Speech rhythm: a metaphor?

Nolan, Francis and Jeon, Hae-Sung orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-7536-5571 (2014) Speech rhythm: a metaphor? Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B Biological Sciences, 369 (1658). p. 20130396. ISSN 0962-8436

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Official URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2013.0396


Is speech rhythmic? In the absence of evidence for a traditional view that languages strive to coordinate either syllables or stress-feet with regular time intervals, we consider the alternative that languages exhibit contrastive rhythm subsisting merely in the alternation of stronger and weaker elements. This is initially plausible, particularly for languages with a steep ‘prominence gradient’, i.e. a large disparity between stronger and weaker elements; but we point out that alternation is poorly achieved even by a ‘stress-timed’ language such as English, and, historically, languages have conspicuously failed to adopt simple phonological remedies that would ensure alternation. Languages seem more concerned to allow ‘syntagmatic contrast’ between successive units and to use durational effects to support linguistic functions than to facilitate rhythm. Furthermore, some languages (e.g. Tamil, Korean) lack the lexical prominence which would most straightforwardly underpin prominence alternation. We conclude that speech is not incontestibly rhythmic, and may even be antirhythmic. However, its linguistic structure and patterning allow the metaphorical extension of rhythm in varying degrees and in different ways depending on the language, and that it is this analogical process which allows speech to be matched to external rhythms.

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