Adventures in Language

How Language Works | How Prosody Works

October 12, 2022 Mango Languages
Adventures in Language
How Language Works | How Prosody Works
Show Notes Transcript

All languages have a certain musicality to them – a specific kind of rhythm, intonation, and melody. This is called prosody, and it contains a lot of linguistic, social, and emotional information. In this episode, Mango Languages linguist Emily Sabo (PhD) is breaking down what exactly prosody is and how it works in your everyday speech. You’ll also learn how to listen for prosody’s 3 main acoustic features. Enjoy! 

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Meet your host! Emily Sabo (PhD, University of Michigan) is a linguist at Mango who specializes in the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing. Emily is also a language teacher, a producer of the We Are What We Speak docuseries, and get this...a storytelling standup comedian!

Emily Sabo, PhD: "Hey friends! Welcome back to How Language Works! As you know, in this series, we unpack the foundational systems that underlie how language works. And in today’s episode, we’re talking about prosody!

 Let me start by asking you a question. What’s the difference between the words entrance (of a house) and (to) entrance?”There’s a difference in where we put the umph in the word, right? But what specifically gives us that umph feeling? That’s got everything to do with prosody. 

In today’s episode, we’re diving into what prosody is, how it works in language, and you’ll be able to identify its 3 main features.

As you’re about to discover, there is a lot of information hiding in the melodic peaks and valleys of our everyday turns of phrase. 

In some languages, putting the wrong “emphasis on the wrong syllable” can change the meaning of the word entirely! (Remember that line from A View From the Top film clip, Mike Meyers?).

So without further ado, let’s dive into it!

What is prosody?

Simply put, it’s the aspect of language that gives prominence to certain chunks of words and phrases over others. 

As a result, people often refer to prosody as the “music” of language because those peaks in prominence are what give different languages different rhythms, sounds, and melodies. 

The 3 features that drive prosody

Subjective auditory feature | Objective acoustic feature
Loudness (soft-loud) | Sound intensity, or amplitude (decibels)
Pitch (low-high) | Fundamental frequency (hertz)
Duration (short-long) | Duration (milliseconds)

The three features that drive prosody are: loudness, pitch, and duration.

Let’s think back to that example of entrance (of a house) vs. (to) entrance.

How many syllables do each of those words have? 2. 

And for those of you out there wondering “what the heck is a syllable?” syllables are essentially the smallest prosodic unit we have, and they usually consist of a vowel and a consonant or two - but it really depends on the language. It can be helpful to think of syllables as the “beats” of our speech. In fact, you can usually identify the number of syllables in a word by tapping your finger as you say the word slowly: “Mango Languages.” 

Okay, so entrance and entrance are each made up of the same 2 syllables: /en-/ and /trance/. What changes is where we put the stress. How do we add that stress to the desired syllable? By making it louder, higher, and longer - or some combination of those features.

And did you know those features aren’t just subjective auditory perceptions. They are associated with measurable differences in the acoustic properties of our speech. Loudness, for example, can be measured in decibels, pitch is measured in hertz, and syllable length is measured in milliseconds. 

It’s important to note that we differentiate the loudness, pitch, and duration of syllables at the word level (like with entrance and entrance) - but we also apply these prosodic features at the sentence level, or what linguists call the Intonational Phrase. 

For instance, it’s quite common across world languages to use pitch to demarcate syntactic boundaries. We tend to end declarative sentences with a falling tone. And we generally end questions with, rising tone - right? See what I did there. ;) 

Comedian Nikki Glaser has a funny example for how changing stress on an intonational phrase can change the meaning of the phrase completely. The story goes, as a kid, her family would change the intonational stress of the phrase “stay-at-home mom” → ”stay at home, mom,” functionally changing a noun phrase describing an occupational lifestyle to a command telling their mom where to stay.  “Stay-at-home mom” → ”stay at home, momare identical phrases, save for the way prosodic features are being employed: that is, the loudness, pitch, and duration of different words. In just a moment we’ll talk about why changing the stress in an intonational phrase like this changes its meaning.

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. Who knew? (Linguists did!)

What are the 3 paths to prosody?

The prosodic features of human speech can arise in three different ways. Sometimes our emphatic stresses are just sprinkled on top of the language for added effect. Other times, changes in pitch might be baked into the very recipe of the language. And finally the rhythmic timing of our utterances are oftentimes nothing more than a mere byproduct of our language’s underlying syllable structure. 

