from Journal of the International Phonetic Association, vol. 27, pp. 27-34, 1997

Bulgarian Speech Rhythm: Stress-Timed or Syllable-Timed?

Snezhina Dimitrova, University of Sofia

1.   Introduction

Ever since the terms “stress-timed rhythm” and “syllable-timed rhythm” were put forward by Pike in 1945, scholars have tried to describe the rhythms of the world’s languages in dichotomous terms. Thus, Abercrombie claims that “As far as is known every language in the world is spoken with one kind of rhythm or the other.” (1967:97) At the same time, experimental work has failed to produce empirical evidence in substantiation of these theoretical claims (Roach 1982, Dauer 1983). Therefore, it is not surprising that experiments designed to determine which of the two rhythmic categories a given language belongs to sometimes come to contradictory conclusions.

Thus, on the basis of results obtained from a contrastive study of vowel reduction in English and Bulgarian, Bulgarian has been claimed to have syllable-timed rhythm (Yordanova 1987). However, data from a test on perception of Bulgarian rhythm by native speakers seem to suggest that the language is characterised by stress-timed rhythm (Kurlova and Krustev 1989).

On the other hand, many scholars today prefer to view rhythmic differences between languages not in strictly dichotomous but in scalar terms. But at the same time, despite the lack of conclusive experimental evidence, the dichotomous distinction is still considered both a phonetically and a phonologically useful concept.

Therefore, a scalar model of speech rhythm, with two (hypothetical) languages at the two extremes of the rhythm scale (Laver 1994), should be able to account better for the observable facts than the traditional dichotomous distinction. Such a model should make it possible to find the place of a given language on the rhythm scale with reference to, for example, English or French.

One such model has been put forward by Dauer (1987). Within the framework of this model, the present paper attempts to establish the position of Bulgarian on the speech rhythm continuum.



2.   Dauer’s (1987) model 

Dauer defines rhythm as “the grouping of elements into larger units”, these elements in language being syllables, whereas, in some languages at least, stresses (or accents) also participate in order to mark off one group of syllables from another. She hypothesises that all languages have rhythmic grouping, but that not all necessarily have accent. Rhythm, then, is a total effect which involves a number of components, namely, (i), syllable and vowel duration, syllable structure and quantity as major factors responsible for length, (ii), intonation and tone as means of achieving pitch distinctions, (iii), vowel and consonant quality, and (iv), function of linguistic accent. Dauer also develops a system of rating according to which each component is broken down into “features’, and each feature is assigned a plus or a minus value (or sometimes zero). In this way, a relative rhythm “score” for a given language is obtained: the more pluses a language has, when assessed in terms of the above components, the more likely it is, according to Dauer, that the language in question has  “strong stress” and that it is “stress-timed”.

In the following table, English, Spanish and French are assessed on the basis of information  in Dauer (1987): 


                                                            English                        Spanish            French

1.   Length                                                                                                     

1.1 Duration                              +                      O                    N           

1.2 Syllable structure                        +                           -                      -        

1.3 Quantity

2.   Pitch

2.1 Intonation                                 +                      N                     -                       

2.2 Tone

3.   Quality

3.1 Vowels                                    +                        -                         N      

3.2 Consonants                           +                      N                      -           

4.   Function of accent                               +                      +                       -           


Table 1: Components of language rhythm  (N = not assessed in Dauer's paper)


The languages above are rather different in terms of rhythm, English being near to the "stress-timing" end  of the rhythm scale and French being closer to the opposite "syllable-timing" end; Spanish, on the other hand, would occupy an intermediate position between these two extremes.


3.   Speech rhythm in Bulgarian: an assessment with the help of the model

For an assessment of Bulgarian along the same lines, two of the above  components are irrelevant:

(i) Quantity: no phonological vowel quantity distinctions exist in present-day standard Bulgarian.

(ii) Tone: the phonological use of pitch is restricted in contemporary standard Bulgarian to the level of the phrase and the sentence; tone does not differentiate units at the level of the word or the level of individual syllables.

For the other components of language rhythm, the following scores can be given to Bulgarian:

3.1 Length

3.1.1Duration. Dauer proposes a + mark for a language in which accented syllables, and accented vowels in particular, are always longer than unaccented ones by at least 1.5. A 0 mark is proposed for languages in which accented syllables are only slightly longer than unaccented ones. Finally, a language is assigned a - if, in it, accent does not affect the length of syllables, or the language has no accent.

