Evidence for the metrical foot in Spanish


Maria-Bonita Flores and Merle Horne (Lund)



Spanish is commonly classified as a syllable-timed language in investigations of rhythm typology (Dauer 1983). That is to say, it is assumed that the rhythmic structure of the language is based on a regular repetition of syllable units which have a similar structure and thus a similar duration. However, it is also the case that Spanish has word stress, i.e. a given syllable in a given word is characterized by more prominence than the other syllables. Thus, one can hypothesize that stress, in addition to syllable-number can influence the rhythmic patterning of Spanish. In other words, it can be hypothesized that Spanish constitutes a language with a mixed rhythmic character, mostly syllable-timing but partly stress-timing. In metrical phonological terms, one could hypothesize, therefore, that the foot could play a certain role in characterizing the rhythmic structure of Spanish due to the fact that words are associated with word stress. Previous studies have, however, questioned the role that the foot can be assumed to play in accounting for Spanish rhythm (e.g. Cummins 2002). In this study using poetic discourse, we will argue that there would appear to be some support for the assumption of a fragmentary foot structure in Spanish. The main findings are the following: The basic syllable-timing character of Spanish is supported in poetic structure constraints, e.g. a poem is constructed using a fixed number of syllables in each line. 'SYLLABLE COUNT' is thus the major determinant of how a lyric poem is structured. However, in the phonetic realisation of the syllables in speech, the phonology of Spanish, including metrical constraints, interacts with this higher level syllable-timing constraint. Syllabic 'extrametricality' and empty syllabic insertion (catalexis) can be assumed as well as segmental processes leading to syllable deletion (synalepha) in order to attain the correct syllable count in a line of poetry. What is interesting from a phonological view is that the level at which this syllable count takes place cannot be described in a straightforward manner. It is not a level that corresponds to an underlying (phonemic) representation nor to a phonetic representation. It is some intermediate level or mixture of levels that can only be assumed to characterize a language that has a mixed rhythmic structure, in this case, a language which is 'mostly' syllable-timed but 'slightly' stress-timed as well. Acoustic support for these assumptions will be presented.




Cummins, F. 2002. Speech rhythm and rhythmic taxonomy. Proceedings Speech Prosody 2002: 115-119.


Dauer, R.M. 1983. Stress-timing and syllable-timing reanalyzed. Journal of Phonetics, 11: 51-62.