A Correction from Yesterday

I want to correct something from yesterday’s post regarding the concept of “stress timing.” I am quite newly acquainted with this branch of linguistics, so bear with me.

Yesterday I suggested “stress timing” refers to the tendency for stressed syllables to be of longer duration than unstressed ones. Not quite true. Stress timing means that the duration between stressed syllables is fairly constant. So, for instance, if you compared the phrase “ten miles” with the phrase “limited miles,” the duration between “ten” and “miles,” and the difference between “lim-” and “miles” is expected to be about the same.

Except it’s not, because this theory has apparently been discarded. Later research suggests that this is not a measurable division (correct me if I’m wrong here).

My confusion is this (and again, please let me know if I’m off base-here):  A number of linguistics papers I’ve read (the study on African American Vernacular English I linked to yesterday, for example), seem to use “stress timing” or “syllable timing” nominally, referring to languages where the duration of syllables varies greatly (as in English) as the former, and languages where the duration of syllables is fairly consistent (as in Spanish) as the latter.

Regardless, I wrote yesterday’s post far too quickly, and in a moment of haste, ignorance, and desire to silence my inner pedant, I conflated these two usages into one.  This reminds me of why I mostly stopped doing “here’s something cool I read” posts:  because it involves me writing about topics I know little about, I end up missing a lot of important qualifying statements and distinctions.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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One Response to A Correction from Yesterday

  1. Carl McMahan says:

    The thing with stress vs syllable timing is that they run on a continuum, i.e. in a fully stress timed dialect, the unstressed words are compressed into an extremely tiny time interval between stressed syllables with the distance from stress to stress being held constant throughout the utterance. A completely syllable timed language has a precise, unchanging time interval between all syllables, and would be devoid of stress. Japanese is probably the closest to a full on syllable timed language in the world with the native dialects of English being the most strongly stress-timed (there is of course a fairly wide variation in stress timing within English dialects, the Central CT guy in a later post is almost 100% stresstimed for example).