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Intonation and Prosodic Structure

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Review of  Form and Function of Parasyntactic Presentation Structures: A Corpus-based Study of Talk Units in Spoken English

Reviewer: Jacqueline Monschau
Book Title: Form and Function of Parasyntactic Presentation Structures: A Corpus-based Study of Talk Units in Spoken English
Book Author: Joybrato Mukherjee
Publisher: Rodopi
Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 12.2631

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Mukherjee, Joybrato (2001) Form and Function of Parasyntactic
Presentation Structures: A Corpus-based Study of Talk Units
in Spoken English. Rodopi, hardback ISBN: 90-420-1295-1,
vii+163pp, $38.00 or E41.00 (Language and Computers: Studies
in Practical Linguistics 35).

Jacqueline Monschau, University of Bonn

This monograph (announced in is centred
on a new linguistic unit defined on the basis of prosody
and syntax, and it is the combination of the latter two in a
new level of linguistic description that the term
"parasyntactic" in the title refers to. Drawing on
authentic corpus data, this functional-oriented study aims
to show that speakers deliberately place tone unit
boundaries in such a way that the tone units represent
information units and that prosodic and syntactic status at
tone unit boundaries indicate the information structural
relation between adjacent tone units: "At each tone unit
boundary, the medium-dependent choice of prosodic elements
(i.e. fall vs. rise) together with the medium-dependent
choice of medium-independent syntactic properties (i.e.
final vs. non-final status) leads to a parasyntactic
configuration. In natural speech, there is a continuous
flow of parasyntactic configurations which create talk
units as parasyntactic presentation structures." (39)
The correlation of parasyntactic configurations with
stylistic variation/text types as well as with turn-taking
in conversations is but one of Mukherjee's noteworthy
findings suggesting that this book should be of interest to
linguists in many fields. The target group can thus be
sketched out as generally as corpus linguists,
functionalists and intonationists. Although there are a few
minor problems, probably inevitable in a pilot study, the
merits clearly predominate.

Chapter 1 starts with a valuable overview of previous
approaches to the interrelation of prosody and syntax and
culminates in the introduction and modification of the talk
unit concept. Halliday's functional definition of the tone
unit as an information unit is seen as a justification for
the view that tone units serve as base units on both the
prosodic and the syntactic level. Psycholinguistic studies
of temporary syntactic ambiguities (garden path sentences)
are presented to confirm that hearers interpret not only
the prosodic but also the syntactic status at tone unit
boundaries. The information-structural interpretation by
hearers is thus seen as locally managed in and around tone
unit boundaries as "windows" (step-by-step processing), so
that this is where both the prosodic and the syntactic
status are marked. As for prosody, only the broad two-tone
dichotomy of rising and falling tone indicating prosodic
incompleteness and prosodic completeness respectively is
considered as functionally relevant. The decision about
syntactic completeness/incompleteness at tone unit
boundaries is taken at the clause level: a syntactically
final status is marked with an f, a syntactically non-final
status with an n. Additionally, some finer distinctions are
made: f is used if the following elements still depend on
the preceding syntactic structure; f& if a new syntactic
beginning to the right is introduced by a coordinator (and,
or, but); f% if there is a new syntactic beginning to the
right without an introductory coordinator (instead of % the
author actually uses the "section" symbol typically used in
German legal documents, but this would have caused
transmission problems here); n is used in case of syntactic
incompleteness if predictions are fulfilled somewhere to the
right; n$ if the predictions are not fulfilled at a later
stage i.e. in case of a cut-off syntactic structure. Thus,
15 different combinations of prosodic and syntactic status
are possible ("parasyntactic configurations"). The talk unit
is finally defined as follows: "The talk unit is a
parasyntactic presentation structure in spoken English which
ends at a tone unit boundary with syntactic completeness and
a falling tone" (30). Minor talk units end with fall f& and may
form part of major talk units which end with fall f%.

Chapter 2 contains the discussion of the concept of talk
unit from a neurobiological perspective: the talk unit
(including the relation of adjacent tone units) is regarded
in comparison to other descriptions of prosodic units
reaching beyond the tone unit boundary on the grounds of
declining tonal envelope, e.g. the "paratone". The latter
is rejected for spontaneous spoken language with reference
to the contradiction between the potential length of the
paratone and neurobiological findings: the discovery that
no more than 7 +/- 2 information units can be retained
simultaneously is related to the keeping of up to 7 +/- 2
tone units (i.e. linguistic information units) in a
hearer's short-term memory. Additionally, Mukherjee
transfers the temporal experience in "temporal windows" to
the processing of a sequence of tone units with window-like
tone unit boundaries: Since "the extent of these temporal
windows (2-3 sec) correlates with the average length of a
tone unit (2.5 sec)"(46) the tone unit is convincingly
claimed to serve not only as a prosodic unit but as a base
unit of natural language production and processing.
Consequently, the appropriateness of the talk unit
(comprising tone units) as a device for linguistic analysis
is backed up by these neurobiological findings, too.

