An ELT Glossary : Stress Timing and Syllable Timing

  • In a stress-timed language (eg English, Russian or Arabic), the amount of time needed for an utterance depends on the number of stressed syllables it contains rather than the total number of syllables. So eg in English it takes very little longer to say a 'one and then a 'two and then a 'three and then a 'four than it does to say simply 'one, 'two, 'three, 'four. Despite the fact that the first utterance has so many more syllables than the second, it has the same number of stressed syllables. The unstressed syllables are reduced to “fit in” to the time. 

  • In a syllable-timed language on the other hand (eg French, Italian, Greek) each syllable takes an equal amount of time to pronounce, and thus increasing the number of syllables will mean a proportionate increase in the length of time needed for the utterance.