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Cultural Rhythms

December 28, 2006

How you interpret a simple rhythm depends on what language you speak.


How cultures get their groove. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Listen to this sequence.

[Sequence of short and long sounds]

Although the tones are evenly spaced, if you’re a native English speaker, you probably hear something like dah-dahhh, dah-dahhh, da-dahhh. This way of grouping the sounds was once considered universal. But now an international team including John Iversen of The Neurosciences Institute has played the sequence to Japanese speakers.

JOHN IVERSEN (The Neurosciences Institute):
Many of them had the opposite grouping. They actually grouped these alternating short and long sounds as long-short. So, dahhh-da, dahhh-da. And that was a surprise to us.

They believe the difference arises because English uses many short-long groupings like "a book" or "to bed," while Japanese prefers long-short groupings. They also plan to study to other languages. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.