According to one author, stressed vowels in Bulgarian are about 1.5 times longer than unaccented vowels, but in many cases they can be only slightly longer, equal to, or even shorter than unstressed vowels (Misheva 1991). Tilkov and Boyadzhiev (1990) report that in Bulgarian unstressed vowels are, on the average, 35% shorter compared with the same vowels in the same environment under stress. 

Since stressed vowels in Bulgarian appear to be in many cases less than 1.5 times longer than unstressd ones, a 0 marked can be assigned here.

3.1.2 Syllable structure. For a language to be given a +, it must have a variety of syllable types - both heavy and light syllables with many different possible syllable structures; in addition, heavy syllables must tend to be accented, whereas light syllables must be (predominantly) unaccented. If, on the other hand, a language has a very limited number of syllable types, with CV or CVC syllables predominating, and if, in this language, accent and syllable weight are independent, then it is given a -. (The model does not provide for a 0 mark in this case.)

The maximum phonological structure of the syllable in Bulgarian can be summarised as (CCC)V(CCC). But here, the actual frequency of occurrence of the  various syllable types must also be taken into consideration.

In Bulgarian, open syllables are, in general, more frequent than closed syllables, especially in word-medial position. Moreover, diachronically, the appearance of closed syllables is a fairly recent development: Old Bulgarian had open syllables only. Today, only monosyllabic words can be characterised as having complex syllabic structure, e.g., CCVC смес /smes/ (mixture),  CCCVC страх /strax/ (fear), CCVCCC сфинкс /sfinks/ (sphinx), etc. In disyllabic and polysyllabic words, on the other hand, open syllables predominate. (Tilkov and Boyadzhiev 1990:142)

These observations are supported by the results from an analysis of a text corpus comprising 7056 syllables. Of these, 5986 or 84.8%,  were open syllables, predominantly of the CV and the CCV type. The closed syllables constituted 13.2%, or 1070 syllables, the majority of which (12.66%) were of the CVC type (Misheva, ms).

Dauer also mentions the importance of syllable weight - a concept relating the segmental composition of a syllable to its potential for being made prominent in an utterance. Some scholars define a “light” syllable as one which contains a nonbranching rhyme, i.e., it has only one element in the peak and coda positions taken together. A syllable is “heavy” if it has a branching rhyme, i.e., at least two elements in the peak and the coda (Katamba 1989:176). Others (Laver 1994:517-518) define a light syllable as one whose rhyme consists of a short vowel followed by a maximum of one short consonant, and a heavy syllable as one which can have in its rhyme either a long vowel, with or without a coda, or a short vowel, followed in the coda by at least one long or two short consonants.

Whichever of the above definitions is adopted, it seems that the majority of syllables in Bulgarian will be characterised as light. Only some monosyllabic lexical words with more complex segmental make-up will be described as constituting a heavy syllable, and in them this syllabic type will correlate with lexical stress. It should also be noted that there will be cases, in polysyllabic lexical words, when a light syllable will carry lexical stress in the immediate presence of a heavy syllable, e.g. радост /’ra.dost/ (joy), прелест /’pre.lest/ (charm), etc.

            Dauer’s model lacks a 0 mark for this component. Therefore, Bulgarian must either be given a -, or else a new 0 mark must be introduced. The latter solution appears to be more appropriate because in spite of the fact that in Bulgarian accent and syllable weight seem to be independent and open syllables predominate, the language cannot be said to have “only a limited inventory of syllabic structures”.

3.2 Pitch

3.2.1 Intonation. Here again Dauer's system divides languages dichotomously. On the one hand, there are those languages in which accent always correlates with pitch, accented syllables being turning points in the intonation contour and having either high or moving pitch; emphasis and contrast in such languages are realised primarily on the accented syllables. Such languages receive a + mark. In languages which get a -, intonation and accent are independent, and there may be a negative correlation between the two.

In Bulgarian, in some cases the beginning of the pitch change is associated with the syllable immediately preceding the stress (Tilkov and Boyadzhiev 1990, Misheva1991). On the other hand, since in the large majority of cases stress and pitch do correlate in Bulgarian, it can be assigned a + mark.

