How Phoneticians Measure Speech Melody

Phoneticians transcribe connected speech by marking how words and syllables go together and by following how the melody of language changes. Many phoneticians indicate pauses with special markings (such as [ǀ] for a short break, and [ǁ] for a longer break). You can show changes in with a drawn line called a pitch plot or by more sophisticated schemes, such as the tones and break indices (ToBI) system. Here are some important terms to know when considering speech melody:

  • Compounding: When two words come together to form a new meaning (such as "light" and "house" becoming "lighthouse." In such a case, more stress is given to the first than the second part.

  • Focus: Also known as emphatic stress. When stress is used to highlight part of a phrase or sentence.

  • Juncture: How words and syllables are connected in language.

  • Intonational phrase: Also known as a tonic unit, tonic phrase, or tone group. Pattern of pitch changes that matches up in a meaningful way with a part of a sentence.

  • Lexical stress: When stress plays a word-specific role in language, such as in English where you can't put stress on the wrong "syllable."

  • Sentence-level intonation: The use of spoken pitch to change the meaning of a sentence or phrase. For example, an English statement usually has falling pitch (high to low), while a yes/no question has a rising pitch (low to high).

  • Stress: Relative emphasis given to certain syllables. In English, a stressed syllable is louder, longer, and higher in sound.

  • Syllable: Unit of spoken language consisting of a single uninterrupted sound formed by a vowel, diphthong, or syllabic consonant, with optional sounds before or after it.

  • Tonic syllable: An important concept for many theories of prosody, the syllable that carries the most pitch changes in an intonational phrase.

  • ToBi: Tone and break indices. A set of conventions used for working with speech prosody. Although originally designed for English, ToBI is now adapted to work with a few other languages.

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