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Rhythm and rhythmicity

Like countless processes in nature, human beings are also largely controlled by rhythms when it comes to their biological functions and behavior. Rhythmicity influences our perception and also learning. Especially in the domain of language, rhythm and dynamic elements have an impact on its functionality, on language acquisition and also on the writing system.


Rhythmicity → From a neurophysiological perspective, all vital biological processes in humans (these are: Cardiovascular system, /breathing, metabolism, internal secretion and psychomotor function) are controlled in the form of rhythmic patterns. External rhythms (speech, music) have an influence on processing processes in the brain and their influence on organ functions and central nervous functions.

Accent → Accent is the syllable that is more prominent in terms of volume, length and pitch compared to less perceptible surrounding syllables.

Prominence → Emphasis (accent) of a particular word of the linguistic utterance with simultaneous weakening of the emphasis of the others.

Written encoding → Phonological, morphological and syntactic features of spoken language are encoded in writing.

Functionality of language → The functionality of language refers to interpersonal exchange, especially communication, understanding, expression and action.

Isochronous → of equal duration

Suprasegmental features → Suprasegmental phonetic features include features such as melody or pitch (referred to more narrowly as intonation), loudness, length, speech tempo, speech stress and pauses.

Verse meter → Verse meter describes the tonal structure of a poem. The sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables is decisive.



Functions in the human body follow temporal patterns. We call these recurring rhythms rhythmicity. They relate, for example, to the activity of the brain or nerves and move within a few milliseconds. Digestion has a rhythm that moves in the range of hours, and the rhythm of sleep moves in the range of days. Thus, biological processes have very specific patterns in terms of their temporal sequence, and some of them depend on time, such as the day-night rhythm.

Rhythm also plays an important role in motor skills. Learned and automated movements are executed based on a highly repetitive and rhythmic timing pattern. By activating the agonist and antagonist (opposing pairs of muscles such as flexors and extensors) at equal intervals within a movement process, movements can be performed uniformly and efficiently. A good rhythm of the movements allows all the muscles involved (for example, about 25 muscles in the grip) to sing in the same rhythm as in a concert, even with complicated movements. In addition, automatic movements are most often performed isochronously, that is, at constant intervals, regardless of the movement interval. The typing frequency, for example, is always the same even with characters of different sizes.

There is also evidence that these rhythmic patterns of activity in the brain play a role in speech perception. It may be that information in speech can be processed more efficiently and quickly because there is some predictability due to the recurring rhythmic patterns in speech.

Speech rhythm is the temporal structure of spoken language. Along with stress, pause of speech and others, rhythm is part of the so-called suprasegmental features of spoken language. These features are linked to the syllable and not to individual sounds. We stress certain syllables more than others. This gives rise to rhythmic orders specific to a language. We know these patterns from poetry, where certain measures of the lines determine the rhythm.

At word level, troche and iamb alternate in Romanian. In German, the trochee predominates, where the first syllable of a word is stressed and the second unstressed. In French, on the other hand, the iambic form predominates - unaccented in front, accented in back.

In language, people first perceive prosodic markers such as stress, pauses, or rhythm. Even in newborns, word processing relies on the special rhythm of the native language. Rhythmic brain activity positively influences the perception of syllabic patterns in speech and their processing. It is possible that, due to the rhythmicity of brain activity, even vocabulary is categorized and retrieved according to rhythmic features.

Speech rate

The languages of the world are differentiated by different categorization classes. One of the main classes concerns the rhythm of the language. Rhythm influences the deepest structures of language development, speech production, speech perception, and its cognitive processing.

Languages can be classified according to their rhythmic characteristics. In Europe, languages in which we count syllables and accents predominate. In languages with number of syllables, such as Italian, Romanian or Turkish, the intervals between one stressed syllable and the next stressed syllable are (ideally) of equal length. In these languages, the brain processes linguistic information primarily at the syllable level. Syllable boundaries are perceived first, before the grammar, words or their meaning are processed.

In accented languages such as English, German, and Russian, a stressed syllable may be followed by several unstressed syllables. Stressing a syllable in a single word, in groups of words, or in a sentence is called stress. Although every word has an accent, in rapid pronunciation only the word that the speaker emphasizes as containing the most information is pronounced. This emphasis determines breathing and speech production on the part of the speaker and the perception and cognitive processing of information on the part of the listener.

Intonation / Prosody

Prosody is the collective term for those dynamic features of human speech that provide the characteristic sound of language. Above all, however, they are responsible for communication between speaker and listener.

Prosody reflects the intent and emotion of an utterance and indicates where a speaker is coming from, depending on the dialect. It represents the framework for a native speaker's linguistic competence, forms the structures that underlie language and guides language acquisition, and is responsible for the functioning of communication. It can be said that prosody is part of the human being, it is very close and natural to us. We don't know our language without it, because we learn prosody long before we learn our first words. We don't even think about prosody and its meaning. It is not necessary to name it. It serves as a landmark and helps the listener follow the speaker's intentions. These signals communicate empathy and show the relationship between meaningful and non-meaningful units in the sentence. The competent listener can thus perfectly identify these relationships and understand the speaker's intentions. In general, we do not even notice prosodic features in communication, unless they are absent.

Listening to a prosodically impaired speaker requires concentration and discipline and is tiring. Prosodic errors irritate the listener because they are unexpected and deviate from their own expectations. If these expectations are not met and a phrase has a completely different tone, this causes either irritation or goodwill on the part of the interlocutor.

When learning a foreign language, the prosodic pattern of the native language is so strong that it affects the pronunciation of the language being learned. To the native speaker listener, these systematic deviations from the most important tonal features are signs of the foreign accent.

Finally, speech rhythm is also part of the written code, which shows us the stressed and unstressed parts of words through certain combinations of letters.


What does this mean for my teaching practice?

Speech rhythm is a particularly powerful feature of spoken language and is central to language processing. A conscious examination of prosodic features is a prerequisite for perceiving them correctly.


Reflection question

Rhythm is particularly important for linguistic perception and functionality. What is the consequence of learning language and writing?


1) According to its rhythm, Romanian is a

A) syllable-counting language
B) accent-counting language

2) The basic structure for learning a mother tongue is

A) the word
B) the rhythm
C) the grammar


1️⃣ → A) syllable-counting language
2️⃣ → B) the rhythm

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