3.3 Quality

3.3.1 Vowels. For a language to be given a + here, its maximal vowel system should occur only in accented syllables, whereas vowels in unaccented syllables should be reduced or centralised. A 0 mark is assigned to languages in which, although the unaccented vowels are fewer in number than the accented vowels, they are not necessarily centralised, and there may be devoicing or raising typical of unaccented vowels only. Languages with a - have the same vowels in both accented and unaccented syllables.

A characteristic feature of the vocalic system of Bulgarian is that the phonetic realisation of vowels is strongly dependent on accent. The maximum number of vowel phonemes (6) is only met in stressed position, while in unstressed position this number is smaller. In the pairs /a - з/ and /o - u/, the distinction “close - open” is neutralised and the actual realisation depends on the position of the respective vowel relative to the position of lexical acccent in the word. In the pair / e - i / the close - open opposition, while still functional in minimal pairs such as векове /veko’ve/ (ages) - викове /viko’ve/ (cries - noun, pl.), also shows a tendency towards neutralisation (Tilkov and Boyadzhiev 1990:63-4).

Tilkov and Boyadzhiev call this process reduction of unstressed open /a/ and /o/ in the direction of the closer /з/ and /u/, respectively. But if reduction is defined as a (phonological) process whereby a peripheral vowel is replaced with a more central vowel in unstressed syllables (Lindblom 1963 cit. by Laver 1994:516), and since no centralisation takes place in some of the above cases, then it would be probably more appropriate to adopt Pettersson and Wood’s (1988) treatment of this process. They claim that what is observed in unstressed position in Bulgarian is a process of raising of unaccented /o/ in the direction of   /u/  and of  /a/ in the direction of /з/.

In terms of Dauer’s moel, then, Bulgarian should get a 0 mark here.

3.3.2 Consonants. Dauer proposes a + for languages in which consonants are articulated with greater precision in accented syllables, whereas in unaccented syllables they have special reduced allophones, or are subject to neutralisation. If, in a given language, all consonants have the same articulation regardless of their position in relation to accent, then this language receives a - mark.

Consonantal allophones in Bulgarian are positionally determined rather than being dependent on accent. Although, for example, neutralisation of the phonological contrast between voiced and voiceless consonants is typical of present-day standard Bulgarian, such neutralisation takes place independent of accent, e.g., word-finally, before a pause, where only voiceless consonants can occur: хубав /’xubaf/ (nice) - лукав /lu’kaf/ (sly.

The major consonantal allophones in Bulgarian are likewise independent of accent position and are contextually determined. Thus, palatalization of /k/ and /g/ always takes place before /e, i /, no matter whether they are accented or not, e.g. гибел [‘gJibel] (sacrifice), малки [‘malkJi] (small, pl.).

Again,  Dauer's system lacks a 0 mark here, therefore Bulgarian must be given a minus mark.

3.4 Function of accent. In Bulgarian accent is free: it can occur in various positions in a word, and shifting it from one syllable to another can result in a new word with a different meaning, e.g. пара /’para/ (steam) - пара /pa’ra/ (a coin). Therefore, Bulgarian is assigned a + mark here.

4. Conclusion

4.1 The place of Bulgarian on the rhythm scale. A comparison of the assessment of Bulgarian rhythm  presented here with that of English and French as made by Dauer reveals that, on a scale of rhythm, Bulgarian occupies an intermediate position between these two prototypical rhythm types:






1.1 Duration




1.2 Syllable structure




2.1 Intonation




3.1 Vowels




3.2 Consonants




4 Function of accent





Table 2: Bulgarian rhythm compared to that of English and French

This result can account for the contradictory conclusions reached in earlier studies of speech rhythm in Bulgarian. Also, it appears that Dauer’s model can provide a useful starting point for any investigation of speech rhythm in a given language.           

4.2 Dauer’s model. Although Dauer's model seems to account better for the rhythmical differences between languages than the "classical" dichotomous stress-/ syllable-timing theory, it could be further improved by, e.g., adding 0 marks for certain components. This will make it possible for the model to capture finer rhythmic differences between languages.

R e f e r e n c e s

1.   Abercrombie (1967)

2.   Dauer (1983)

3.   Dauer (1987)

4.   Katamba (1989)

5.   Kurlova and Krustev (1989)

6.   Laver (1994)

7.   Misheva (1991)

8.   Misheva (ms)

9.   Pettersson and Wood (1988)

10. Pike (1945)

11. Roach (1982)

12. Tilkov and Boyadzhiev (1990)

13. Yordanova (1987)