Laurence White, Plymouth University


“Rhythms for bears to dance to”: Communicative function and temporal form in speech  




Speech is frequently described as being rhythmical, but what functions rhythm might serve in spoken language remain unclear, as indeed does the meaning of the term “speech rhythm”. Two distinct aspects of rhythm, often evident in music, can be usefully distinguished: contrast and periodicity. Contrast – the distinction between stronger and weaker auditory elements – is unarguably exploited in many spoken languages (e.g., the placement of stress in English ‘insight vs in‘cite). Periodicity here refers to regularity in the temporal structure of a signal, for example, consistent duration of musical units such as bars, or speech units such as syllables or stress-delimited feet. Periodic signals can carry information through spectral or intonational variation, but predictable timing is not, of itself, informative. However, in speech, temporal variation is also employed to convey information, about both stress contrast and the lexical/phrasal structure of speech. Thus, to achieve this, speech is not periodically rhythmical, despite intuitions that periodicity would facilitate both interaction between speakers and positive emotional responses to speech.