Timing in Accents of English

We all know that 'timing is everything' when it comes to making jokes, theatrical speeches, and saying the right thing in conversation. But at a more everyday level, timing is a crucial part of any act of speaking. The actions of the speech organs (i.e. tongue, larynx, lips, breathing apparatus) need to be precisely timed with one another if speech is to sound natural and easy to understand.

Although this is well known, there has been little research on speech timing in different accents of English which is surprising, when we consider that most people are aware of different rhythmic patterns characterizing accents such as Welsh, Cockney, Yorkshire or Indian English; and that unfamiliarity with the rhythm of an accent intuitively seems to lead to trouble understanding it. In particular, this project should help us to understand:

How do accents differ in the timing patterns associated with particular word shapes? Is comprehension disrupted if the "wrong" timing pattern for a given accent is heard? How do speakers of accents with different timing patterns adjust to one another's rhythmic patterns in conversation?

Background to the project

This project seeks to substantiate the intuition that accents differ in timing, and that such differences impact on speech understanding. Whereas other current research tries to quantify the overall rhythm of languages and accents (e.g. as 'machine-gun'-like or 'Morse-code'-like), this project looks instead at the fine details of timing in specific types of words and phrases.

For example, the words "feeler", "filler" and "feel a [bit ill]" contain similar sounds, but in Southern English accents they differ in rhythm: the syllables of "feeler" sound roughly equal in length, "filler" has a short first syllable and a long second syllable, while "feel a [bit ill]" has a long first and short second syllable. Phoneticians have noticed that these relationships are not the same in all accents: Scottish accents seem to have a short-long pattern in "feeler", and Yorkshire a long-short pattern. But until now there has been no systematic investigation of these differences.

Materials and methods

The initial part of the project analyses recordings of speech. As a preliminary step, we will look at conversational speech in existing datasets, covering the Scottish accent as spoken in Glasgow, plus Leeds, Cambridge, and Bradford British Asian English. This will help us formulate predictions which we will then test in detail by recording read speech in laboratory experiments.

The second step is to test whether the observed differences affect perception. We will make artificial versions of sentences, modify their timing patterns to be right or wrong for an accent and test whether the wrong timing pattern makes listeners slower at identifying words in the accent.

The final part of the project begins to explore how differences between accents play out in ordinary conversation. People adjust their rhythm for many purposes in conversation, e.g. to signal agreement with what another speaker has said. If two speakers have accents that differ in timing, making these adjustments should be more difficult, so finding out how people behave in this situation will tell us a lot about how timing is produced and understood.

Results and applications

The results of the project will help us design further research on speech timing patterns. In the long term, we hope to use the results to help us collaborate with psychologists and neuroscientists to understand the kinds of mental 'clocks' people use to perceive speech and, ultimately, how they are implemented in the brain.

The research has potential applications in speech therapy and in the teaching of English pronunciation to non-native learners, because timing and rhythm play an important role in sounding like a natural speaker of an English accent.

Presentations and outputs

28 October 2010, Tamara Rathcke & Rachel Smith, oral presentation “Timing in four accents of British English” to the Postgraduate Research Seminar at the Insitute of Phonetics and Speech Processing, Munich.

30 March 2010, Tamara Rathcke & Rachel Smith, poster presentation “Foot timing in spontaneous speech: exploring rhythmic differences in two accents of English” at the BAAP Colloquium 2010, London.

23 February 2010, Rachel Smith & Tamara Rathcke, oral presentation “Foot timing in two accents of English” to the Phonetics & Phonology Workshop, University of Edinburgh.