Wednesday, December 21, 2011

stress and accent

We need to keep two things distinct: stress and accent. Different authors call these categories differently. For instance, accent (Bolinger) is referred to as pitch-accent (ToBI), and as intonational-accent (Charles-James Bailey).

The plain old heuristic "stress content words, but not functors" doesn't help a foreigner to acquire a native-like accent. Peter roach demonstrates this in his video (check below). He plays three versions of a small paragraph: (a) monotone (no pitch accents); (b) stress content words, but not functors; (c) pitch accent one or two words per intonational phrase. Even though this video is about British English, it is applicable to all English varieties wrt pitch accents. The version (c) appear native; the version (a) appears like those of fast speakers with a flat pitch pattern (no excursions in the pitch, that means); the version (b) sounds mechanical, non-native.

1. Chunk your paragraphs into breath/intonation/tone/tune/phonological unit or phrase or group. These all words breathe phrase/tone unit/etc are part of different intonation theories.

2. Change pitch on the focussed syllables, but don't change pitch on all stressed syllables in that phonological phrase. If you change pitch (up or down) on every stressed syllable, you sound like (b).

3. Whenever you change your pitch abruptly, you hear a micropause just before that syllable. If the pitch change is gradual, you dont hear that micropause: that's why it is called flat. However, foreigners get confused with the notion that they are monotonic. In a way, both foreigners and native speakers are right. It is just that they don't understand each other when it comes to describing the musicality. The foreigner sees pitch variation in his speech (like smooth gradual line); whereas the native speaker sees abrupt excursions in his pitch, and describes some foreign accent as having a monotone (no tonal change). If you bring in the notion of pitch accent (this concept is heavily discussed in ToBI --tone and break indices), we can make sense of both foreign and native accents. In fact, it helps you perceive these differences. Just plain ears and eyes don't help you observe the world; theories function as instruments to observe the world.

4. The dispute among Intonation theorists about English intonation is about how to describe deeper patterns beyond pitch excursions.

For instance, British school, the proponent of nuclear tone theory, describes the intonational phrase as thus:

IP = pre-head + head + nucleus + tail

Nucleus contains kinetic tone (low rise, high rise, flow fall, high fall, fall-rise, rise-fall).
head contains level tones.

You can split a sentence into multiple intonational phrases.

S = IP1 + IP2.

If S is delarative, the nucleus of IP2 contains the declarative tone (in this case, fall); however, the nucleus of IP1 contains continuative tone.

There are many heuristics available about what to focus on in intonational phrases.

Collapse this post – Peter Roach is Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at Reading University. He is also the author of 'English Phonetics and Phonology', the fourth edition of...

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