are conveyed by rhythmical variation.

It may well be that there are more than the two types of linguistic rhythm, or that there is a gradient from extreme syllable timing to extreme stress timing, but I believe that it is our ears, not our machines, that will decide this in the long run.


  1. You are right. It is said (if my quote is correct) that when Daniel Jones asked Abercrombie one day: “Which machine are you going to use for your phonetic field-work, David?” Abercrombie pointed to his ears.

    In phonetics, machines can just help us to consolidate our perceptual findings. We cannot always depend on experimental findings. It is unfortunate that, these days phoneticians rely solely on experimental evidence and they ignore other perceptual evidence. In fact many phoneticians these days do not know basic phonetic measures like Cardinal Vowels etc. When I asked the late Peter Ladefoged: “What do your students in American universities use if they want to refer to different vowel qualities in two or more regional dialects?” His answer was” “They compare formants, plotting on vowel diagrams!”

  2. what are the 3 types of rhythm in english?…please send me your answer….

  3. Paolo –
    If you read my post again, I think you will find that I did not suggest that there are three types of rhythm in English. I DID suggest that across the languages of the world there may be more than the two types traditionally described as “syllable-timed” and “stress-timed”.

  4. Hi Graham –
    just found your blog!

    Some idle thoughts – having lived 9 years now in the US, I’m beginning to think that that US speech (esp young persons) is moving towards syllable timed. The rhythm certainly seems different than British English. (Also all the young females are adopted markedly creaky voice quality, but that’s another story)!

  5. Doing phonetics without machines — and that means computers, these days — isn’t going to get you anywhere. Don’t get me wrong: ears are valuable tools, but they have three problems:

    1. They are different on each different person. So, if you do research with only your ears, that research has a lot less value when you are elsewhere, because no one else can really duplicate your ears.

    2. They can hear rhythms, but they cannot tell you what rhythm *is*. Do it with a machine, and you will eventually find out that it is (perhaps) some particular patterns of loudness and duration (or something like that). Do it with your ears, and you can hear it, but you can only define it by saying that it has that certain je ne sais quoi.

    3. They do not do statistics. You can only hear the rhythm of one person at a time: you cannot hear the average rhythm of a language.

    That’s not to say that machines (alone) don’t have equally large problems. In fact, what we really want to do is to connect the subjective perceptions that we all have to the objective reality out there. That takes both humans and machines.

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  7. Abdul –

    Your quote seems unlikely to be correct.

    After an initial interest in instrumental phonetics, Daniel Jones went off it completely. Besides that, he’s known for his emphasis on traditional ear training. The cardinal vowels are his, after all.

    The version of the anecdote that I am familiar with involves Daniel Jones setting off on some fieldwork and a journalist asking him what instruments he would be taking.

    Jones was Abercrombie’s teacher of course, so the version of the anecdote that you give seems unlikely.

    As for instrumental phonetics, it’s essential these days if you want to do phonetics professionally (as your job, I mean) in an English-speaking country. As I found to my disappointment some years back! The fact of the matter is that university lecturers must publish to get and keep their jobs, and you can’t publish anything based on impressionistic analysis these days – it won’t wash. Although I consider myself an accomplished practical phonetician (especially by today’s standards) and an average instrumental phonetician, I agree that this is the way it must be.

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