Stress-Timed vs. Syllable-Timed Languages

Seriously, the reason why I don’t get as much done as I would like is partly due to the fact that I find all sorts of random, interesting writing on the internet that I feel compelled to read.

This afternoon, I was researching stress-timed and syllable-timed languages (in case you were wondering, English is stress-timed) and found this fascinating article. A few excerpts:

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.


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.

I think this is why I have such trouble understanding a couple of my friends who are native English speakers, but from Singapore.

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.

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.

I love languages.