Chapter 3 includes a detailed description of the corpus
texts and the analysis procedure used in the study. The
corpus comprises a 45,000 word sample from the London-Lund
Corpus of Spoken English, which takes account of the
dichotomy between monologues and dialogues, different
degrees of planning in monologues, social distance between
speakers in dialogues, level of formality and
differentiation between message-oriented and hearer-
oriented texts. Additionally, Mukherjee draws on a 5,000
word corpus to incorporate the difference between speaking
and reading as well as the difference between monologues
with feedback from the audience and those ones without. The
two-step procedure of corpus annotation called
"parasyntactic sequencing" falls into the indication of
prosodic and syntactic status at each tone unit boundary
and the identification of talk units (configuration fall f%).
In this context, Mukherjee draws attention to the fact that
the determination of the syntactic status often poses a
problem, e.g. after verbs which may have a transitive or an
intransitive reading, e.g. I do not believe. Here, the
decision about syntactic status is made on the grounds of
the interpretation which is most likely in a given context.
Accordingly, the decision about syntactic status after
several discourse items like never mind (final) and well
(non-final) is also presented as being taken "in the light
of the potential of D-items for constituting self-contained
utterances." (59)

In Chapter 4, the differences in frequency and distribution
of parasyntactic configurations between the corpus texts is
described in quantitative terms. Talk units in monologues
are shown to contain on average more than twice as many
tone units as talk units in dialogues where turn-taking
tends to interrupt. Additionally, the different functions
of minor talk units (end with the parasyntactic
configuration fall f&) in monologues and dialogues are
identified: in the first case, they primarily serve to
separate chunks of information to facilitate listening
comprehension, in the second, they offer positions at which
turn-taking may take place. The range of those
parasyntactic configurations occurring with significant
frequencies (equaling or greater than 5%) is shown to
correlate with several stylistic factors in monologues
and dialogues: the fact that e.g. only 4 of the 7
parasyntactic configurations which occur significantly often
in most texts (rise n, fall n, rise f, fall f, rise f&,
fall f&, fall f%) occur in a collection of texts written
to be read aloud throws up a potential correlation between
the range of parasyntactic configurations and the degree of
planning, subject-orientation and formality in a given
corpus text. Remarkably enough, the corpus texts grouped
together into the same narrative text form show similar
frequencies of prosodic and syntactic status: while
instructive/expository texts in general show a tendency for
rise f and narrative texts a tendency for fall f, n and f
turn out to be more or less balanced in argumentative texts.

Chapter 5 deals with the first of 2 parts of functional
analysis of talk units/parasyntactic configurations. In
accordance with the window theory, in which a tone unit
boundary is seen as a "'window' through which the hearer
gets a glimpse of what is to follow to the right" (104),
parasyntactic configurations at tone unit boundaries are
interpreted as indicators of the relative importance of
subsequent tone units, e.g. the configuration rise n after
a tone unit, evoking the hearer's anticipation by marking
incompleteness on both the prosodic and syntactic channel
is shown to make the hearer interpret the subsequent tone
unit as a highly important one. Configurations marking
incompleteness on only one parasyntactic channel are shown
to assign "a middle-ranking relative importance" to
following tone units, whereas - with completeness signalled
on both channels - there is no sense of anticipation left.
Accordingly, the seven parasyntactic configurations
occurring significantly often in the corpus are presented
in a hierarchical scale according to the relative
information weight which they assign to a subsequent tone
unit: the information weight assigned by rise n is greater
than fall n is greater than rise f/rise f& is greater than
fall f/fall f& (is greater than fall f% at the end of a talk
unit). Since the position of a tone unit boundary
determines the syntactic status at a tone unit boundary,
information packaging (= segmenting information into tone
units or talk units) clearly influences information
hierarchy (= using parasyntactic configurations as on the
scale above). This is illustrated by examples and minimally
manipulated variants of them. Mukherjee also illustrates
the usefulness of the talk unit model for the study of
various phenomena of spoken language: he shows that
intended pauses at tone unit boundaries serve two different
functions: segmentation (information packaging) and
anticipation (information hierarchy); calls attention to
automatisation in reading which refers to the placing of
tone unit boundaries at grammatical boundaries as well as
to the choice of tone type and illustrates how the degree
of politeness in turn-taking processes can be assessed by
considering the parasyntactic configuration at the
respective tone unit boundary.

