Stress- and syllable-timed languages

This page contains information about the two major differences in how languages are spoken.


Linguists distinguish between languages in which a section of text is spoken:

  • with about the same time between the stressed syllables (stress-timed)
  • with each syllable taking about the same time to say (syllable-timed).

Stress-timed languages

English is a stress-timed language. Its intonation patterns, therefore, are different from those of syllable-timed languages like French, Spanish or Hindi.

In a stress-timed language such as English, syllables are stressed at roughly regular intervals. Since it is the key words (typically nouns, pronouns, verbs or adjectives) that are stressed, the intervening words (typically articles, prepositions, etc.) get shortened and weakened ('swallowed').

This means that two or three of the shortened, weaker words together may take up the same amount of time as the single stressed syllables preceding and following them.

For example, in the statement: I like walking in the rain, the syllables I / like / wal / rain would probably be stressed and each occupy about the same amount of time as the three syllables kin / in / the together.

Syllable-timed languages

In a syllable-timed language such as Italian, French or Korean every syllable occupies roughly the same amount of time.


Learners whose first language can be categorized as syllable-timed often have problems both recognising and producing aspects of a stress-timed such as contractions and ellipsis.

Such problems account for the 'heavy' English accents that many native speakers of those languages retain even after years of speaking English and the acquisition of flawless grammar.

Further reading

There's a Wikipedia article on this topic with the title Isochrony.