The ups and downs of conversation

Posted by on December 01, 2014

© Royalty-Free / CorbisIn the previous post in this series, I presented some examples of how people often establish a topic before going on to say what they want to say about it – eg: That painting at the top of the stairs, I got that from my grandmother – or reiterate or clarify the topic at the end of an utterance – eg: I got it from my grandmother, that painting.

Another way in which speakers help themselves and their listeners to structure and make sense of what they’re saying is by the choices they make in the intonation system.

Firstly, they divide what they say into ‘tone units’. That painting at the top of the stairs could form a single tone unit, or it could be divided: That painting / at the top of the stairs. In this case there may or may not be a short silent pause between the two tone units.

Secondly, they highlight certain words – or, more accurately, certain syllables – or make them ‘prominent’: That painting / at the top of the stairs.

Most typically there are two such prominent syllables in a tone unit. They stand out like clear landmarks, while the non-prominent syllables are uttered quickly and are subject to reduction, compression and elision, so that they tend to blur and fade into a foggy background.

Thirdly, speakers apply a ‘tone’ to the final prominent syllable in each tone unit:

// THAT ↘ PAINTing // at the TOP of the ↘ STAIRS //

The conventions used in this transcription are:
The boundaries of tone units are marked by double slashes.
Prominent syllables (and only prominent syllables) are capitalised.
‘Tonic prominences’ – ie syllables that carry a tone – are underlined.
The downward-pointing arrow indicates that the tone on the following syllable is a falling tone.

Another plausible version of these two tone units is this:

// THAT ↘↗ PAINTing // at the TOP of the ↘↗ STAIRS //

Here, the arrows indicate fall-rise tones. One of the implications of the fall-rise is “This is something familiar, shared, understood, already in circulation”, while the fall, in contrast, implies “This is something new, or which needs to be re-established or re-activated.” So, in this example, the version with the fall-rises might imply “You know which painting I mean” or “I’ve mentioned the painting before” or “I notice that you’re looking at the painting”, while the version with the falls might imply “I want to draw your attention to the painting” or “We mentioned the painting a while ago, but now I want to re-establish it as a topic of conversation”.

The most likely shapes of the other part of the utterance, I got that from my grandmother are:

// i GOT that from my ↘ GRANDmother //

or:

// i GOT ↘↗ THAT // from my ↘ GRANDmother //

Grandmother is likely to have a fall because this is the key new information being communicated. In the second version, that is likely to have a fall-rise because it reiterates a topic – the painting – which is already in circulation in the conversation.

And what about the utterance I got it from my grandmother, that painting? The most likely shape is this:

// i GOT it from my ↘ GRANDmother // that ↗ PAINTing //

Here, the rising tone on painting has the same function as the fall-rise; it suggests “This is shared knowledge, or conversational common ground.” The rise, rather than the fall-rise, is characteristic of such ‘tails’ tagged on to the ends of utterances.

It’s important to point out that intonation is never 100% predictable, but there are at least strong tendencies.There are also various models of intonation; the one I’ve used here focuses on the pragmatic functions of intonation in packaging speech into manageable chunks and mapping a route, moment by moment, through what’s already part of the conversational common ground and what’s being added to that common ground. You can read more about it in David Brazil’s Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English (CUP 1994).

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