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The Structure of English Intonation
VII. ENGLISH INTONATION, ITS STRUCTURE AND FUNCTIONS
Another part of suprasegmental phonology is intonation. Intonation is a language universal. There are no languages which are spoken as a monotone, without any change of prosodic parameters. But intonation functions in various languages in a different way. So our attention will be turned to the role of intonation in the language and its contribution to the communicative value of the act of speech.
Intonation hasn’t been thoroughly investigated yet, as such research involves the use of both special skills and particular technical devices and equipment. From the very beginning of phonetics as a science phoneticians preferred to study segmental phonemes rather than intonation, so now we have a far more detailed analysis of English sounds than of its intonation patterns. Teachers of phonetics also prefer to concentrate their attention on sounds, as the recognition of intonation variations requires a special skill, the so-called musical ear, which is difficult to acquire and develop. Native speakers use intonation unconsciously. Intonational differences in the native language seem to be the first to be perceived and acquired by children, so they are rooted so deeply in their minds that when they come to studying a foreign language, interference (influence) of the native intonation is the strongest and the most difficult to get rid of. More than that. Very often the misuses of intonation patterns in a foreign language are perceived by native speakers not as mistakes, but as an intentional act, so such situations may cause misunderstanding and even offence.
The study of intonation went through many stages: as individual sounds, intonation can be examined on different levels – auditory, acoustic and functional. We shall start with the description of intonation on the auditory and acoustic levels, and then pass on to its linguistic function.
Most linguists agree that on perception level intonation is a complex unity formed by significant variations of pitch, tempo, loudness and timbre. Nowadays there is another term – prosody – which is used in linguistics, sometimes meaning “intonation”. According to the British School intonation refers to pitch (or melody) variations, and prosody embraces pitch, loudness, tempo and voice quality (or timbre). Intonation starts with a phrase, an utterance, while prosody has a wider domain: from a syllable to the whole text. But for convenience in our textbook we shall not discriminate between prosody and intonation and use the terms interchangeably.
There hasn’t been created a suitable definition of either intonation or prosody, but we can see that pitch comes first as the most important and most “linguistic” component. Timbre or voice quality has been recently added to the definition of intonation, as it serves to give additional or emotional colouring to the speech. Some scientists consider it the least linguistic component and refer it to paralinguistics.
On acoustic level pitch correlates with the fundamental frequency (the rate of vibrations of the vocal cords), loudness correlates with intensity (the amplitude of vibrations), tempo is the correlate of duration (or time), voice quality correlates with spectral characteristics.
The linguistic level is concerned with the meanings expressed by the components of intonation or the function of intonation in the process of communication.
As we’ve mentioned already among the four components of intonation pitch and pitch movements seem to have some priority, though the other three parts can’t be ignored as well. Each syllable of the speech chain has a special pitch colouring and bears a definite amount of loudness. Pitch movements are connected with loudness; together with the tempo of speech they form an intonation pattern, which is the basic unit of intonation.
Intonation patterns serve to actualizesyntagms in oral speech. A syntagm is a group of words which is semanticallyandsyntactically complete. In phonetics actualized syntagms are called intonation groups. A phrase may contain more than one intonation group. The number of intonation groups depends on the length of the phrase and the degree of semantic importance or emphasis given to various parts, etc.:
This boy ┊ was ↘not a ˈmodel °pupil||
This ↘boy was ˈnot a ˈmodel °pupil||
Now let’s see how each of the constituents of intonation actualizes such language units as syntagms, sentences, phrases. Among the pitch parameters we shall concentrate on the variations in the direction of pitch, pitch level and pitch range. Pitch changes can’t be separated from loudness, so we shall discuss pitch-and-stress structure of the intonation pattern.
Not all stressed syllables in a phrase are of equalimportance. One of the syllables has the greater prominence than the others and forms the nucleus of an intonation pattern. The nucleus is normally the last strongly accented syllable in an intonation pattern, which marks a significant change of pitch direction (where it goes up or down). The nuclear tone is the most important part of the intonation pattern without which the latter cannot exist at all. On the other hand an intonation pattern may consist of only one syllable which is its nucleus.
In general nuclear tones may be falling, rising and level or a combination of these movements. Each movement may begin on a lower or higher level, thus producing a variety of nuclear tones. For teaching purposes the following most important and frequently used nuclear tones are chosen: °Low Fall, èHigh (Mid) Fall, Low Rise, æHigh (Mid) Rise, ëFall-Rise, ^Rise-Fall, >Level. Speakers are said to select from a choice of tones according to how they want the utterance to be heard. During the development of modern phonetics in the twentieth century it was hoped that scientific study of intonation would make it possible to state what the function of each different aspect of intonation was, and that foreign learners could then be taught rules to enable them to use intonation in the way that native speakers use it. However these rules are not quite adequate as a complete practical guide to how to use English intonation.
