The functional irrhythmicality of spontaneous speech: A discourse view of speech rhythms

Richard Cauldwell



Experimental evidence has fully refuted the stress- and syllable-timing hypothesis
(SSH) of speech rhythms. However, it remains the prevailing view and still features
in accounts of the rhythms of speech because no other hypothesis matches its
deceptively bewitching power. This paper, written from a discourse perspective,
proposes a replacement for SSH: spontaneous speech is functionally irrhythmic.
Although the formal events of speech – phones, strong and weak syllables, words,
phrases – occur ‘in time’ (they can be plotted on a time line) they do not occur ‘on
time’, (they do not occur at equal time intervals). English is not stress-timed, French
is not syllable-timed. The rare patches of rhythmicality are either ‘elected’ – as in
scanning readings of poetry and the uttering of proverbs – or ‘coincidental’ – the
side-effects of higher order choices made by speakers. Coincidental rhythmicality is
most likely to occur where there are equal numbers of syllables between stresses. In
spontaneous speech, the speaker’s attention is on planning and uttering selections of
meaning in pursuit of their social-worldly purposes, and this results in an
irrhythmic norm which aids comprehension.

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