When I do a pronunciation assessment, I look at three key areas. The first two are the ones that come to mind when most people think about pronunciation. These are the individual sounds – also called “phonemes” or “segmentals” – the vowels and consonants. I wrote about these in last month’s blog post. The other aspect I analyze is what I like to refer to as the “music of the language.” This is called “prosody” or “suprasegmentals” and includes a variety of dynamics very similar to what a musician incorporates to make the music expressive. This blog post discusses this third area, the music of English communication.
I call prosody the “music of the language” because language uses so many musical elements to give expression to what we say. Without these, we would sound like a robot – everything even and flat. In contrast, we vary the volume and speed at which we speak, the pitch – the height of the sound, the phrasing – what we group together and how we use intonation to indicate the phrase, etc.
Let’s start by looking at stress. I’m not talking about the stress we feel when we are overworked or nervous about something. Stress in speech refers to emphasis on particular words and phrases. But what do we do to the sound to create this emphasis? In three words, we make the sound louder, longer and clearer.
English is a stress-based language. Not all languages are – some, for example Spanish, Turkish and Cantonese, are syllable based. This does not mean they don’t have stress but rather that syllables tend to be the same length and the vowels tend to have the same clarity. In English, as in other language such as German, Russian and Farsi, this is not true. While we make the stressed syllables (really the vowel in the stressed syllable) louder, longer and clearer, in contrast we make the unstressed vowels quieter, shorter and lazier – less clear. (I talk a bit about the schwa, the lazy vowel, in my previous blog post.)
An example of this is in the word PHOTOGRAPH. We stress the first syllable PHO – it has the primary stress – and we stress the last syllable GRAPH less but it still has some stress –we call it secondary stress. But the TO is completely unstressed. So, the O in TO becomes a schwa – written with this symbol “ə.” – which is a lazy vowel. When we change the stress in PHOTOGRAPHY, now the O in PHO and the A in GRAPH are both reduced and become schwas. (You can learn more about this play between stressed and unstressed vowels in my upcoming five-part video series so stay tuned.)
That’s a quick explanation of stress and reduction. So what are the other aspects of prosody, the other aspects that allow us to express ourselves and our meaning through musical dynamics?
Let’s look at intonation. Intonation refers to the upward and downward movement of the pitch, the height of the sound. Some people confuse this with volume, the loudness. But pitch change refers to the melody of the language.
We tend to use a wave form intonation to indicate a phrase, a group of words that have meaning in and of themselves. So we often raise the pitch of the first stressed word in the phrase and then step down on each stressed word. Another example is an intonation pattern called list intonation. When we are listing things, we tend to raise the pitch at the end of every item in the list and lower it at the end of the list.
Phrasing is another important aspect of prosody. A phrase is a group of words that have meaning in and of themselves. For example, lets look at this sentence.
I decided to stay home, work from home and make sure that the kids were doing their schoolwork.
We can break this into thought groups as follows:
I decided to stay home, / work from home / and make sure / that the kids /were doing their schoolwork. /
Each of these phrases has meaning, as compared to breaking that sentence up in the following manner:
I decided to / stay home, work / from home and make / sure that the / kids were doing their / schoolwork. /
If you are reading aloud, it is useful preparation to mark the phrasing so that what you read makes sense to the listeners.
Prosody is a large topic, as is pronunciation and clear, effective speech in general. But hopefully this and my previous article have given you an idea of what is involved in speaking clearly and effectively in English.
If you are interested in getting an assessment of your current level of English pronunciation, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.