SRPP: Is language rhythm in the ear of the beholder? A sensorimotor synchronisation approach to the cross-linguistic study of rhythm

Tamara Rathcke (University of Konstanz)
05 mars 2021, 14h0015h30

Is language rhythm in the ear of the beholder? A sensorimotor synchronisation approach to the cross-linguistic study of rhythm

Tamara Rathcke (University of Konstanz), Chia-Yuan Lin (University of Kent), Simone Falk (University of Montreal), Simone Dalla Bella (University of Montreal)

Rhythmic properties of speech and language have been controversially debated since 1980s (Dauer, 1983; Roach, 1982), and the quest for a rhythmic typology is sometimes viewed as Quixotic (Cummins, 2012:32). The main aim of the present study is to use a novel movement-based paradigm and provide evidence as to what extent rhythm perception is bottom-up (i.e. guided by the acoustic signal) or top-down (i.e. shaped by the native prosodic system of the listener). A series of sensorimotor synchronisation experiments (Aschersleben, 2002; Repp, 2005) has been run with French and English listeners. Thirty participants of each language were asked to tap in synchrony with the subjectively perceived beat of 20 sentences in their native and non-native language. The sentences varied in length and syntactic complexity, and were presented in a loop consisting of 20 repetitions. If rhythm perception arose bottom-up, the SMS data were expected to show evidence for some stable, acoustically defined events that would serve as synchronisation anchors in both groups of listeners. If rhythm perception was a top-down experience, the SMS data were expected to differ in a language-specific way.
The results of the experiments first highlight that beat tracking across languages is locked onto vowels. The cyclical production of vowel gestures in connected speech has been previously suggested as one of the main reasons why spoken language might be rhythmic in nature (Fowler & Tassinary, 1981). Our findings further indicate that linguistic rhythm may indeed be in the ear of the beholder, and the attempts to base a rhythmic typology entirely on acoustic properties of speech signals are likely to remain ill-advised (Cummins, 2012) whereas typological approaches that involve phonological features of prosodic systems (e.g. Jun, 2014) appear promising.

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