I was in a Zumba class the other day, hopelessly mincing about at the back, as the ghetto-blaster pumped out the dirge that is mambo no 5 by a certain Lou Bega.
Not only is this beat not Mambo, but also I found myself consistently always behind the instructor’s steps. I was not particularly caught out by the speed or the rhythm, but just could not fit the steps to the rhythm. The teacher had not broken down the steps so we had to learn them in real (or not so real, delayed) time.

Tight Fit

The random thought occurred to me was, could this fit problem be the same for language? I.e.we often struggle with the rhythm of a language, even when we know the steps (sounds). The dreaded connected speech.
The truth is we can often recognise a rhythm no matter how fast it is played, and it could be that when we complain someone speaks too fast, it’s their rhythm (stress pattern), we struggle with; our brain doesn’t recognise the individual sounds being made, but uses the rhythm to guess what is being said.
The fact is a Bossa nova rarely turns into a Samba (i.e. rhythms are fairly consistent if not cliched) but we would recognise the two as different no matter what speed they were played at (they are both mid-tempo rhythms).
This led me to the conclusion that rhythm is just as important as the sounds that make up a language, to the level where we struggle to understand & speak fluently if we can’t pick up the rhythm.

So this was my general hypothesis; I did the usual of trying to look around for evidence to support my theory

Disporting strife

Sports people are great language source material as their speech is simple and widely available. Football, in particular, fits this pattern, and there are many examples of footballers and Managers who struggle for any kind of fluency even in their own language; for me, this was evidence that they struggle with a rhythm often halting as they fumble for a particular piece of vocabulary. This pause is fatal to maintaining any kind of rhythm or fluency. Don’t get me wrong there are many sportsmen who are extremely fluent in their language (y’know wad I mean arry) but there are so many examples of the opposite. At the other end of the spectrum are actors, broadcasters,or even sports promoters, who can literally make a telephone book sing such is their mastery of rhythm (& intonation)

What is Rhythm?

I put this question up on Facebook in a language group and surprisingly received little response. The answer comes from music theory; we have a beat. Usually, it is 4 (aka common time) or a multiple of, but we also have three and the triplet. I’m not going further than that but other timings (e,g.6/8) are obviously available.
Timing (beat) is not rhythm. I repeat Timing is not rhythm.
Rhythm occurs when we stress particular beats. For example, Bossa Nova and Reggae can be played with 4 beats (per bar) but the stress patterns are completely different & this stress signature is how we differentiate the two rhythms. i.e. It’s not the notes. If you look at the Samba & Bossa above you can easily distinguish between the two rhythms yet they share the same time signature (timing), It’s the same with language, we often can detect a speaker of a certain language, merely from the rhythm (stress pattern). Curiously our ears forgive sound errors, in favour of the stress pattern.

Stressful times

In English most of our words are two or a multiple of; when we go to six or more syllables thinks get tricky, whereas Spanish is famous for its multisyllabic words. Quite often in English we even compress syllables making it easier to connect in speech e.g. extraordinary become /xtrawdrɪnri/. This is rarely the case in Spanish even with its extraordinary amount of traffic. The idea that English has a rhythm seemed quite intriguing as, being a native speaker my attention had never been drawn to it, but yes we do have an iambic rhythm which is celebrated in the father of English, Shakespeare, whose work is predominantly peppered with iambic pentameter. The thing to note here is that whereas in music rhythms are pretty regular, speech rhythms are fairly irregular. In fact, the best speakers are masters of this irregularity, which they use to colour their speech and raise it way above the level of a boring monotone. All languages have rhythms which smooth over the inherent sound problems of the language to give a fluent discourse, often admired in a speaker, and gives a feeling of authority and authenticity.

The Sound of Language

One of my favourite examples of rhythmic speech comes courtesy of Mac Rebenack (gris gris aka Dr.John) and is the way he says piano /piʝano/; he pronounces it /pianæ/, deeply Orleanese & Ebonic. Expanding on the theme of music Latin bands often fail to produce credible rock songs as they try and force a latin vocal(with its off rhythms) onto a driving flat 4×4 Anglo-Saxon (rock) beat rhythm. An honourable exception is the bicultural Carlos Santana who never makes this mistake & mixes the Latin & Anglo forms musically rather than vocally. Also, black music tends to stick to this Anglo beat but heavily syncopated (aka funky) or in reggae’s case, a very regular offbeat) with matching vocals. Song is perhaps the clearest exposition of language matching rhythm.


Closely related we have a musical form in speech we call intonation (pitch change) to convey meaning; we can add colour to a rather dry piece of prose, or change a statement into a question, express surprise or delight. The effect of rhythm & intonation is that these cliches become very memorable, as we seem to absorb rhythms painlessly. I still remember Dr. John’s /pianæ/ years later. The job of the lyric writer is often to write a lyric that hypnotically fits a rhythym, hence we often end up with nonsense.


So what was going on in the Zumba class?

Basically, I had my own steps & rhythms, but the Zumba rhythms didn’t fit my steps. The solution was to learn the new Zumba steps as whole sequences and then apply these to the Zumba rhythms. Thus analogously when teaching language (speech) we should teach complete phrases (rhythm & sounds (physics ).

Mispronunciation is not just where the sound physics of a language go wrong but also how rhythmically we incorporate these sounds to create a fluency, that is instantly recognisable, we often talk in cliches, which we interpret as a stream of rhythmic sound rather than a set of individual sounds.

English has an overarching two step (iambic), where we struggle beyond six syllables. In Spanish 6+ syllables is the norm hence the ra-ta-ta-tat Palos as exemplified in say Flamenco (12). Having said that there are rhythmic variations within any language, as is obvious listening to any broadcast for a few minutes, and these variations add colour. Radio 4 notwithstanding … /ɛnɪt/

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