Prosody – Suprasegmental Features

In linguistics, prosody refers to intonation, rhythm and vocal stress in speech.
These suprasegmental (Prosodic) features are phonetic features that are not properties of a single segment, but a syllable or higher unit, such as stress, length, tone and intonation.

Tone

A contrastive pitch of syllables which conveys different meanings of a word.

In languages such as Mandarin, the pronunciation of two words may be the same except the pitch difference.
e.g.

[ma] pronounced with a high-level tone means “mother”, and with a high falling tone means “scold”.

In Cantonese, [ma] produced with a high-level tone means “mother” too, but with a low-mid to mid rising tone means “a horse”.

Intonation

The use of varying pitch to convey meaning.
If the same utterances are produced with different intonation, the meaning conveyed will be different
e.g.
in English, the utterance ‘It is a cat’ will be regarded as a statement when there is a fall in pitch, and the same utterance will be regarded as a question if the pitch rises.

Stress

A stressed syllable is one with relatively greater length, loudness, and/or higher pitch in which extra respiratory energy.
In languages such as English, stress may involve linguistic function and cause differences in syntactic category such as noun or verb.

Where speech sounds such as vowels and consonants function mainly to provide an indication of the identity of words and variety/dialect being spoken, suprasegmental features can indicate syntax, turn-taking in interactions, types of utterances and also attitudes and feelings.

One function of suprasegmental features is to divide speech into chunks – variously known as information units, tone units, tone groups, intonational phrases or word groups.

This may be done in various ways, but its communicative function is evident in how prosody brings different meanings in otherwise identical utterances

It is also evident in lists of lexical entities where prosody clarifies where an entity begins and ends.

e.g.
forty
eight

it is the suprasegmental features that makes it clear whether what is meant is 40 and 8 or 48.

The scope of an adjective is also clarified through prosody.

Suprasegmental features are also used to mark emphasis.

e.g

I wanted chocolate and cake
I wanted chocolate and cake
I wanted chocolate and cake
I wanted chocolate and cake

One factor which influences the perception of prosody is the difference in the pitch height of syllables within an utterance.

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