The rhythm of English words is closely linked with stress patterns in English. Once you know which word in the sentence needs stressing, you need to know which syllables to stress within each word.
Rhythm of Stress-Timed Language
English has a regular rhythm, with the sound of the language organised around the stressed syllables.
English is also a stress-timed language, which means that there is equal time spent on each stress within a sentence – and an equal time spent on gaps between syllables.
In this way, the unstressed syllables are constricted in length so that they fit into the timing and rhythm of the sentence.
Weak Syllables and Rhythm
All of this means that the unstressed syllables in English often sound very weak and can sometimes barely be heard at all.
These words are said to have a ‘weak form‘, as the speaker reduces the vowel and rushes over the sound in order to reach the next stressed word. Speakers do this to maintain the important rhythm of English.
In fact, the English language is interesting in the way it treats syllables and rhythm. The unstressed syllables can expand to fill more time between the stressed syllables in English. This is how the speaker creates the correct or expected rhythm.
Equally, the syllables can become shorter if there is less time between stresses. This syllable expansion and constriction happens so that the overall rhythm of the sentence remains constant. This constant rhythm in English is essential to the sound and feel of the language.
The unstressed syllables are always spoken more quickly than the stressed syllables, which also helps the listener to focus on the most important (stressed) words.
Rather than thinking about the syllables themselves, this distinctive English rhythm is all about the gaps between the syllables.
All the gaps between syllables last for roughly the same length of time because the sentence is stressed-timed. This is how the natural rhythm of English is created and it is how native listeners can understand the sentences so quickly, even if they miss some of the words.
The Rhythm of English for Native Speakers
Even if English speakers do not hear all the unstressed words in a sentence, they can still guess the missing words from the overall rhythm of English.
For example, in the sentence:
‘The cat sat on the mat while eating its favourite food’
The stressed words are the words in bold. ‘Eat’, ‘mat’ and ‘food’ are all only one syllable, so these are easy to pronounce. The word ‘eating’ has two syllables so you need to know this is pronounced with the stress on the first half of the word (‘eating’).
However, the unstressed ‘ing’ ending of the word ‘eating’ still needs to be stressed more than the less important words in the sentence. This creates the regular stress-timed rhythm of English.
The problem of rhythm in language learning
English speakers have a problem when learning other languages as they naturally want to apply their own English rhythm to the new language. This is a similar problem for all language learners.
Rhythm of Formal English Language
This is because there tend to be more important words in a powerful speech. Informal speech tends to have fewer stresses because there are fewer important words.
An example with formal language:
‘The whole country needs to take notice of the serious fall in literacy rates, which undermine educational standards’
This sentence contains many stressed words because it has a serious point to make. The syllables in the sentence are evenly spaced and the gaps between the stressed syllables will also be the same length.
This means that the words ‘needs to’, ‘of the’, ‘in’ and ‘which’ will all take up the same amount of time when the sentence is spoken, even though ‘in’ and ‘which’ only contain one syllable, while the others contain two.
Rhythm of Informal English Language
Another example of word stress (and word importance) with informal language:
This is the television programme that taught us how to make the best cakes for summer’
This sentence stresses the words ‘television programmes’, ‘taught’, ‘cakes’ and ‘summer’. The other words have to fit into the rhythm of the sentence, which is based around the stressed syllables.
Here is the stress pattern using British English, where O is a stressed syllable and – is an unstressed (or weak) syllable:
O – – / – – O – – – / – O – – – / – – – O / – O –
This is the / television programme / that taught us how to / make the best cakes / for summer’
Rhythm is strongly linked with stress and intonation. English language learners need to become familiar with all these aspects of the English language to move towards a greater level of fluency.
Learning about the rhythm of English can actually be a really fun part of language learning as this is where the language can come to life and develop its personality.
When learners start to understand the connection between sounds and successfully replicate the rhythms of English, they find that native speakers are much quicker to understand them.
This improves your motivation as you can feel your fluency increasing. This is great news for your speaking skills as you develop your ‘feel’ for the language – the rhythm of English is at the heart of the language after all!
Read more about how intonation in English relates to the rhythm of the language.
What do you think about the rhythm of English?
Do you have any tips for improving the rhythm of English in your speech?
What do you find the hardest or strangest part of English rhythm?
Is the rhythm of English very different from the rhythm of your own native language?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments.