The Classification of Languages and Dialects into Rhythm Classes and the Production of Non-native English Prosody: A Comparative Study

By Imen Ben Abda.

Published by The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies

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The world’s languages are generally classified into two categories on the basis of their rhythmic organization. The most well-known classification, proposed by Pike (1945), is the “stress-timed” language classification, in which stresses tend to recur at regular time intervals. English is one example of such a language. “Syllable-timed” language, where all syllables—stressed or unstressed—are produced at equal duration, is how French is classified. Later, a third group was equally proposed: “mora-timed” languages, exemplified by Japanese and Tamil. “A mora is a unit of timing. Each mora takes the same length of time to say” (Ladefoged, 1975). However, the main problem in categorizing these types of languages was trying to find experimental evidence or acoustic correlates of language rhythm in the speech signal. Since the late 1960s, linguists have been trying to provide empirical support for the “isochrony/regularity theory” with varying degrees of success. The most that can be said for its legitimization is that a tendency toward isochrony is best felt at a perceptual level. In this research, it was hypothesized that a perceptual study could generate more convincing results relevant to rhythm typology. This approach has been adopted by using discrimination experiments based on spectral inversion in order to decide the rhythmic status of many languages as well as many Arabic and English dialects. Based upon the results of this study, it made sense for listeners to use rhythm as an essential cue to classify languages and dialects according to their rhythmic properties. Listeners were also able to perceive rhythmic differences between languages and dialects belonging to the same rhythm class. This implies the possibility of subclasses of broad rhythmic categories (Ghazali et al., 2002; Hamdi et al., 2005; Ben Abda, 2004). When non-native speakers of English produced read and spontaneous speech, they tended to use some of their first language prosodic features in the production of English suprasegmentals, which resulted in differences between native and non-native English in terms of rhythm and stress.

Keywords: Rhythmic Typology, Suprasegmentals, Prosodic Transfer

The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp.69-91. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 689.264KB).

Imen Ben Abda

Assistant lecturer, Higher Institute of Languages (Institut Supérieur des Langues de Tunis), Tunis, Tunis, Tunisia

Abda, an assistant lecturer at Institut Supérieur des Langues de Tunis (Higher Institute of Languages) in Tunisia, is a PhD student whose area of investigation—within experimental phonetics—consists of a series of perceptual experiments using cues from natural and inverted speech, as well as pitch extracted from speech data. The study is an attempt to categorize speech rhythm over a large set of Arabic and English dialects as well as Chinese, Japanese, French and German. The aim of Abda’s work is also to investigate non-native production of English prosody and the question of first language rhythmic transfer into the production of English suprasegmentals.