Grounding the iambic/trochaic law

Trochees tend to be even, iambs are usually uneven. Since Hayes (1985) it is believed that this distinction has a basis in an extralinguistic principle of rhythmic grouping:

  • Elements contrasting in intensity naturally form groupings with initial
  • Elements contrasting in duration naturally form groupings with final

It is believed that this ‘iambic/trochaic law’ reflects a universal cognitive tendency. But new research in musical theory seems to put this into question: adherence to the iambic/trochaic law seems to be partly dependent on the native language of the speaker. A group of researcher led by Aniruddh Patel found that speakers of (American) English conformed to the Iambic/Trochaic Law, but speakers of Japanese do not (see this summary in New Scientist). They argue that this difference in judgement is based on a difference in the syntactic structures of the languages in question, and in consequence that musical (rhythmic) perception is based at least partly on grammar. I suppose this puts into question the argument on the ‘groundedness’ of the iambic trochaic law.

One thought on “Grounding the iambic/trochaic law

  1. Curt Rice

    Thanks for this tip, Marc. It’s interesting that Patel finds that Japanese speakers like to group iterative long-short sequences with the long bit first. That reminds of Kubozono’s article on Japanese in the Fery and van de Vijver book, in which it is argued that Japanese has HL trochees. That seems to fit with Patel’s claim. However, I noticed in his bibliography that there is a forthcoming article by Hay & Diehl, and their conclusion is that there is support for the “law”, based on studies with English and French speakers. Maybe those aren’t the right languages to look at to find the kind of variation that Patel finds. I tried to replicate some of the Woodrow studies in the last chapter of my dissertation and think I thought at the time that there wasn’t much of a conclusion to be drawn, although I see that H&D characterize those findings as “partially verifying” the original work.
    It seems to me that there are at least two ways to challenge or test the alleged Iambic-trochaic law. One is through testing of the sort described in these articles, and the other is to find convincing cases of HL trochees in phonological analyses. Of course, if the psychological studies turn out to support the i/t law, it’s not clear that one would then need to say anything about it in one’s theory of grammar, since that would amount to modeling the same effect twice.

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