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Review of  The Phonology and Semology of Intonation in English

Reviewer: Karen Steffen Chung
Book Title: The Phonology and Semology of Intonation in English
Book Author: David L Watt
Publisher: IULC Publications
Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 9.847

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Watt, David L. E. 1994. _The Phonology and Semology of
Intonation in English: An Instrumental and Systemic Perspective._
Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club Publications. 192pp.

Reviewed by Karen Steffen Chung <>

Good books on intonation are not that easy to come by, in this
reviewer's opinion, but this should be considered one of them. It is not
an introductory text that will take you through English intonation in a
systematic way. And the book's ostensible main thesis, which concerns
the semantic interpretation of various intonation 'melodies', is not its
primary attraction, either. What it offers is a solid collection of
valuable observations, in bits and pieces, on English intonation. So I
think that the best way to do justice to a book like this in a review is
to simply pick out what I found to be some of the more interesting
points and condense them here, without too much additional commentary.

* * * * * * * *

Intonation as a subfield of linguistics is still wide open to
pioneering work. The author describes intonation as one of the 'most
puzzling and idiosyncratic' aspects of human speech within the sphere of
language as behavior, and he points out the role of intonation in the
'dynamism of discourse' (from the preface).

Unlike another work in this series recently reviewed for LINGUIST,
Taylor's _A Phonetic Model of Intonation in English_, this book focuses
mainly on *language* as we speak and hear it, rather than on mechanical
- and often difficult-to-interpret - computer models, though computer
recorded and analyzed data is also used to help analyze stretches of
speech in this study. Watt concludes that since instrumentation is far
from infallible, and the human ear can also be quite subjective in what
it hears, the most reliable method is to use auditory impressions for
the initial recording of data, and instrumentally collected data as a

The book starts out with a useful introduction, in which terms are
defined and goals set. The two sections of the main body stress the
development of a phonological and semantic model of intonation,
respectively. These are divided into two chapters each, entitled (Part
I): "The Phonology of Intonation", and "Tones in Sequences"; and (Part
II): "Intonation and Meaning", and "The Semantics of Phonological
Gradience". Two appendices of instrumental data from recorded speech
consist of selected examples taken from Halliday's _Course in Spoken
English: Intonation_ (1970), and from a corpus compiled by the author.
The book concludes with 14 pages of references.

The data come from 'non-surreptitious' but unmonitored, casual 'diadic
conversations' between native speakers of 'Educated Standard Toronto
English' - rather rare in a field where most of the works are based on
British RP or Standard US English. The author points out that the data
are not intended to contrast with those taken from other varieties of
English; his main goal was to achieve consistency in the speech form
used. Among the power and distance parameters of social and personal
relations, the author chooses for his data collection 'equal', over
'superordinate' and 'subordinate'; 'acquainted', as opposed to
'intimate' or 'foreign'; and 'face-to-face' rather than 'distance' (i.e.
phone conversations, subject to various kinds of distortion, were

Intonation is a suprasegmental (i.e. 'a feature whose domain extends
over more than one segment') feature of language, and the author adopts
a _prosodic_ ('the use of pitch contours to realize linguistic meaning')
approach in analyzing it. Below follow some a few other terms as Watt
uses them in his study.

_Tonality_ refers to the division of the message into phonological
tone groups or 'information units' (IU). _Tonicity_ involves a process
of locating the salient syllable in a tone group, the 'focal point of
ideational meaning in the information unit; each group must contain at
least one tonic syllable, which is located at the onset of pitch
movement associated with nuclear tone contour'. _Tone_ refers to the
selection of one of five simple or two compound tone contours that
phonologically realize interpersonal meanings in the IU. Particular tone
choice can mediate speaker/hearer relations (e.g. indicate the need for
a response, change of turn, or continuation) or mediate speaker-message
relations: i.e. attitudes toward a message, such as reservation,
certainty or assertion (pp. 18-20). Also defined is _paratone_, a larger
intonational unit, which cannot extend beyond a breath group; and no
larger intonational unit was found in this study.

