All languages have a certain musicality to them – a specific kind of rhythm, intonation, and melody. This is called prosody, and it contains a lot of linguistic, social, and emotional information. In this episode, Mango Languages linguist Emily Sabo (PhD) is breaking down what exactly prosody is and how it works in your everyday speech. You’ll also learn how to listen for prosody’s 3 main acoustic features. Enjoy!
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Meet your host! Emily Sabo (PhD, University of Michigan) is a linguist at Mango who specializes in the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing. Emily is also a language teacher, a producer of the We Are What We Speak docuseries, and get this...a storytelling standup comedian!
Emily Sabo, PhD: "Hey friends! Welcome back to How Language Works! As you know, in this series, we unpack the foundational systems that underlie how language works. And in today’s episode, we’re talking about prosody!
Let me start by asking you a question. What’s the difference between the words entrance (of a house) and (to) entrance?”There’s a difference in where we put the umph in the word, right? But what specifically gives us that umph feeling? That’s got everything to do with prosody.
In today’s episode, we’re diving into what prosody is, how it works in language, and you’ll be able to identify its 3 main features.
As you’re about to discover, there is a lot of information hiding in the melodic peaks and valleys of our everyday turns of phrase.
In some languages, putting the wrong “emphasis on the wrong syllable” can change the meaning of the word entirely! (Remember that line from A View From the Top film clip, Mike Meyers?).
So without further ado, let’s dive into it!
What is prosody?
Simply put, it’s the aspect of language that gives prominence to certain chunks of words and phrases over others.
As a result, people often refer to prosody as the “music” of language because those peaks in prominence are what give different languages different rhythms, sounds, and melodies.
The 3 features that drive prosody
Subjective auditory feature | Objective acoustic feature
Loudness (soft-loud) | Sound intensity, or amplitude (decibels)
Pitch (low-high) | Fundamental frequency (hertz)
Duration (short-long) | Duration (milliseconds)
The three features that drive prosody are: loudness, pitch, and duration.
Let’s think back to that example of entrance (of a house) vs. (to) entrance.
How many syllables do each of those words have? 2.
And for those of you out there wondering “what the heck is a syllable?” syllables are essentially the smallest prosodic unit we have, and they usually consist of a vowel and a consonant or two - but it really depends on the language. It can be helpful to think of syllables as the “beats” of our speech. In fact, you can usually identify the number of syllables in a word by tapping your finger as you say the word slowly: “Mango Languages.”
Okay, so entrance and entrance are each made up of the same 2 syllables: /en-/ and /trance/. What changes is where we put the stress. How do we add that stress to the desired syllable? By making it louder, higher, and longer - or some combination of those features.
And did you know those features aren’t just subjective auditory perceptions. They are associated with measurable differences in the acoustic properties of our speech. Loudness, for example, can be measured in decibels, pitch is measured in hertz, and syllable length is measured in milliseconds.
It’s important to note that we differentiate the loudness, pitch, and duration of syllables at the word level (like with entrance and entrance) - but we also apply these prosodic features at the sentence level, or what linguists call the Intonational Phrase.
For instance, it’s quite common across world languages to use pitch to demarcate syntactic boundaries. We tend to end declarative sentences with a falling tone. And we generally end questions with, rising tone - right? See what I did there. ;)
Comedian Nikki Glaser has a funny example for how changing stress on an intonational phrase can change the meaning of the phrase completely. The story goes, as a kid, her family would change the intonational stress of the phrase “stay-at-home mom” → ”stay at home, mom,” functionally changing a noun phrase describing an occupational lifestyle to a command telling their mom where to stay. “Stay-at-home mom” → ”stay at home, mom” are identical phrases, save for the way prosodic features are being employed: that is, the loudness, pitch, and duration of different words. In just a moment we’ll talk about why changing the stress in an intonational phrase like this changes its meaning.
Now while the three main prosodic features can fluctuate independently of one another, there are some known correlations between them. Try this: say your name at a normal sound level, then try yelling it. Your pitch probably got higher when you yelled it because louder sounds tend to correlate with higher pitch. Who knew? (Linguists did!)
What are the 3 paths to prosody?
The prosodic features of human speech can arise in three different ways. Sometimes our emphatic stresses are just sprinkled on top of the language for added effect. Other times, changes in pitch might be baked into the very recipe of the language. And finally the rhythmic timing of our utterances are oftentimes nothing more than a mere byproduct of our language’s underlying syllable structure.
Well - there you have it. That’s prosody in a nutshell! Since we covered a lot in today’s episode let’s do a quick recap.
Well, that’s the end of the episode! This was our 9th and final episode of Season 1 of the How Language Works series. If you haven’t caught our previous episodes in this series, go check them out! We cover phonetics, phonology, syntax, morphology…all the good things! If you liked this episode, let us know by subscribing, liking, and reviewing the show! For more fun content, you can also follow us on your favorite social media platform @mangolanguages. Thanks for listening – and from me and the rest of the Mango Languages family – stay happy, stay healthy, and language on. ¡Ciao!"