Pusan University of Foreign Studies

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Supra-segmental Phonology
(rhythm, intonation and stress-timing)

Thor May, 2004

The languages of the world may be classified in many ways. One distinctive classification is how the timing of tone groups are arranged. Tone groups in speech are bursts of sound, or sound frames, which contain a chunk of coded language patterns. A tone group is said in a single breath. These chunks seem to be rather similar to the 'packets' of information which are sent through packet-switching networks on the internet, and their size is closely related to the needs of our human processor, the brain.

There are various options for arranging the sounds in tone groups. We usually recognize these choices as rhythm, intonation and stress; (actually intonation contains a large number of more detailed features). Stress is essentially anything which marks one bit of sound out from the surrounding speech stream. It is typically made up from a subtle combination of duration, speed, pitch and loudness.

The feature of sound duration is often called 'timing'. The timing method of sound chunks varies is in a continuum amongst languages. At one extreme of this continuum are so-called stress-timed languages, and the at the other extreme are so-called syllable-timed languages. In practice, no language is entirely syllable-timed or entirely stress-timed.

In syllable-timing, each syllable has the same time duration. This means that tone groups vary in duration, depending upon the number of syllables they contain. Because a tone group is said in a single breath, in practice this variation in tone group length is limited. Thus in a tone group with more syllables than usual, all the syllables might be said more quickly to 'fit within a single breath'.

In stress-timing, each tone group has more or less the same time-duration, (a single breath) regardless of the number of syllables it contains. This means that some syllables will be spoken very quickly, while the stressed syllable or syllables will often have a much longer time duration. If the tone group has an unusual number of syllables, everything might be speeded up, but stressed syllables will usually take relatively longer to say than unstressed syllables. In English, tone groups average about five syllables (though it is possible to have a tone group of only one syllable !).

Usually (but not always) the stressed syllable in a stress-timed language is the one containing new information. By changing the time taken to say any particular syllable in a stress-timed language, the meaning of that tone group can be changed. This is a very tricky game indeed ! Native speakers do it automatically, but the speaker of a syllable-timed language who tries to learn a stress-timed language will probably have great trouble mastering the new arrangement (and meanings) of sound patterns.

English is very strongly a stress-timed language. Chinese is reputably strongly syllable-timed (but see this demonstration of Chinese prosody). Korean is more or less syllable-timed. Japanese is timed by 'mora'. (A mora can be C+V (consonant + vowel), V, C+/y/+V, the sound /n/, or a special voiceless pause between certain consonants. Each mora has the same duration).

Teaching Supra-segmental phonology in English

The teaching of supra-segmental phonology is done very, very badly worldwide, even by native speakers. The sad truth is that very few teachers know how to handle it, even if they are aware of the problem.

The first rule for teaching this stuff is that you can't really do it analytically. It is just too complex. Rhythm, intonation, and stress-timing are best learned by imitation done frequently for a short time (every day !) . The teaching style should be brisk, humorous and ready to adapt instantly to handle individual difficulties.

One tool for learning rhythm, intonation and stress-timing is shadow talking. This is a big topic to explore in itself, but basically involves intense concentration, and an attempt to talk at exactly the same time, and to the same speech template, as a model speaker. Shadow talking is mimicking raised to an art form. Tape record two or three minutes of the speech of a speaker you admire. Figure out the meaning first, so you don't have to worry about that while you are practising intonation. Finally, shadow talk the speaker again and again and again, every day for a few minutes. Forget your own personality. BECOME the other speaker, like an actor. Don't be discouraged ! Most people give up quickly. If you persist, you can become very skilled at shadow talking. It is one of the few known ways to master native speaker intonation.

Here is a useful link to the Ministry of Education in New Zealand, where suprasegmental phonology, as well as other language matters, is discussed.

A technical note on Syllable Timing Vs Stress Timing:  Some recent research has challenged the long-held theory that the world's languages are spread along a simple scale from syllable timing to stress timing. It seems that at each extreme people can clearly distinguish a difference in rythmic patterns - for example, English as "stress timed" and Chinese as "syllable timed" (though even with that, see what happens in real Chinese speech )- but that a large number of the world's languages cannot be judged so simply. Some of these researchers believe that actual timing might not be the important difference. For example, it might be that some languages like English simply allow fast speech to crush syllables together (e.g. what do you => /wodaya/ => /woja/ ) whereas this might be less accepted in some other languages. More investigation is needed on this subject. In the meantime, at least the old explanation alerts teachers and students to compare the rhythmic patterns of their speech to native speakers. If you would like to study this further, here is a technical reference:

Arvaniti, Amalia (2009) Rhythm, Timing and The Timing of Rhythm. Phonetica. 2009 April; 66(1-2): 46–63. Online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2790788/

Not many useful teaching books have been published for the teaching of rhythm, intonation and stress-timing. One of my favourite books for this purpose is W. Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech (published by Longman, 1954). It has been out of print for many years. Whenever I use this book, students ask me for photocopies of the material ! Since it is unobtainable elsewhere, I have scanned a few pages of exercises below. (Apologies to any copyright owners. If it comes back into publication I'll happily direct inquirers to the commercial product). Note that the print image is old, so the scans are of poor quality. Enlarge them to full size.

W. Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, page 5

W. Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 6-7

W. Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 8-9

W. Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 10-11

W. Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 12-13

W. Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 14-15

W. Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 16-17

W. Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 18-19

W. Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 20-21

W. Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 22-23


Material on this site has been prepared by Thor May for the PUFS TESOL Program 2003-2004; copyright Thor May 2004; http://thormay.net