Ask-A-Linguist Message Details
Is it possible to compare the speed at which different languages are
normally spoken? If so, which languages are relatively fast and which
The simple answer to your first question is yes. We can count, for example, the number of syllables in any given stretch of speech over time and then compare results for different languages.
The more realistic answer has to do with the word “speech”. Languages do not exist independently of their speakers/users, so counting linguistic units over time always means counting individual speech productions over time, and then averaging the results.
One additional issue is what exactly is it that we’re counting, i.e. how do we define syllables – or words, or sounds, or any other unit we choose to base our statistics on. Despite their generalised use, these words do not necessarily refer to the same thing across languages, or across language analysts.
Yet another issue relates to matters of perception. Just like what we call “languages” must be used by individuals, for measuring purposes, so speech must be perceived by individuals, too. Machines can help us here but, again, we must instruct our machines to identify what we choose to call syllables, words, or sounds.
An early account of these matters, from a cross-linguistic and cross-cultural perspective, is here, ‘A Cross Cultural Study of Speech Rate’:
<a href='http://las.sagepub.com/content/7/2/120.short' target='_blank'>http://las.sagepub.com/content/7/2/120.short</a>
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