It is said that English has stress-timed rhythm. Is it true? because it sounds that syllables with stress doesn't necessarily get a beat and make isochrony.
If it is true, I would like to hear how you feel the rhythm while using it.

  • 4
    There was a Linguistics SE question about isochrony a while back with a nice answer that I gave a bounty to: What's the evidence for and against isochrony? It seems like stress-timing and syllable-timing form a spectrum rather than a dichotomy, and the concept of isochrony, while possibly valid in some way, is far from being literally true on the surface level. (That's not to say that it's not useful: this and similar concepts such as "morae" may be useful in analysis even if they don't correspond perfectly to measured units of time.)
    – herisson
    May 1, 2017 at 0:37
  • 2
    I studied Japanese and can tell you that the isochronous nature of your language makes it very difficult for you to learn rhythm in a non-isochronous language, especially English. Our language codes for different things than yours does. For example, the untrained native English speaker will not even hear a difference between, say, 地図 and チーズ. Both use the same phoneme, and that is all we hear. Our language must sound awfully sloppy and capricious to you, who have always relied on syllables to be more or less like ice cubes in a tray.
    – Robusto
    May 1, 2017 at 3:02
  • Robust: Thank you for your comment. It's so helpful. You said English is non-isochronous but I heard that English has isochrony with every stressed syllables. Is it a lie? And because you studied Japanese and sound like understanding it well, I would like to ask you, if you are OK, that you hear all English sound into phonemes even if some vowels reduced greatly and change it's timbre, for example into a schwa.
    – Motoki
    May 1, 2017 at 4:51
  • Changing an English vowel from stressed to unstressed reduces its profile and its duration as well (though not always). But the syllables are never in a measured, isochronous relationship. Depending on how much stress we apply, a syllable gets louder and longer. Unstressed syllables pour out pretty much at the fastest rate that they can be pronounced (given a basic rate of speech). A series of unstressed syllables may sound isochronous to you, but you probably don't hear secondary stresses. For example, the word accelerating has a primary stress and a secondary stress. Can you hear them?
    – Robusto
    May 1, 2017 at 12:05

1 Answer 1


English almost never walks its way into real isochrony, possibly because that would make even poetry sound too regimented. Too bad we don't have audio tools available here, because it really requires something like that to give you an illustration of what I mean.

Take the sentence

Well, I don't know—what do you think?

Sometimes we might say it quickly, entirely in curt syllables, indicating nothing in particular but an absence of affect.

To show we're thinking something over, we might stretch some syllables as we stress them:

Welllllll, I don't knooooooow—what do youuuuuuu think?

To transfer the onus of answering the question back to the other person, we might just stress (stretch) one word:

Well, I don't know—what do youuuuuu think?

Note that there is a big difference in nuance between

What do you think?


What do you think?

In fact, any one of those words could be stressed, resulting in a completely different idea being expressed.

What do you think?

(I am interested in the result of your thought process.)

What do you think?

(It just occurred to me you might have an interesting take on a subject. Also any of a number of other things.)

What do you think?

(Turning the question back on you after you've asked what I think, or you've just given me what someone else thinks and now I want your own answer to the question.)

What do you think?

(I'm being dismissive, or condescending, or any of a number of other nuances.)

In each of those cases, the stressed word might be slightly drawn out, elongated, as well as given more vocal force.

I don't know if any of this helps you, but perhaps it might point you in a direction from which you might ask a more targeted question.

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