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English is oft said to be stress timed, so that strongly stressed syllables should occur at (roughly) the same intervals. For the purposes of this question, please assume that.

Is a syllable isochronous because it is stronger than its surrounding syllables? Or because it is absolutely strong?


Hopefully an example will help. Let 4 be strongest stress, 1 weakest. Imagine a sentence with the following stress pattern

  • 1 2 1 1 4 3 4

Are the 2nd 5th and 7th syllables isochronous? Or the 5th 6th and 7th?


Stress is notoriously debatable, but what about the following sentence, would a native English speaker rush through the 1st four words, at a similar pace to each of the last three?

  • why do they all know their stuff?
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    Yeah, I'm not sure if I get it either. Are you asking about if so-called "secondary stress" is considered to count for the purposes of isochrony? – sumelic Oct 21 '17 at 7:18
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    Hmm. What do you mean by "is a syllable isochronous"? I thought feet were what were supposed to be isochronous. An answer on Linguistics SE that might have some relevant info or references: linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/12129/5581 – sumelic Oct 21 '17 at 7:20
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    Well, that's just the area I'm most familar with it. I know there is literature about sentence-level stress patterns as well as word-level stress patterns, but I don't know if a term like "secondary stress" would be as useful when talking about sentence-level stress since in a sentence you might be dealing with a lot more than two stressed syllables. – sumelic Oct 21 '17 at 7:35
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    To answer your final question: no. A native speaker uttering “Why do they all know their stuff?” would stress why, all, and stuff. Know would likely be stressed as well, but could also be unstressed. Using Greg’s notation (1 = strongest, 4 = weakest), I’d label it [1Why 4do 4they | 1all | 1know 3their | 1stuff] or [1Why 4do 4they | 1all 2/3know 3their | stuff]. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 20 '17 at 11:12
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    @user3293056 The only way all would be destressed in the sentence given here would be if another word in the sentence were contrastively stressed (e.g., “Why do they all know their stuff?”). If there is no contrastive stress, all will be stressed. I was answering the question of whether you would rush through the first four words—no, you wouldn’t. You would rush through do they, which are unstressed, but not why and all. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 21 '17 at 13:22
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I suggest you pursue the analogy to musical rhythm. A "1" begins a measure, and measures are isochronous. For your hypothetical example, divide the stresses into measures: | 1 2 |1 | 1 4 3 4 | (1 ...). The "4 3 4" part at the end has to steal time from the preceding measure-initial 1 or the following hypothetical measure (in parens). Here's an English example which might have a similar pattern: "1John 2loves | 1Mary and | 1Joyce 4may 3have 4a (| 1crush 2on |1Jill)". |

  • i think you reversed the 1-4 (my fault) – user3293056 Oct 21 '17 at 8:18
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    @user3293056, yes, sorry, I was following the SPE convention that uses 1 as strongest (primary) and 2, ... as progressively weaker. – Greg Lee Oct 21 '17 at 8:36
  • i think i'm broadly in agreement. as you seem to saying that beats are absolute, not relative, it's just that i set the bar too low for a beat – user3293056 Oct 21 '17 at 8:45
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You seem to be under the impression that every syllable in every English word has an intrinsic stress associated with it. This is not the case. If you have a long sequence of syllables that are normally unstressed in English, one of them will get some level of stress.

Let's take an example. I can only really hear three levels of stress in my speech, so I'll label them: stressed, somewhat stressed, unstressed.

If you have a sentence starting I do not know the, some possible stress patterns could be (there are others)

I do not know the ...
I do not know the ...
I do not know the ...

But to me it feels unnatural to say it with no stress on any of the first three words (I do not know the ...).

There are times you can get three unstressed syllables in a row in speech (vanity is sinful), but when you get more than three unstressed syllables in a row, one of them usually acquires some stress (vanity is a sin or vanity is a sin.)

I don't believe English has strict isochronicity. Stressed syllables aren't going to have exactly the same time intervals between them. But if you never have more than three unstressed syllables in a row, and unstressed syllables are shorter than stressed syllables, then there will almost automatically be very roughly the same interval between stressed syllables.

I also suspect unstressed syllables shorten in length when there are more of them in a row. (They certainly do when reciting poetry written in certain meters.) I don't know if there are any studies on this or not.

  • no i don't think i'm under that impression, why do you think i am? – user3293056 Jan 22 '18 at 16:26
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While stress is relative in the sense of being defined in part by surrounding syllables, if we're talking about the ictus, a beat, in metrical verse without feet, bar promotion and demotion, the beats are just the strongest stresses in the line,

So in that sense it is not relative. That's all I know, and really all I needed to know anyway.

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