Why do some languages sound so fast?

Stan Dubinsky brought this interesting piece to my attention:

It’s an almost universal truth that any language you don’t understand sounds like it’s being spoken at 200 miles per hour — a storm of alien syllables almost impossible to tease apart. That, we tell ourselves, is simply because the words make no sense to us. Surely our spoken English sounds just as fast to a native speaker of Urdu. And yet it’s equally true that some languages seem to zip by faster than others. Spanish blows the doors off French; Japanese leaves German in the dust — or at least that’s how they sound…

But how could that be? The dialogue in movies translated from English to Spanish doesn’t whiz by in half the original time…

To investigate this puzzle, researchers from the Universite de Lyon recruited 59 male and female volunteers who were native speakers of one of seven common languages — English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish — and one not so common one: Vietnamese….

The investigators next counted all of the syllables in each of the recordings, and further analyzed how much meaning was packed into each of those syllables. A single syllable word like “bliss,” for example, is rich with meaning — signifying not ordinary happiness but a particularly serene and rapturous kind. The single syllable word “to” is less information-dense. And a single syllabile like the short i sound, as in the word “jubilee,” has no independent meaning at all.

With this raw data in hand, the investigators crunched the numbers together to arrive at two critical values for each language: The average information density for each of its syllables and the average number of syllables spoken per second in ordinary speech. Vietnamese was used as a reference language for the other seven, with its syllables (which are considered by linguists to be very information dense) given an arbitrary value of 1.

For all of the other languages, the researchers discovered, the more data-dense the average syllable is, the fewer of those syllables had to be spoken per second — and the slower the speech thus was. English, with a high information density of .91, is spoken at an average rate of 6.19 syllables per second. Mandarin, which topped the density list at .94, was the spoken slowpoke at 5.18 syllables per second. Spanish, with a low-density .63, rips along at a syllable-per-second velocity of 7.82. The true speed demon of the group, however, was Japanese, which edges past Spanish at 7.84, thanks to its low density of .49. Despite those differences, at the end of, say, a minute of speech, all of the languages would have conveyed more or less identical amounts of information….

So basically, with some languages it takes more syllables to say the same thing. So you have to say them faster to arrive at the same destination in the same amount of time. Weird that people around the world would be synchronizing their clocks that way.

Now you know.

10 thoughts on “Why do some languages sound so fast?

  1. Herb Brasher

    I wonder if some cultural aspects don’t play into it, though. Do some people groups lend more to speaking their mind quickly, and others less so? A guestion for a cultural-anthropologist-linguist, I guess.

    Also, I think different dialects of a language change the speed ratio. Schwaebisch, I would bet, is spoken faster than ‘high’ German. The very fact of ‘clipping’ endings that happens in dialect would speed up speech.

    Unless, of course, one is from Cah-oh-linn-aaaah.

  2. Juan Caruso

    Are we prepared? There is little doubt that politically correct argot has/will set our English language back (reliability and confidence level) by decades.

    Just wonderful (kidding, of course)!

  3. Scout

    Thanks! I love this article. Mark, my guess is you are right – the auditory cortex probably has an average processing rate for morphemes (unit of meaning) per unit of time. You can measure young children’s level of language development by how many morphemes per utterance they use. I wonder if that is also standard across languages – I only know the research for English.

  4. Ralph Hightower

    Okay, I read the full report. Spanish is fast.

    I would listen to a friend talk to his relatives in Puerto Rico while sitting with him on his patio on Lake Murray.

    “Bill” fled Cuba when Castro took over the country.

    I don’t understand Spanish, but Brad probably does from his childhood days. But I would classify Spanish as a “musical language” from listening to “Bill” talk to his relative.

  5. Nick Nielsen

    Surprisingly, Herb, Schwaebisch, at least in my experience, isn’t spoken significantly faster than high German. But the dialectical changes in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar make it almost a different language to somebody who speaks high German.

    When I heard it, it was recognizable as a german language, but not as German.

  6. Herb Brasher

    I would disagree Nick. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eF3qxtO70Zw and listen to Obama ‘speaking’ Schwaebisch, and I still maintain that by clipping endings and changing clear consonants such as z (ts), a language flows faster. It takes more time to pronounce clearly ‘Danke, liebe Mit-be-sit-z-er’ than it does, ‘dank’ lieba Mitbesitsa’.

  7. `Kathryn Fenner

    @Herb–Steven Pinker, the MIT linguist points out that in a given dialect about the same number of syllables (probably phonemes?) are lengthened or shortened as in another, but just different ones. We think Brits speak more clipped-ly and Southerners more slowly, but apparently there are aspects of each accent that even out.

  8. Scout

    Kathryn, a phoneme is a single speech sound. A syllable can be a single phoneme, but more often is at least 2 or 3. Some languages are built on open syllables – like Japanese – they typically have syllables with two phonemes – an initial consonant and a vowel. English has a lot more closed syllables, with a final consonant as well. Speakers whose first language has only open syllables who learn English tend to delete final consonants because their brains are not formatted to expect them. I am rambling. Sorry. This is fascinating to me.

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    Thanks, Scout–I took a couple of linguistics courses in college and enjoyed them, but get the terminology confused–morphemes, phonemes, allomorphs…

    For example, I think if you think about an Upstate accent vs. a Low Country accent, your initial reaction is that folks in Chucktown speak slower, but they slur a lot of syllables, or omit them, “Chahhhst’n” to make up for it, while folks in Greenville draw out some and clip others….”Chorrelstin”

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