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Intonation: approaches, definitions, functions

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The phonological aspect of intonation

Components of intonation and the structure of English tone-group

Intonation: definition, approaches, functions


Intonation in English

Lecture 9

Intonation is a language universal. There are no languages which are spoken without any change of prosodic parameters but intonation functions in various languages in a different way.

There are two main approaches to the problem of intonation in Great Britain. One is known as acontour analysis and the other may be called grammatical.

The first is represented by a large group of phoneticians: H. Sweet, D. Jones, G. Palmer, L. Armstrong, I. Ward, R. Kingdon, J. O'Connor, A. Gimson and others. It is traditional and widely used. According to this approach the smallest unit to which linguistic meaning can be attached is a tone-group (sense-group). Their theory is based on the assumption that intonation consists of basic functional "blocks". They pay much attention to these "blocks" but not to the way they are connected. Intonation is treated by them as a layer that is superimposed on the lexico-grammatical structure. In fact the aim of communication determines the intonation structure, not vice versa.

The grammatical approach to the study of intonation was worked out by M. Halliday. The main unit of intonation is a clause. Intonation is a complex of three systemic variables: tonality, tonicity and tone, which are connected with grammatical categories. Tonality marks the beginning and the end of a tone-group. Tonicity marks the focal point of each tone-group. Tone is the third unit in Halliday's system. Tones can be primary and secondary. They convey the attitude of the speaker. Hallyday's theory is based on the syntactical function of intonation.

The founder of the American school of intonation K. Pike in his book «The Intonation of American English» considers «pitch phonemes» and «contours» to be the main units of intonation. He describes different contours and their meanings, but the word «meaning» stands apart from communicative function of intonation.

There is wide agreement among Russian linguists that on perception level intonation is a complex, a whole, formed by significant variations of pitch, loudness and tempo closely related. Some Russian linguists regard speech timbre as the fourth component of intonation. Neither its material form nor its linguistic function has been thoroughly described. Though speech timbre definitely conveys certain shades of attitudinal or emotional meaning there is no good reason to consider it alongside with the three prosodic components of intonation, i.e. pitch, loudness and tempo.

M. Sokolova and others write that the term prosody embraces the three prosodic components and substitutes the term intonation. It is widely used in linguistic literature, it causes no misunderstanding and, consequently, it is more adequate. They feel strongly that this term would be more suitable for their book too, but, unfortunately, it has not been accepted in the teaching process yet.

Many foreign scholars (A. Gimson, R. Kingdon) restrict the formal definition of intonation to pitch movement alone, though occasionally allowing in variations of loudness as well. According to D. Crystal, the most important prosodic effects are those conveyed by the linguistic use of pitch movement, or melody. It is clearly not possible to restrict the term intonation by the pitch parameters only because generally all the three prosodic parameters function as a whole though in many cases the priority of the pitch parameter is quite evident.

There is no general agreement about either the number or the headings of the functions of intonation which can be illustrated by the difference in the approach to the subject by some prominent Russian phoneticians. T.M. Nikolayeva names three functions of intonation: delimitating, integrating and semantic. L.K. Tseplitis suggests the semantic, syntactic and stylistic functions the former being the primary and the two latter being the secondary functions. N.V. Cheremisina singles out the following main functions of intonation: communicative, distinctive (or phonological), delimitating, expressive, appellative, aesthetic, integrating. Other Russian and foreign phoneticians also display some difference in heading the linguistic functions of intonation.

D. Crystal distinguishes the following functions of intonation.

• Emotional function's most obvious role is to express attitudinal meaning -sarcasm, surprise, reserve, impatience, delight, shock, anger, interest, and thousands of other semantic nuances.

• Grammatical function helps to identify grammatical structure in speech, performing a role similar to punctuation. Units such as clause and sentence often depend on intonation for their spoken identity, and several specific contrasts, such as question/statement, make systematic use of it.

• Informational function helps draw attention to what meaning is given and what is new in an utterance. The word carrying the most prominent tone in a contour signals the part of an utterance that the speaker is treating as new information.

• Textual function helps larger units of meaning than the sentence to contrast and cohere. In radio news-reading, paragraphs of information can be shaped through the use of pitch. In sports commentary, changes in prosody reflect the progress of the action.

• Psychological function helps us to organize speech into units that are easier to perceive and memorize. Most people would find a sequence of numbers, for example, difficult to recall. The task is made easier by using intonation to chunk the sequence into two units.

• Indexical function, along with other prosodic features, is an important marker of personal or social identity. Lawyers, preachers, newscasters, sports commentators, army sergeants, and several other occupations are readily identified through their distinctive prosody.

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