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I’ve read some sources that say a syllable is “one beat” but I don’t understand that. Wouldn’t it depend on the tempo of the pulse. I.e, if a tempo is 60bpm can’t you fit different numbers of syllables between each beat depending on how fast you are uttering? I’ve also read that a typical speaking rate for English is 4 syllables per second which means a syllable could be a half a second (eighth note), or even a half of a half of a second (sixteenth note), is this correct?

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  • Speech speed can be analyzed several ways. A beat in music is a single time marker, so by extension in speech, a beat can only refer to a single syllable. But the term is not a linguistics term. Beats in music can be produced slowly or fast. In themselves, they don't have a "time".
    – Lambie
    Nov 11, 2023 at 17:47

1 Answer 1

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A syllable is an organizational abstraction, a grouping of consonants around a vowel (with various putative exceptions). Beyond that, it doesn't make any sense to try to "define" a syllable, but it does make sense to ask how or if one can detect one.

There are various Western cultural traditions related to writing that are used to determine that some substring of an utterance is a syllable. English speakers are taught from an early age to speak slowly and "sound out" a word, so that a word like "catastrophic" is performed at an abnormally slow rate, and you can consider each production chunk to be a syllable. The vowel bears the brunt of this prolongation: you can then consider each syllable to be "a beat", except that "beat" is not a linguistic term, it is a musical one taken into linguistics.

In fact, "beat" is the wrong concept for syllables, a "beat" more closely corresponds to the metrical foot, which is a grouping of two (or three) syllables.

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  • A beat is a grouping of two or three syllables??
    – Lambie
    Nov 11, 2023 at 17:43
  • @Lambie inasmuch as beat & metrical foot are more reasonably linked than beat & syllable, and a metrical foot contains multiple syllables yes. Still, the link wouldn't be that a beat is a metrical foot, but that there is one beat per metrical foot
    – Tristan
    Nov 13, 2023 at 15:42
  • @Tristan Oxford Dictionary: a main accent or rhythmic unit in music or poetry. //One thing, not a grouping of anything at all.
    – Lambie
    Nov 13, 2023 at 15:44
  • @Lambie see my second sentence. And this answer doesn't say they're the same, just that they more closely correspond than do syllables and beats. There is one beat per metrical foot, so there is a correspondence
    – Tristan
    Nov 13, 2023 at 15:54
  • @Tristan A beat is not a grouping. End of story for me. The answer here states that, not me, not you. There is no way to argue it does not say that because it does say that.
    – Lambie
    Nov 13, 2023 at 16:08

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