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How Prosody Works?

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What is prosody?

Simply put, it’s the “music” of a language. 

 

More specifically, it’s the aspect of language that gives prominence to certain parts of words and phrases over others. To learn the 3 features that drive the prosody of your speech and the functions they serve in your everyday interactions, read on!

There are 3 main features of prosody

Here they are:

What you perceive

How it’s measured acoustically

Loudness (soft-loud)

Sound intensity, or amplitude (decibels)

Pitch (low-high)

Fundamental frequency (hertz)

Duration (short-long)

Duration (milliseconds)

Loudness, pitch, and duration – that’s really it! 

Let’s look at an example. Say aloud the word entrance (to a house) and (to) entrance? What differences did you notice in your prosody? 

If you’re like most people, you put more emphasis on the first syllable of entrance (to a house), and you put more emphasis on the second syllable of (to) entrance. And you did it through some combination of the three main features of prosody. In other words, you made the target syllable comparatively louder, higher in pitch, and/or longer in duration than the other syllable. 

That’s prosody at the word level. But we also have prosody at play at the sentence level. Linguists call this bigger pattern of prosody the intonational phrase. For instance, we generally end declarative statements with a falling tone and questions with a rising tone.

 

Did you know? 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. 

How do we use prosody?

  • Prosody can be sprinkled in for added effect in any language
    • To express our emotional state (e.g. I’m fine! vs. I’m FINE)
    • To emphasize (e.g. Jessica is the BEST vs. JESSICA is the best)
    • To chunk our speech into clear phrase boundaries (“Stay-at-home DAD” → ”stay at HOME, dad”)
  • Prosody is baked into the very recipe of some languages
    • We see evidence of this in tonal languages, languages for which variations in pitch can change a word’s meaning or its grammatical function.
    • For example, in Mandarin, the word ma pronounced with a high and level tone means ‘mother,’ but it means ‘scold’ when pronounced with a high falling tone. 
    • Did you know that in the Igbo language, you express the possessive grammatically through tone? In English, this would be like saying ‘monkey JAW (high tone)’ instead of ‘monkey’s jaw.’ 
  • Prosody is often a byproduct of the language’s underlying syllable structure
    • For example, in the Hawaiian language, almost every word has the same syllable structure: a consonant followed by a vowel. English, on the other hand, is full of clunky consonant clusters (e.g. street) and diphthongs (e.g. house). 
    • Hawaiian’s regular syllable structure gives it a more regular rhythmic sound while English’s unpredictable syllable structure gives it a more noticeable stress-based timing. 

Let’s review the takeaways

  • Prosody is often referred to as the “music” of language because it is the aspect of language that gives prominence to certain syllables or words.
  • The 3 main features that drive prosody are as follows: loudness, pitch, and duration. 
  • There are 3 main reasons prosody is used: sprinkled in for added effect, baked into the grammar and vocabulary, and sometimes it is simply a byproduct of the language’s underlying syllable structure. 

 

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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

A travel-hungry content creator with a Linguistics PhD in bilingual language processing, Emily has studied 7 languages and loves getting to use them to connect with people around the world. When she’s not creating content for the Mango community, you can find her dancing, yoga-ing, or performing some good ole’ fashioned standup comedy.

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