Can language can be definitively categorised as syllable or

Can language be classed as either syllable or


The idea that language has different rhythms was first
introduced by Lloyd James (1940). He first observed that the rhythm of Spanish was
reminiscent of machine guns, whereas the rhythm of English resembled that of
Morse code. Pike (1945) in an effort to offer practical evidence for this
contrast explained that the difference between English and Spanish was because
of the ‘requirement of isochrony at different levels’. Abercrombie (1967)
Ladefoged (1975) and Pike (1945) have all classified language as either
syllable timed, stress timed, or mora timed. Their hypothesis is that these
categories can be applied to all world languages. In this essay, I will argue
how it is not conclusive whether language can be definitively categorised as
syllable or stress-timed.

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What is syllable timed?

A syllable timed language is a language where its
syllables use an exactly equal amount of time to pronounce. Very often in
languages the more syllables there are in a word, the longer it usually takes someone
to say that word. Similarly, the longer a sentence looks in writing, typically
the longer it also takes to say that sentence.  Another way of defining syllable timed can be
said for instance, that the syllables often follow each other at regular
intervals. The rhythm of that language would probably sound like ‘duh, duh,
duh’. Languages which are considered to be syllable timed languages include
Tamil (Corder, 1973, Asher, 1985) Spanish ( Pike, 1946, Hockette, 1958) French
(Abercrombie, 1967, Catford, 1977) Singapore English ( Tongue ,1979, Platt and
Weber, 1980). According to Roca and Johnson (1999) a syllable can also be
defined as ‘A prosodic constituent made up of segments abstractly connected in
sonority clusters’. According to Kriedler (2004:294) ‘a unit of speech may have
an onset and a coda, it also may contain one peak which very often is a vowel’.
In regards to Roca and Johnsons (1999: 283) Maximal onset principal, they claim
that “Maximal formation of onsets takes priority over formation of codas.” This
means that the onset of a syllable is supposed to be as large as possible…


What is stress-timed?

A stress timed language on the other hand is where the
stressed syllables are said at regular intervals, whereas the unstressed
syllable is… languages which are considered stress timed include British
English (Classe, 1939, Pike, 1946, Abercombie, 1967)… stress can also mean the
speaker uses muscular effort during speech. During the articulation of the
stressed syllable, the intercostal muscles tend to have much more subglottal
pressure. This leads to the sound having higher intensity and a lot more vocal
fold vibration. Stress can also be examined through perception. A stress
syllable can feel louder and longer than an unstressed syllable. It can also
feel as though its on a higher pitch. Stress syllables can also hold vowels of
a different quality. One of the functions of stress is that of lexical
distinction. It enables the distinction of language on a semantic and
grammatical level e.g. refer, reefer.




 The argument to whether
language can be categorically classified as stress timed or syllable timed is
hard to justify. Some linguists argue for the categorisation of language into
isochrony rhythm. For instance, linguists such as Pike (1946 and Abercrombie (1965,
1967) hold the opinion that language is either stress timed or syllable timed.
However, they both base their notions of stress and syllable timed languages on
the basis that language can not be more or less syllable or stress timed. For
example … Nonetheless, Abercrombie (1965) viewed that this distinction was solely
grounded on the ‘physiology of speech production’. He argued that most spoken
languages could be classified into two. Firstly, chest pulse, secondly, stress
pulse. He defined chest pulses as ‘puffs of air’ from the lungs, which were because
of the’ contracting and relaxing of the breathing muscles’. Characteristics of
chest pulses were that they were forceful and more frequent. Whereas stress
pulse could be defined as…Abercrombie (1965) maintained that the existence of
rhythm was due to two pulse systems combining. He argued that two distinct
combinations were possible. He supports his argument by claiming that, during
syllable timing chest pulses remained in isochrony sequence, whilst during
stress timing, stress pulses would have supported chest pulse in isochrony
sequence.  There are also some evidences
supporting stress and syllable time from duration measurements.

According to Beckman (1992) and Laver (1992) although
the empirical foundation of rhythm classification has been thoroughly studied
and examined, there is still a lack of experimental evidence to isochrony in
speech.  When it comes to stress timed
languages there is no equality between interstress intervals, also interstress
intervals do not pattern more regularly in stress timed than in syllable timed
(Shen and Peterson, 1962, Bolinger, 1965, Delattre, 1966, Faure, Hirst and
Chafcouloff 1980, Pointon, 1980, Wenk and Wioland, 1982, Roach 1982, Dauer,
1983, Manrique and Signorini, 1983, Nakatani, O’Connor and Aston, 1981, Dauer,
1987, Eriksson, 1991).

