4th International Conference on Spoken Language Processing

Philadelphia, PA, USA
October 3-6, 1996

Rhythmic Constraints on English Stress Timing

Fred Cummins, Robert F. Port

Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science Program, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, USA

The evidence for isochrony of stress timing is weak at best for ordinary prose, but this does not mean that the timing of stresses is always unaffected by global constraints. We asked subjects to continually repeat the phrase Take a pack of cards and to temporally align the words take and cards with an auditorily presented stimulus consisting of just the words take and cards repeated several times. The phase of the cards stimulus relative to a reference cycle defined by the take-take interval was varied over the range 0.3-0.65 in eight equal-sized phase steps. The distribution of actually produced phases for the vowel onset of the syllable cards, however, was strongly trimodal. Subjects showed a powerful preference for phases close to 0.5, and somewhat weaker preferences for phases near 0.36 and 0.6. These values are close to (although systematically different from) 0.33 and 0.66 predicted by a simple harmonic model for stress timing. The observed distribution had this form whether the subjects were speaking along with the stimulus, or trying to maintain the prescribed timing after cessation of the stimulus. Furthermore, the observed phase was influenced by the phase produced on previous trials, suggesting dynamic control with hysteresis between competing stable patterns of timing. These results demonstrate strong rhythmic constraints on the timing of stresses within a phrase,where the domain of ‘phrase’ in this artificial speaking task is simply the repeated text. The rhythmic constraints are similar to those observed for limb movements. Modeling these constraints should provide insight into the form of a general dynamic control regime for global speech timing, and may allow improved characterization of ‘natural’ timing patterns in English speech.

Full Paper

Bibliographic reference.  Cummins, Fred / Port, Robert F. (1996): "Rhythmic constraints on English stress timing", In ICSLP-1996, 2036-2039.