Rhythm Zone Theory: Speech Rhythms are Physical after all

Dafydd Gibbon, Xuewei Lin

Speech rhythms have been dealt with in three main ways: from the introspective analyses of rhythm as a correlate of syllable and foot timing in linguistics and applied linguistics, through analyses of durations of segments of utterances associated with consonantal and vocalic properties, syllables, feet and words, to models of rhythms in speech production and perception as physical oscillations. The present study avoids introspection and human-filtered annotation methods and extends the signal processing paradigm of amplitude envelope spectrum analysis by adding an additional analytic step of edge detection, and postulating the co-existence of multiple speech rhythms in rhythm zones marked by identifiable edges (Rhythm Zone Theory, RZT). An exploratory investigation of the utility of RZT is conducted, suggesting that native and non-native readings of the same text are distinct sub-genres of read speech: a reading by a US native speaker and non-native readings by relatively low-performing Cantonese adult learners of English. The study concludes by noting that with the methods used, RZT can distinguish between the speech rhythms of well-defined sub-genres of native speaker reading vs. non-native learner reading, but needs further refinement in order to be applied to the paradoxically more complex speech of low-performing language learners, whose speech rhythms are co-determined by non-fluency and disfluency factors in addition to well-known linguistic factors of grammar, vocabulary and discourse constraints.

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