Speech rhythm: the language-specific integration of pitch and duration

Change log
Cumming, Ruth Elizabeth 

Experimental phonetic research on speech rhythm seems to have reached an impasse. Recently, this research field has tended to investigate produced (rather than perceived) rhythm, focussing on timing, i.e. duration as an acoustic cue, and has not considered that rhythm perception might be influenced by native language. Yet evidence from other areas of phonetics, and other disciplines, suggests that an investigation of rhythm is needed which (i) focuses on listeners’ perception, (ii) acknowledges the role of several acoustic cues, and (iii) explores whether the relative significance of these cues differs between languages. This thesis, the originality of which derives from its adoption of these three perspectives combined, indicates new directions for progress. A series of perceptual experiments investigated the interaction of duration and f0 as perceptual cues to prosody in languages with different prosodic structures – Swiss German, Swiss French, and French (i.e. from France). The first experiment demonstrated that a dynamic f0 increases perceived syllable duration in contextually isolated pairs of monosyllables, for all three language groups. The second experiment found that dynamic f0 and increased duration interact as cues to rhythmic groups in series of monosyllabic digits and letters; the two cues were significantly more effective than one when heard simultaneously, but significantly less effective than one when heard in conflicting positions around the rhythmic-group boundary location, and native language influenced whether f0 or duration was the more effective cue. These two experiments laid the basis for the third, which directly addressed rhythm. Listeners were asked to judge the rhythmicality of sentences with systematic duration and f0 manipulations; the results provide evidence that duration and f0 are interdependent cues in rhythm perception, and that the weighting of each cue varies in different languages. A fourth experiment applied the perceptual results to production data, to develop a rhythm metric which captures the multi-dimensional and language-specific nature of perceived rhythm in speech production. These findings have the important implication that if future phonetic research on rhythm follows these new perspectives, it may circumvent the impasse and advance our knowledge and model of speech rhythm.

Speech rhythm, Swiss German, Swiss French, French, Pitch, Duration
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
This work was funded by an AHRC doctoral award to the author.