Things they didn't tell me about English, part 1/n: stress and timing

While I was learning English as a second language, early on, they never bothered to explicate a couple of things which would have helped me a lot. Eventhough they were well known even at the time. So I thought, why not write down a couple of the more obvious and systematic ones. Especially the ones which make certain well-known Finnish people sound like morons when they try their hand in spoken English. Just in case this might help somebody.

To me the first and foremost mistake we make is that we tend to handle English as though it was a syllable (or even mora) timed language, whereas it's a stress timed one.

In Finnish, each syllable takes, or is perceived to take, pretty much an equal amount of time. Both timing and stress is derived from the syllabic structure: equal timing, stress on the first syllable, and if a word stretches to four syllables, a secondary, minor stress on the third syllable.

In something like Japanese, you rather work with mora, which can include trailing consonants and single vowels as well, where those would (usually) be assimilated into the end of a preceding syllable in Finnish. As for stress, the rules are much more intricate, but the timing is more or less the same: one unit of time per syllable/mora, which leads to a kind of repetitive, rapidfire regularity. (From the mora viewpoint, Finnish, assimilated "morae" seem to take something like 1.4x the time it takes to pronounce a syllable without one, and there're all kinds of sandhi, semi-diphtongs and whatnot going on in-between.)

English, temporally that's completely different. The two things they don't tell you about it are: a) in fact every single word carries an invariable stress somewhere, which you actually should be learning more or less by rote when you learn the word, and b) the timing of the spoken language is derived by keeping the spacing between the spoken accents psychoacoustically constant. This means that especially longer words can experience quite a bit of compression in flowing speech, and be pretty darn nasty for a Finnish speaker to pronounce as a result.

So let's take a random English sentence, with "big" words for extra effect. Like, let's say... "Children enthusiastically played around, despite his overly avuncular presence." In Finnish that'd translate something like, "Lapset leikkivät innokkaasti, hänen tykötulevuudestaan huolimatta." I'll try and mark both the primary and the secondary stresses below with a different background color, and try to somehow convey how different the resulting temporal metric really is by using spaces, dots and the like. (Don't mind the fact that the word order differs markedly.) The dots underneath the line denote the maximum of four phonemes per syllable used here in Finnish, as the more easily timed language when written.

Lap- set  leik-ki-  vät  in-  nok- kaas-ti
.... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ....

spite.'is  over..ly.avuncular..pre..sen..ce...
hä-  nen  ty-  kö-  tu   le-  vuu- des- taan huo- li-  mat- ta
.... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ....

Please don't kill me if this rendering is far from perfect: I'm not only an amateur in phonology, but it's also very, very difficult to try and think about these two metrics at the same time, and to even render them into one single picture while writing. I just hope you get the overall gist of it: metrically the English accents are pretty much evenly spaced in time, whereas the Finnish ones are perfectly regular on syllable boundaries, but then not so in time. Even if the same passage translates into different length in both written and spoken form.

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