English is a stress timed language
The rhythm of spoken English is due to the stress patterns of English.
The intonation of spoken English is due to the pitch level of English. We can look at intonation and pitch in a future lesson if you want to learn more about this.
In phonetics stress is the degree of influence given to a sound or syllable in speech. One of the main functions of stress is to provide ways of distinguishing the emphasis in sentences. We stress certain words to emphasise them as the main important content words in a sentence.
Stress timed or syllable timed?
English is a stress timed language. Many other European languages are syllable timed languages and each syllable is equal in length.
What does this mean in practice?
Look at these sentences.
Which sentence will take longer to say:
1. Students buy books.
2. The students buy the books.
3. The students will buy the books.
4. The students will be buying the books.
All these sentences take exactly the same length of time to say.
How is this possible?
In English, each sentence takes the same amount of time to say. This is because English is stress timed. We stress the main content words and then say the other words quickly to fit them into the rhythm of English. Other languages are syllable timed, and in those languages sentence four would take longer.
Listen to my recordings and look at the time taken. They all take 0.2
You can practice this yourself recording yourself saying similar sentences and looking at the time taken. This is the distinctive English rhythm that native speakers use without thinking about it.
Understanding what stress timed means.
Imagine you are the conductor of an orchestra. You need to keep everyone playing in time to the same musical rhythm. But the number of musical notes in-between each beat can be different.
Stress timing on individual words
For any word with two or more syllables we put the primary word stress on one of the syllable and say the other syllables quickly.
eg syllable – the word – syllable has 3 syllables I can write the stress like this —- O o o The main word stress is on the first syllable this is represented by the large O and the other two syllables are spoken quicker, not as loud and clear as the first one.
Unstressed syllables change to the schwa sound
The stressed syllable is pronounced with the vowel pronounced in the correct / strong form. BUT the pronunciation of the vowels in the next two unstressed syllables changes to the schwa sound. eh Any vowel can change to the schwa sound. This is why the schwa sound is the most common and important sound in English. Thirty percent of the sounds native speakers make in spoken English are the schwa sound.
This changing of the vowel sounds to the schwa sound which happens in weak forms of words also happens in most other long words. This is the key to English as a stress timed language and is the most important aspect of English to understand if you want to make your accent sound more British, Australian or USA English.
Native speakers naturally use the schwa sound in unstressed syllables. This is how we keep to the rhythm of English, and this is why it takes the same amount of time to say
Students buy books as it does to say The students will be buying the books.
Reducing the vowel sounds to the lazy schwa sound allows us to say the words quickly. The lazy schwa sound takes no effort to pronounce and so reducing the unstressed vowels to the schwa sound allows us to speed through the unstressed syllables quickly. This is how we achieve the particular rhythm of English in which stressed syllables are roughly equally spaced out in time no matter how many syllables come between them.