Section One begins by proposing that a theory of intonation must strive
to make two different kinds of descriptions, namely, (1) a phonological
one, which emphasizes identification of nuclear tones and other
refinements derived from instrumental analysis, and (2) a semantic
description of the functional impetus responsible for motivating
language behavior, which includes tone sequences, intertonal relations,
paratones, and connected speech. Section One concentrates on (1).

Watt describes _simple tones_ - namely (1) simple falling, (2) simple
high rise (with fall-rise option), and (3) low rise - and _complex
tones_, which consist of more than one pitch movement and are naturally
more complicated. These are: (4), which occurs on the last two syllables
of the final word of an utterance and reaches the top level of pitch,
then falls sharply, and (5), which consists of a rise-fall movement,
with the intensity on the rise. There are also _compound tones_, i.e.
combinations of simple tones fused into a single tone group. There are
two compound tones, 1 + 3, and 5 + 3.

Watt notes that some researchers have proposed a model of intonational
meaning similar to that of grammar, in which one compound tone is linked
with one particular meaning or function. But intonation in fact does
*not* function like this - intonation is a realization of *semantics*
rather than syntax. The interpretation of intonation must be made within
the context of grammar, but it is not linked element by element to the
syntax. As G. Brown (only first initials are given in the references)
puts it: 'the phonological resources for signaling meaning are far fewer
than the semantic functions which "exploit" them' (p. 73).

A notable pattern revealed by instrumental analysis of spoken data is
_downdrift_, a declining of the fundamental frequency (F0) over the span
of short utterances for a wide range of languages. It oscillates between
the two extremes of an equally descending and slightly narrowing
bandwidth with sentence final fall and slight prolongation at the breath
group boundary. The declination slope is not always constant, but it can
be a series of descending plateaux, or sets of declination lines. This
model is not as 'susceptible' to errors of data interpretation as
following individual nuclear tones can be (pp. 66-71).

Section Two concentrates on developing a semantic model of intonation,
i.e. providing an initial account of meaning often attributed to
intonation. Watt here advances his view that intonational meaning can be
derived both from phonological contrasts of tone and tonicity and from
the phonetic gradience characteristic of these contrasts.

There is less consistency in generalizing the meaning of intonation
than with a phonological description of sound substance due to (1) the
nature of intonation and (2) the variety of inferences people draw from
voice-related cues. As members of a speech community, we make inferences
about what is meant both by what is said and how it is said. We must
draw conclusions on discrete meanings from only *part* of the speech
continuum (and not include e.g. physical appearance of the speaker in
our analysis).

To deal with the semantics of intonation, you can take either a
linguistic approach, in which you look at meaning *contrasts* and
form-to-function correspondences, or you can take a psychological
approach, in which 'polar clines' are posited, e.g. bored vs.
interested, or timid vs. confident; Watt addresses only the *linguistic*
contribution of 'tonicity' and 'tone' (p. 76 ff.).

Watt refers to Halliday, who stresses the ideation function of
intonation, how it highlights information for specific attention, i.e.
given vs. new, also fresh vs. contrasted. The stressing of new
information is an outcome of 'speaker assessed importance'. The tonic of
unmarked utterances will tend to fall on the last lexical item of the
tone group; this results in a broad, 'unspecified' focus; this focus is
narrowed in a 'contrastive' utterance (p. 79).

Intonation has an 'interpersonal metafunction' by serving as a channel
for linguistic expression of *attitude*, though it is not the only such
channel. Other channels include register and lexicon; and sometimes
certain stylistic effects can be achieved by combining incongruous
linguistic content and intonations, e.g. imagine 'Put that goddam pipe
away!' uttered in a smiling, gentle tone of voice. So the listener's
perception of the speaker's attitude may be based on two or more signals
combined (p. 87).