Roach (1982) did a comparison on interstress intervals
between languages assumed to be syllable timed and languages categorised as
stress timed, he looked into two specific claims specified by Abercrombie on
the variances of stress and syllable timed rhythm. He investigated
Abercrombie’s (1967) claim that there usually is a substantial difference in
syllable length when it comes to languages that have usually spoken with stress
timed rhythm. Abercrombie (1967) also claims that languages that are syllable
timed, its syllables tend to be of equal length. Roach (1982) discovered that
none of his own findings supported Abercrombie’s (1967) claims. Rather, in his
sample of the syllable timed languages, it displayed greater changeability in
syllable duration than in the stress timed languages. Roach (1982) thus
concluded that measurements of time intervals during speech could therefore not
provide enough evidence for rhythm classes in language.

 Roach (1982)
argument has also been reinforced by Dauer’s (1983). She conducted a
comparative study on languages such as English, Thai, Spanish, Italian, Greek.
She focused primarily on interstress intervals. Her findings suggested that there
were no more regular intervals in stress timed languages such as English than
in syllable timed languages such as Spanish. She concluded that looking for
phonetic acoustic correlation in syllable or stress timed languages were



In conclusion, rhythm class is known to be a popular
concept among many linguists. However, there is still not enough evidence to
support their claims, likewise they have also been contradicted by several
empirical studies. Even Abercrombie’s chest and stress pulse argument has been
disproved my Ladefoged (1967) challenging and disproving the physiological
foundation of a strict categorical distinction into stress and syllable timed
languages. The predictions made on rhythm class hypothesis in relation to
speech timing has also been affected. This is due to researches not providing
sufficient evidence to back the duration measurement for isochrony timing, this
has forced researchers to label it as ‘subjective isochrony’ rather than
‘objective isochrony’. (Laver, 1994)

Dauer (1983, 1987) does suggest a new system of
rhythmic classification. In her opinion, language speakers of interstress or
intersyllable do not try to equalise intervals. Rather, all spoken languages
are somewhat stress based. He provides the example of stress and syllable timed
languages such as English and Spanish where in both languages prominent
syllables recur at regular intervals. But obviously, in English syllables are
clearly more salient. Nespor (1990) holds another opinion in regards to speech
rhythm. He also opposes the traditional classification on the grounds of
rhythmically intermediate languages. These languages usually display qualities
connected to stress timed and possibly some with qualities connected to
syllable timed. Researchers such as Lehiste (1977) Couper-Kuhlen ( 1990,1993) have
argued that the concept of isochrony is chiefly a perceptual phenomenon.
Advocates of ‘isochrony perception’ claim the when it comes to interstress
intervals or syllable duration, below the verge of perception, thus the notion
of isochrony could possibly be acknowledged as idea that is linked to speech

Rhythmic diversity is known to be a consequent of
phonetic, lexical, phonological and syntactic realities related to different
languages. Word stress and syllable structure are both pertinent to rhythmic
differences. Unlike syllable timed language, in stress timed languages syllable
structures are more wide-ranging. Dasher and Bolinger (1982) proposed that
phonological phenomena for instance syllable structure is a consequent of a
rhythm of a language. Phonological phenomena can also entail the presence or
absence of a phonological vowel length distinction and vowel reduction. They
held the opinion that is the consequent of a phonological structure of a
language and not necessarily a phonological primitive. Nespor (1990) believed
that a neither a dichotomous nor a continuous classification system could
sufficiently or effectively account for rhythmic qualities of those languages.
The languages she refers to that reinforce her suggestions include Polish,
which is categorised as a stress timed language and Catalan, which is
categorised as syllable timed language. However, the former doesn’t display
vowel reduction. Whereas the latter does.

In conclusion, I would maintain that it is difficult
to argue that language is strictly syllable timed or stress timed. This is
because when we discuss language in terms of the vocalic axis, the classical
stress timed languages like English, Dutch and German are very different to
syllable timed languages like Spanish and French. Due to this dissimilarity, it
is possible to suggest a more clear-cut distinction between syllable timed and
stress timed. Also, evidence shows that languages are often more or less
syllable timed or stress timed, therefore the idea of a firm definitive
distinction cannot be categorically supported.