Why Portuguese stress patterns sound natural to English-speakers

Compare Erika Ender singing Despacito in Spanish to Ana Moura singing Ninharia in Portuguese. How easily can you spot the key words and how many can you spot? If you are a native or fluent English speaker you may find your ear picks up the clues more easily in Portuguese.

Erika Ender singing in the syllable-time language Spanish
Ana Moura singing in the Portuguese of Portugal, a stress-timed language

You can find out more about these two compelling songs at Erika Ender sings Despacito and Ana Moura sings Ninharia. Here we'll focus on a key difference in the sound patterns of the two languages, which applies as much or more in spoken Spanish or Portuguese as it does in song.

Stress and rhythm in languages

One welcome thing about the Portuguese of Portugal - if you are coming from a language like English, German or Russian, is that the stress pattern tends to sound natural. This is because European Portuguese, like English, German and Russian, is stress-timed.

By contrast, all the Latin-based languages of Europe apart from Portuguese - Italian, French, Romanian, Spanish and Catalan are syllable-timed. As, to a large extent, is Brazilian Portuguese. Many other languages are too - Hindi in India, Yoruba in Nigeria and Welsh in the UK.

For English speakers, this similarity in stress pattern between English and the Portuguese of Portugal is useful if you are trying to understand a song. The words the singer seems to be emphasising - say coraSOWng (coração - heart), SHOOva (chuva - rain) or desTEENoo (destino - destiny), really are the important ones for the meaning.

Meanwhile the syllables they mumble, or sometimes drop altogether, are in words that we too in English would tend to rush over or drop. I'm thinking here of English as used in most parts of the UK, North America and Australia - English has a big range, and some speakers might stress things differently.

What is stress timing?

Without thinking too much about it, just read these lines out at normal or fast speed.

Cats chase mice
The cats chase mice
The cats chase the mice
The cats will chase the mice
The cats will have chased the mice
The cats will have chased the little mice
But the cats will never chase the littlest mouse
Because the cats are lazy

As you progress words like have and little get mangled as their syllables are shortened to preserve the rhythm you have probably fallen into. When too many syllables are packed in it becomes natural to find a third word to stress to make the meaning clear again - here you could go with either never or chase.

The point to take away is that a lot of syllables are getting downgraded, with reduced time and emphasis accorded to them, to keep to a preferred, natural-seeming rhythm in the whole utterance. This happens in Portuguese too.

So in stress-timed languages major stresses tend to occur at regular intervals, and the speaker tends to naturally select syllables to stress in words that have some importance to the meaning. The remaining unstressed syllables get fitted in between the stresses - and if there are too many of these they get crammed in or even dropped altogether.

This is because, in English, European Portuguese and other stress-timed languages a high priority is put on the metrical pattern - the rhythm, the cadence, the beat.

This use of stress doesn't just sound natural and nice to us - it carries an important component of the meaning. Perhaps other factors are involved too, but it's striking that hand movements accompanying speech seem less common in stress-timed languages than in syllable-timed languages like Italian or French.

What is syllable timing?

In syllable-timed languages things work differently. Syllables tend to follow each other at regular intervals, and a roughly equal amount of time is spent on each syllable. This is very noticeable when listening to Italian being sung, or Spanish spoken rapidly. Because few syllables are dropped or reduced by comparison with a stress-timed language, the overall impression is that a lot more words are being uttered. This may not actually be the case - it's not more words but more syllables that are being said.

Sometimes when English is being spoken as a second language by a non-native speaker, the speaker will attempt to apply the rules of syllable timing they know from their home language to English. This is one of the components of an Indian accent - both Hindi and most other Indian languages are syllable-timed, as is Welsh. This results in what seems like arbitrary unimportant syllables being given stress, rather than the ones expected, making the speech initially hard to follow and the sentiment hard to grasp.

It is amazing what a difference this change in stress makes to intelligibility, even if the words and grammar are all completely correct. That is until you as the English-speaking listener expecting stress timing get your "ear in tune" with the unfamiliar sound pattern you are hearing. This can take from minutes to months.

Of course we are exaggerating here a little. Syllable-timed languages do still manage to get their meanings across, using other methods to add emphasis to critical words and phrases. But these may not be obvious to you as an outsider to the language.

By contrast Portugal is using a stress system that is already familiar to native English-speakers.

Further reading and listening elsewhere on this site

Ana Moura and Mariza sing different words to the same traditional Fado tune.
Ninharia is a very old Fado standard, sung over the years with a variety of different lyrics.

Ana Moura in her context among other great interpreters of Portuguese Fado

Erika Ender sings a duet in Portuguese with Emanuel the Pimba king

Further language information

More on stress timing and vowel reduction in the sound pattern of European Portuguese in this YouTube video from the LangFocus channel: Why Does Portuguese Sound Like Russian?

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