Prosodic features of speech.


   Prosodic features (sometimes known as suprasegmental phonology) are those aspects of speech which go beyond phonemes and deal with the auditory qualities of sound. In spoken communication, we use and interpret these features without really thinking about them. There are various conventional ways of representing them in writing, although the nuances are often hard to convey on paper.

 Pause.  Pause as hesitation is a non-fluency feature. However, intentional pauses are used to demarcate units of grammatical construction, such as sentences or clauses. These can be indicated in writing by full stops, colons, semi-colons and commas.

Pitch.  Different pitch levels, or intonation, can affect meaning. The most obvious example is the way in which speakers raise the pitch at the end of a question, and this is indicated by a question mark in writing. However, patterns of rise and fall can indicate such feelings as astonishment, boredom or puzzlement, and these can be shown in writing only in a special transcription.

   A recently-fashionable use of pitch variation is “inlift”, in which the speaker raises the pitch of the voice in an interrogative way in the middle of a sentence, as if seeking confirmation of the listener’s comprehension. The popularity of this speech feature has been attributed to Australian soaps, but it already seems to be in decline. 

 Stress.  Stress, or emphasis, is easy to use and recognise in spoken language, but harder to describe. A stressed word or syllable is usually preceded by a very slight pause, and is spoken at slightly increased volume.

   At word level, stress can differentiate between, for example, the noun ‘desert and the verb des’ert, a distinction which cannot be shown in ordinary writing: a reader will have to rely on the context to determine which is meant.   

   At sentence level, which word is stressed can alter the meaning of the sentence. Consider the sentence I like your red shoes. There is a good deal of difference between I like your red shoes; I like your red shoes; I like your red shoes; and  I like your red shoes. In writing, this can only be shown typographically, through the use of italics or underlining. In such cases, a writer will generally italicise the whole word, even if, in a polysyllabic word, only one syllable actually carries stress.

   In any sentence, some words will be stressed more than others: lexical words (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) are more likely to be carry primary stress than grammatical words are.

Volume.  Apart from the slight increase in loudness to indicate stress, volume is generally used to show emotions such as fear or anger. In writing, it can be shown by the use of an exclamation mark, or typographically with capitals or italics (or both).

 Tempo.  Tempo, or speed, is to some extent a matter of idiolect. Whilst its use is not wholly systematic, it can indicate the difference between, for example, impatience and reflectiveness. It can be shown in writing only through unspoken words, e.g. “Certainly not”, he snapped.                                                                                                             
© CD Selwyn-Jones