  • In what ways do we sprinkle prosody on top of our language for effect? 
    • As we mentioned earlier, we can use intonational stress it to demarcate phrase boundaries, or outline how the words should be chunked into meaningful bits. That’s how we get the “Stay-at-home mom” → ”stay at home, momdistinction.
    • We also use prosody to express sarcasm, irony, and suggest the cadence of a joke. 
    • We also use it to xpress our emotional state (e.g. I’m fine! I’m fine? I’m…fiiiiiiiiine…I’m FINE). In fact, prosody is the most sorely missed piece of linguistic information when it comes to our email or texting communication these days. That’s why we end up trying to replicate spoken prosody by strategically adding exclamation points, writing ‘okaaaay’ with 15 letter a’s, or sending an email in ALL CAPS. (so aggressive). Emojis help too but that’s a whole nother episode.
    • And finally, we use it to express emphasis. There’s a great example for this from Seinfeld: (Why would Jerry bring anything? Clip)
    • These are all ways in which we sprinkle prosody on top of our language to add some context, texture, and effect. But what does it mean for prosody to be “baked into the recipe of a language?”
  • It’s baked into the recipe of a language
    • Unbeknownst to some English speakers, there are a ton of languages for which the prosodic feature of pitch is meaningfully contrastive. Yes, we’re talking about tonal languages - like Mandarin Chinese or Hausa, a Nigerian language.
    • So, what is a tonal language? It’s a language for which tonal changes (i.e. variations in pitch) within a word can change the word’s meaning or even its grammatical function.
    • Most tonal languages have 2-3 tones, but a few have up to 5. 
    • There are two main types of tone: word tone and grammatical tone.
    • Word tone changes the meaning of the word completely. For example, in Mandarin, [ma] pronounced with a high and level pitch means ‘mother’ but the same phonetic segment pronounced with a high falling pitch means ‘scold.’ The closest thing we have to lexical tone in English is ‘entrance ‘entrance.’ But it’s not the same thing because we can add the desired stress on those syllables with loudness and longer syllable duration - pitch isn’t baked into the vocabulary. I could say ‘entrance’ (L-H) or ‘entrance’ (LH) and you’d understand it is the entrance to a house regardless.
    • Less common than lexical tone is grammatical tone. Igbo, a Nigerian language, is a perfect example of grammatical tone. In Igbo, if you want to say jaw, you say the word with a low tone. If you want to indicate the possessive form of that (e.g. a monkey’s jaw) you have to use a high tone on the word jaw. Mapped on to English, that’d be like instead of saying “monkey’s jaw’ → monkey JAW. Cool, right?
    • Okay, so we’ve learned that prosody can be optionally sprinkled on top of a language for emphasis or effect,and it can be baked into the language itself as evidenced by tonal languages. But that’s not the whole picture. A language’s overall prosodic rhythm (or timing) is often nothing more than a mere byproduct of its underlying syllable structure.
  • It’s a byproduct of the underlying syllable structure:
    • For example, in the Hawaiian language, almost every single word has the same predictable syllable structure: a consonant followed by a vowel. But in English, we looooove (did you hear that extended vowel duration for emphasis - such a good sprinkling of prosody right there!) consonants clusters and diphthongs. Consonant clusters are 2+ consonants adjacent one another as in sixth.Diphthongs are 2+ vowels adjacent to one another, as in ‘right’.  Clip of Hawaiin .e. Hawaiian’s regular CVCV syllable structure ends up making its prosody more regular in terms of rhythmic timing while languages like English with clunky intermittent consonant clusters have less regular rhythmic timing) - which of course affects the overall prosody of the language. 

Well - there you have it. That’s prosody in a nutshell! Since we covered a lot in today’s episode let’s do a quick recap.

  1. First, what is prosody? Often referred to as the “music” of language, prosody is the aspect of language that gives prominence to certain syllables or words.
  2. The 3 main features that drive prosody are: loudness, pitch, and duration. Typically, sounds that we perceive as prosodically prominent are louder, higher-pitched, and longer in duration.
  3. There are 3 main reasons we use prosody: it can be optionally sprinkled on top of our speech for added emphasis or effect as in “Why would Jerry bring anything?”, it can be baked into a language as is the case with tonal languages, and it can simply be a byproduct of underlying syllable structure rules. 


Well, that’s the end of the episode! This was our 9th and final episode of Season 1 of the How Language Works series. If you haven’t caught our previous episodes in this series, go check them out! We cover phonetics, phonology, syntax, morphology…all the good things! If you liked this episode, let us know by subscribing, liking, and reviewing the show! For more fun content, you can also follow us on your favorite social media platform @mangolanguages. Thanks for listening – and from me and the rest of the Mango Languages family –  stay happy, stay healthy, and language on. ¡Ciao!"