Timing and melody: an acoustic study of rhythmic patterns of Chinese dialects




Li, Ya

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Inspired by Lin and Huang’s (2009) rhythmic study of Chinese dialects, this study examines speech rhythm of 21 Chinese dialects from three perspectives, timing, melody, and phonological structure. The 21 dialects belong to four major groups of Chinese and their respective sub-groups. The four major groups are Mandarin, Wu, Min, and Cantonese. Nine duration-based and four pitch-based metrics are used to quantify timing and melody, respectively. Four phonological structure-based metrics are used to explore the relationships between syllable structure and timing and between tone structure and melody. All the metrics are paired up according to five categories, duration-only, pitch-only, duration-pitch, duration-syllable, pitch-tone, and each pair is subject to a correlation analysis. Then timing and melody patterns of the Chinese dialects are determined by correlation patterns of relevant metric pairs. The main findings of this study are as follows: 1) Timing and melody patterns of the Chinese dialects are far from homogenous across major groups and melody patterns are more distinct than timing patterns; 2) No single metric pair is able to quantify speech rhythm consistently for all the Chinese dialects; nonetheless, pitch-based metric pairs fare better than duration-based ones; 3) Syllable-timedness and melodiousness are correlated positively for all the major groups except for Wu; 4) Phonological structure plays little role in shaping timing and melody patterns of most Chinese dialects. The above findings are both expected and unexpected. They are expected in the sense that rhythmic perception invovles multiple acoustic cues, so it comes as no surprise that not all rhythmic metrics are successful in quantifying Chinese rhythm. They are unexpected for the reason that all the metrics are developed based more or less on phonological structure, yet the rhythmic patterns they reveal do not correspond to the structure affinity or group membership of the Chinese dialects. Overall, the findings suggest that pitch is a more import cue than duration to Chinese rhythm. As the first study of Chinese rhythm across multiple dialects and from different perspectives, this study not only lays a methodological foundation for future research but also contributes to our in-depth understanding of Chinese dialects.



Chinese dialects, Syllable-timing, Chinese syllable structure, Chinese tone structure, Speech melody, Speech rhythm