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Prosody

The term 'prosody' may not be as well known as phonetics or phonology, but it's an essential part of understanding speech. Prosody is the study of how language sounds, and sound can provide a lot of important information beyond what is literally being said! 

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Prosody

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The term 'prosody' may not be as well known as phonetics or phonology, but it's an essential part of understanding speech. Prosody is the study of how language sounds, and sound can provide a lot of important information beyond what is literally being said!

This article will introduce the meaning of prosody, describe the main prosodic features, and explain the different functions of prosody with some examples. Finally, it will look at prosody in poetry and literature.

Prosody meaning

In linguistics, prosody, also known as prosodic or suprasegmental phonology, is concerned with the way connected speech sounds. Because of this, some people refer to prosody as the ‘music’ of language. Prosodic features are a set of linguistic features (also known as suprasegmentals) that are used to convey meaning and emphasis in spoken language.

Some of the main prosodic features are intonation, stress, rhythm, and pauses. These are an important part of speech as they can help structure the things we say and affect meaning.

Consider the following utterance, 'oh, how romantic!'

We can determine whether the speaker actually thinks something is romantic, or if they are being sarcastic, based on the use of certain prosodic features, such as intonation and stress.

Prosody of speech

As discussed before, prosodic features are the suprasegmental elements of speech. This means they accompany consonant and vowel sounds and are extended across whole words or sentences rather than being limited to single sounds. Prosodic features typically appear in connected speech and often occur naturally.

For example, when we say just one or two words, we’re far less likely to hear prosody than when we speak for an extended period of time.

Prosodic features are comprised of different prosodic variables, such as tone, length of sounds, voice pitch, duration of sounds, and volume.

Prosody examples - prosodic features

Let’s look at some of the main prosodic features in more detail.

Intonation

Intonation usually refers to the rise and fall of our voices. However, there’s a little more to it than that, and our intonation is based on a few different factors. These are:

  • Dividing speech into units.
  • Changes in pitch (high or low).
  • Changing the length of syllables or words.

Stress

Stress refers to the emphasis we place on certain words or syllables. Stress can be added to a word by

  • Increasing the length.
  • Increasing the volume.
  • Changing the pitch (speaking in a higher or lower pitch).

Pauses

Pauses can help add structure to our speech and often functions in the same way a full stop does in written text.

Pauses can also signal that we are hesitant about what we’re about to say or can be used for emphasis and dramatic effect.

Rhythm

Rhythm is less of a prosodic feature itself and more the result of the combination of other prosodic features and variables. Rhythm refers to the ‘movement’ and flow of speech determined by the stress, length, and number of syllables.

Functions of prosody in reading

Prosody is an important part of speech and has many functions, namely showing what the speaker actually means in comparison to what they are saying. Let's look at some of the main functions of prosody.

To add meaning

Prosody is another way of adding meaning to the things we say. This is because the way in which we say things can change their intended meaning. Prosodic features have no meaning on their own and instead we must consider the use and context of prosody in relation to the utterance (units of speech).

Look at the following sentenceI didn’t take the letter.’

Read the sentence out loud, each time adding stress to a different word. See how it can change the meaning?

E.g.

When we say ‘I didn’t take the letter’ (stress on ‘I’) it suggests that perhaps someone else took the letter.

When we say ‘I didn’t take the letter (stress on ‘letter’) it suggests we perhaps took something else.

Another good example of prosody being used to add meaning is the use of sarcasm and irony.

When people are being sarcastic or ironic, there is usually a contradiction between what they say and what they actually mean. We can interpret the intended meaning by placing the utterance into context and paying attention to the prosodic features.

You do a terrible job parking your car and your friend says ‘nice one’. Perhaps they have lengthened the words, raised their pitch, or said it louder than usual. Any of these changes in prosody can indicate the use of sarcasm.

There is no specific way to sound sarcastic. You can usually tell someone is being sarcastic based on the context and the change in their prosody.

To express emotion

The prosodic features we use can say a lot about how we’re feeling. We can often tell whether someone is feeling sad, happy, scared, excited etc. based on the way their voice sounds.

A friend might tell you they’re ‘fine’, but they say it quickly and quietly when they're usually quite a loud person.

Quite often the prosodic features that give away our emotions happen involuntarily; however, we can also adjust our prosody on purpose to indicate to others how we really feel.

Prosody, image of upset man, StudySmarterFig. 1 - We often subconsciously use prosodic features in our speech which can give away our emotions and feelings to others.

For clarity and structure

The use of prosodic features can also help add structure and remove ambiguity from our speech.

The sentence ‘They met Anna and Luke and Izzy didn’t show up.’ might be a little confusing if spoken without any prosodic features. Using pauses and intonation would make the meaning of this sentence much clearer! E.g. Leaving a pause after the word Anna would it make it clearer that both Luke and Izzy didn't show up.

Transcribing prosody

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) chart has a group of symbols that can be used to transcribe prosodic features under the heading ‘Suprasegmentals’.

We can include suprasegmental symbols in phonetic transcriptions to give others a better idea of how the section of connected speech should sound as a whole.

Prosody Image of suprasegmentals StudySmarterFig. 2 - Suprasegmentals are used in the International Phonetic Alphabet show prosodic features of speech in transcriptions.

Prosody in poetry and literature

So far, this article has been about prosody in linguistics; however, we also talk about prosody in terms of literature and poetry. In this case, prosody is a literary technique, used to add rhythm to a ‘poetic’ piece of work. Prosody is usually found in poetry, but can also be seen in different forms of prose too.

When examining prosody in literature, we look at the way the author has used language and metric line (e.g. iambic pentameter) to create a rhythmic effect.

Prosody - Key Takeaways

  • Prosody is the study of the elements of speech that aren’t phonetic segments (e.g. vowels and consonants) and is concerned with the way speech sounds.
  • Speech can differ in sound because of prosodic features. The main prosodic features are: intonation, stress, rhythm, and pauses.
  • Prosodic features typically appear in connected speech and often occur naturally.
  • Prosody can add meaning to the things we say, show our emotions, and add structure and clarity to our speech.
  • The term prosody also refers to the literary device of using language and metric line to add a sense of rhythm to poetry or prose.

References

  1. Fig. 2: Redrawn IPA chart, suprasegmentals (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/23/Ipa-chart-suprasegmentals.png) by Grendelkhan (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Grendelkhan) and Nohat (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Nohat) is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

Frequently Asked Questions about Prosody

Prosody is the elements of speech that aren’t phonetic segments (e.g. vowels and consonants). In simple terms, prosody is concerned with the way connected speech sounds. 

Prosody is concerned with the way our speech sounds. Prosodic features can change the sound of our speech. These features are: intonation, stress, rhythm, and pauses.  

In literature, prosody is a literary device that involves using language and metric line to add a sense of rhythm to poetry or prose.  

When we speak, we use prosody (prosodic features) both consciously and subconsciously to add meaning to what we're saying. Prosodic features such as stress can add implied meaning to statements and questions, creating more effective communication. 

Within English grammar, there are sets of rules concerning word, phrase, clause, sentence and whole text structure. Prosodic features such as stress, intonation and pauses can be applied to words, phrases or sentences to create different sets of meanings and to emphasise different elements of what is being said. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What does masculine rhyme do?

Masculine rhyme is the most common form of rhyme in the English language.

Masculine rhyme is always used to portray a tough, macho character.

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