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Rhythm in the Romance Languages  

Pier Marco Bertinetto

Speech rhythm is a popular research topic but a still poorly understood phenomenon. A critical assessment of the algorithmic tools developed in the last two decades to analyze rhythm in natural languages shows that they can at best lead to a topological arrangement of the languages to be compared, with no ambition to actually offer objective and absolute measures. Besides, all available tools are heavily influenced by any source of variability, in particular: speech rate, speech style (most notably, spontaneous vs. read), and even speaker identity. Although this shows their high sensitivity to the input details, it raises severe doubts as for the actual relevance of the comparative results obtained in the study of different languages. Future research will have to learn to overcome these weaknesses. Most importantly, readers should be alerted to the false idol of a common Romance rhythmic footprint. Close inspection of the prosodic characteristics of the main Romance languages indicates that the differences are indeed remarkable and likely to feed diverging rhythmical behaviors. Besides, one should take into account the vast intrafamily variability, up to the tiniest local vernaculars, which often diverge in extraordinary ways from the ‘roof’ language supposed to constitute a sort of common denominator.