The meanings of the nuclear tones are difficult to specify even in general terms. Roughly speaking, falling tone is usually regarded as more or less “neutral”, it gives an impression of “finality, completeness and certainty”:
I’ll come in an °hour.
Rising tone conveys an impression that something more is to follow, it has the general meaning of “incompleteness, uncertainty, dependence”:
- Have you seen Ann? - No.
Some not very important parenthetical information is often spoken with a rising tone to show that it’s incomplete and depends on the main sentence:
…and then, on the left, you’ll see my house.
The fall-rise is used a lot in English, it combines the meaning of falling tone’s certainty and the rising tone’s meaning of dependence, so it often conveys a felling of reservation:
- Do you smoke? - ëSometimes. (not in general)
- I’ve heard it’s a good film. - ëYes. (but I don’t completely agree)
The rise-fall is used to convey rather strong feelings of approval, disapproval or surprise:
- Isn’t the view lovely! - ^Yes.
The level nuclear tone is usually used to express a feeling of something routine, uninteresting or boring.
I’m afraid I can’t >manage it…
Mid-level tone is common in spontaneous speech and low-level tone is characteristic of reading poetry:
And >then ┊ my >heart ┊with èpleasure feels…
And °dances ┊with the °daffodils|
An intonation pattern contains one nucleus and may contain other stressed or unstressed syllables, which normally precede or follow the nucleus. The part that extends from the first stressed syllable up to (but not including) the nucleus is called the head. The unstressed syllables which precede the first stressed syllable of the head are called the pre-head, and any syllables between the nucleus and the end of the utterance are the tail.
The tone of a nucleus determines the pitch of the rest of the intonation pattern (that is the tail), thus after a falling tone the rest of the intonation pattern is at a low pitch. After a rising tone the rest moves in an upward direction:
èNo ˌMary. \ æWell °Mary.
The nucleus and the tail form what is called the terminal tone.
Variations within the pre-nuclear part do not usually affect the grammatical meaning of the utterance, though they often reflect speaker’s attitude and phonetic styles. There are three common types of pre-nucleus- a Êdescending type, in which the pitch gradually descends (smoothly or in steps); an Ëascending type in which syllables form an ascending sequence; and a >level type, when all the syllables stay more or less on the same level.
All parts of the intonation pattern can be combined in various ways, thus manifesting changes in meaning. The number of combinations is more than a hundred, but not all of them are really important, so in teaching we deal only with a very limited number of intonation patterns.
Two more pitch parameters are pitch range and pitch level. Each speaker has his or her own normal pitch range: a top level which is the highest pitch normally used by the speaker, and a bottom level that the speaker’s pitch normally doesn’t go below. In ordinary speech the intonation tends to take place within the lower part of the speaker’s pitch range, but in situations where strong feelings are to be expressed it’s usual to make use of extra pitch height. For example, if we represent the pitch range by drawing two parallel lines showing the highest and lowest limits of the range, then a normal unemphatic “yes” could be diagrammed like this:
but a strong emphatic “yes” – like this:
So pitch range can be normal, wide and narrow. Narrow pitch range is associated with dull monotonous speech.
Another component of intonation is tempo. It implies the rate of the utterance and pausation. The rate can be normal, slow and fast. The parts of the utterance which are particularly important sound slower and those which bear additional, not significant information are pronounced at a faster rate. Utterances are split into smaller portions by means of pauses. By pause is meant a complete stop of phonation. Pauses differ according to their length. Usually three kinds of pauses are distinguished for teaching purposes:
· Short pauses which separate intonation groups within a phrase;
· Longer pauses which manifest the end of the phrase;
· Very long pauses (twice as long as the first type) are used to separate paragraphs.
Functionally pauses may be syntactic, emphatic and hesitation. Syntactic pauses separate phonopassages, phrases and intonation groups. Emphatic pauses serve to make prominent certain parts of the utterance. They are used to draw the listeners’ attention to what the speaker is going to say. Hesitation pauses are mainly used in spontaneous speech to gain time to think over what to say next. They may be silent or filled.
Sometimes we can perceive a pause, when there is no stop of phonation at all. It may happen when pitch changes its direction; variations in the rate of the utterance, aspiration, etc. can also produce this effect.
Timbre or voice quality has not been thoroughly investigated yet. Phoneticians describe three types of voice quality settings which depend on the position of speech organs, the characteristics of the vocal cords and muscular tension. For the moment it is known that voice quality differences do contribute to a foreign accent and that they stem from both linguistic and sociolinguistic factors, but further research is needed on this phenomenon for more accurate information.
The changes of pitch, loudness and tempo are highly organized in any particular language. No matter how different the individual variations of these prosodic components are they are standard, so that all speakers of the language use them in similar ways under similar circumstances. These characteristics of intonation structure form the prosodic system of English.
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