Something a little different this time!
Pick out four to six lines of your favorite rap or hip-hop song. Practice ‚rapping‘ them just like the interpreter does. Think about which words and syllables take the most prominence in pronunciation. Which words are those?
Like music, languages have their own rhythms. What do you know about the rhythm of English?
Try the sentences below. Read them silently, then aloud before listening to the recording.
The box is big.
The package is big.
The package is heavy.
The packages are heavy.
The packages are heaviest.
The packages are the heaviest.
Now listen. Although these sentences range from just four to nine syllables, they take nearly the same amount of time to say in English. As you can see from the boldface type, each has only two stressed syllables, and all the others are pronounced quickly and weakly. This is because English is a stress-timed language. This means that only stressed words determine the length of time any utterance takes, and all the others get squished into the brief moments in between. This is very different from most Romance languages, for example, which tend to be syllable-timed, meaning they have a much more regular rhythm.
So, what kinds of words are stressed? Have a look again at the sentences above, where the stressed syllables are highlighted. The words in English which carry stress are of two kinds. First, content words, i.e. words that convey the main meaning of a sentence, are the ones that bear stress. Thus, you will find that nouns, main (not auxiliary) verbs and sometimes important modifiers tend to be the most prominent words in an utterance. In addition, of course, it is possible that a speaker may stress a particular word even if it falls into the category of auxiliaries or determiners, in order to emphasize a point. Imagine this:
The packages are the heaviest.
What is the speaker trying to convey? She wants the listener to pay close attention to the determiner the, thus drawing the ear to a specific distinction or an emotional reaction.
So, what happens to the sounds in unstressed syllables? The first sounds to attend to are the vowels. If you listen again, you will hear that the unstressed syllables all tend to have one of just two possible vowels: /ə/ or sometimes /
I/. Those are the vowels which are most central und unstressed. These unstressed syllables are already present in longer polysyllabic words. Have a look at these words, then listen, and see if you can identify the weak syllables where the schwa /ə/ occurs.
In sentences, it can go even further than that. In the sentence
Have some fun.
The vowel in some — already an /ə/ — is shortened even more, or even eliminated altogether, or elided. In
It’s as good as gold.
the vowels in the highlighted words are reduced, that is, changed from the stronger, longer /æ/ to the short, weak middle vowel /ə/. Even consonants are affected by reduction in unstressed syllables:
I need one of you.
Here the /v/ is even elided, creating a very common syllable in spoken English: /ə/ for of.
Here are some of the most common unstressed words in English, complete with their pronunciation in their independent full form, several possible reductions, and an example or two. You can hear the pronunciation as you watch the video above.
|can||kæn>kən>kᵻn/ kn||I can do it, can you?|
|and||ænd>ən||apples and oranges|
|have||hæv>əv||They have none.|
|hæv>əv>ə||She would have done it.|
|to||tu>tə / ɾə||Let’s go to the mall.|
The main thing to be aware of in thinking of English speech rhythm is thus unstress. As many other languages are not stress-timed, this is something that will be challenging for non-native speakers both as they attempt to understand (particularly fast) spoken English, and as they seek to sound more intelligible to native speakers or even native-like. Research has found that the rhythm of the language produced is more likely to create comprehension problems among speakers than mispronounced phonemes, so this is a point worth spending some time on.
Do you feel now like you have a better grasp of the rhythm of the English language, and how it might affect you as both a listener and a speaker? You can check with a few exercises here, and keep an eye out for new, more practical ones as well.