Intonation adds information to disambiguate speech function. Speech
function is identified and interpreted through the cumulative effect of
contextual, morpho-syntactic and phonological cues (p. 91). It can
include competition for turns (an initiating peak can be used for this),
initiating a topic (marked by an initial peak of intensity and high
pitch), continuing (upward drift), responding (the second speaker
approximates the relative pitch height of the baseline of the last
utterance produced by the previous speaker, i.e. an accommodation of one
speaker's melodic pattern to that of another), terminating (fall to the
lowest level of the speaker's voice range; a termination often falls
well above the baseline before its final fall), checking function
(conversation monitoring with sporadic checks on the status of the
conversation, i.e. checking that the hearer understands, agrees on the
appropriateness of what is being expressed, and is still engaged; this
is intended to elicit a response from the hearer, but usually involves
no change of turn, e.g. 'isn't it?', 'right?', 'you know', 'eh'),
certainty (speakers can indicate 'certainty known/absolute', 'certainty
irrelevant/conditional', or 'certainty unknown/assumed').

Watt points out that a major difficulty of doing description of
intonation is the inherently gradient characteristic of the spoken
medium. There is a gradient between the linguistic and the
paralinguistic, as well as a division between what constitutes a
linguistic contrast and what signals a modification of the phonological
cline within that contrast. Watt offers a revealing quote from Bolinger:
'The higher the rise, the greater the exasperation if it is a statement,
the greater the surprise of curiosity if it is a question. The lower the
fall the greater the certainty or finality if the utterance is a
statement, and the greater the confidence if it is a question'
[1986:240]. That is, in Watt's own words: '...the greater the degree of
the rise, or the height of a given contour, the greater the strength of
the contextual meaning assumed for that contour' (p. 109).

Watt sums his work up nicely - and what he says could easily be applied
to just about any worthy field of inquiry - in the final chapter thus:
'There is a certain fractal logic that seems to pervade the
investigation of intonation. The more we magnify the field under
scrutiny, in the hopes of reaching an explanation of its details, the
more we find new and unexpected details in need of explanation. The
deeper we probe into the next level of detail, the more difficult it
becomes to extricate ourselves from its detail with a parsimonious
description of the new possibilities' (p. 121).

In addition to recapping the highlights of his book in the conclusion,
Watt offers his vision for what his work has to contribute to the field
in general, namely, a 'compatible point of departure from which to
further the description of discourse' (p. 122). He believes that
accurate synthesizing of intonations may possibly add to our knowledge
about our auditory perceptions, and that can also help further develop
our models of synthesized speech.

* * * * * * * *

Although the book's basic structure is clearly set out in the section
and chapter titles, the contents of each subdivision are diverse and
often hard to incorporate into a coherent, linear narrative on
intonation; one must content oneself with the fragments one is able to
latch onto. Yet one has the feeling that much is being said in this
motley collection of ideas, observations, and analyses, much more than
in many other of the works on intonation available. And for this reason,
the interested reader is advised to bear with the author, take notes,
and enjoy the ride.

This book has a rather amateurish, low-budget look, perhaps to be
expected from university publications of this kind. The instrumental
graphs bordered by thick black outlines and incorporated into the
chapters in many places seem stuffed in a little too close to the
written text, though there is no problem of clarity. The text itself is
set in a relatively large serif typeface, which makes for comfortable
reading, though occasionally some startlingly inconsistent type sizes
turn up. New concepts (e.g. _paratone_, _concord_) appear in bold and
are easily spotted. Minor typos appear here and there. The DIY look of
the design is not a serious flaw, though, for anyone after unalloyed
content, of which you get plenty in this book.

Overall, this is a worthwhile and rather refreshing book for someone
seriously interested in intonation. The reader had better be ready,
however, to invest a bit of work to mine it of its wealth.

Reviewed by Karen Steffen Chung, Department of Foreign Languages and
Literatures, National Taiwan University, Taipei.