The description of the information-structure function of
talk units in Chapter 5 is followed by an in-depth
description of the second function of talk units in Chapter
6: smooth speaker interaction. Mukherjee illustrates
correlations between traditionally established concepts
like "unit-type", "turn-constructional unit", "transition-
relevance place" and elements of the talk unit model. Since
the difficulty to operationalise pragmatic completeness
impedes an objective and empirical identification of
transition-relevance places Mukherjee tries to find a
solution in assuming that prosodic and syntactic
completeness constitute/make up pragmatic completion. The
talk unit is thus explicitly attributed the role of a
"practical remedy" since transition-relevance places are
shown to be clearly identifiable with the aid of the
parasyntactic configurations fall f, fall f& and fall f%.
Considering the pragmatic principles of cooperation and
politeness Mukherjee develops 3 parasyntactic maxims (as
their manifestations): the maxim of information structural
clarity, the maxim of mutual interaction and the maxim of
polite turn-taking. Parasyntactic presentation structures
are ascribed ideational, interpersonal as well as textual
function: "talk units are prosodically and syntactically
defined presentation structures of spoken English which
speakers use for information-structure purposes and in
order to allow for or facilitate speaker interaction."

Finally, a summary and prospects for future research are
presented in Chapter 7.

On the whole, the book clearly shows that the effort
involved in a corpus linguistic approach is reconciled by a
whole range of enlightening results. This study stands out
against "freestanding" approaches which concentrate on the
interpretation of intonation contours without the
incorporation of syntactic information. The talk unit model
rather makes the inclusion of syntactic information
possible without, as the author points out himself, taking
the existence of grammatically well-formed sentences in
spoken English for granted: "a large extent of what has
been perceived as chaos in spontaneous spoken English can
be systematised and interpreted in functional terms by
drawing on the concept of talk unit." (32) The study proves
stimulating for many aspects of spoken language study,
particularly textlinguistics/stylistics including
conversational studies with pausological studies and turn
taking. Besides, the merits of the theoretical part of the
book should not go unmentioned: The overview of previous
approaches to the interrelation of prosody and syntax
pointing out merits and shortcomings certainly proves a
stimulating read. Above all, however, the window theory is
convincingly corroborated thanks to the integration of
neurobiological findings in the study, i.e. the
interdisciplinary point of view taken. The book is written
in a clear language, there are helpful figures and tables
throughout and there is also a useful Index.

To my way of thinking, there are two problematic aspects in
terms of contents, both of which centre upon the notion of
tone unit and different transcription systems. In the
discussion of the grammatical units a tone unit may
comprise (clause, sentence, phrase or part of a phrase)
(page 40) the consideration of the fact that different
definitions of a tone unit, in other works also referred to
as "tone group" or "intonation unit", are in use (cf.
Schuetze-Coburn 1991) would have been helpful. The
distinction between tone-defined and pause-defined tone
units/groups might be but one important reason for the
continuing discussion on whether the clause is the unmarked
correlative of the tone unit. However, it does become clear
that the definition of the talk unit actually depends on
contour-defined tone groups. Besides, although the
inventory of prosodic signs used in the two corpora is
presented, the question of their immediate comparability is
never raised. Accordingly, the reader is left in the dark
about whether the statement "the prosodic status at all
tone unit boundaries of the corpus texts is marked." (23)
also pertains to the subordinate tone units of the London-
Lund Corpus. One can only guess that this was not the case
from a late footnote (page 149) rejecting the distinction
between different kinds of tone unit boundaries on
psychological grounds.

There are a few minor typos like "communcative [sic]
function" in a citation of Lambrecht (page 92). However,
more seriously, two mistakes have sneaked in which might
lead to confusion among readers:

1. In Chapter 3 (page 59) subsequent to the classification
of discourse items in three groups according to Stenstroem
(group a: categories which do not constitute a separate
move; category b: categories which may or may not
constitute a separate move; category c: categories which
generally constitute a separate move) the text says:
"Following this categorisation, the syntactic status after
D-items of groups (a) [sic] and (b) is considered as
(potentially) final since the end of the talk unit is at
least possible (e.g. after thank you). On the other hand,
the syntactic status after D-items of group (c) [sic] is
regarded as non-final for they usually do not conclude an
utterance (e.g. I mean)." (59) Here, (a) and (c) have to be
substituted for one another, after all thank you clearly
belongs to group c and the softener I mean to group a.

2. In Chapter 4 on page 69 the text reads "Minor talk units
end with the parasyntactic configuration fall f% [sic]". Here,
fall f& would be correct. Finally, Jefferson (1973) is referred to
(page 96) but does not appear in the bibliography.

However, these are just minor points and the overwhelming
impression of the book is that it certainly develops an
innovative useful device offering the potential of further
development in the future. The problem of determining the
syntactic status satisfactorily, mentioned by the author
himself, and the fact that "context" has been left out in
the figure illustrating the "factors which may influence
the analysis of talk units" (48) suggests that the
descriptive potential of the talk unit has, so far, not
been exhausted. After all, this is a pilot study as the
author writes himself: "[...] It goes without saying that
new suggestions and conclusions arise from the corpus
analysis and that future research on talk units will have
to pay particular attention to further aspects left out of
consideration so far." (45)

It is to be hoped that this book will receive the broad
attention it undoubtedly deserves.

Schuetze-Coburn, S.; Shapley, M. and Weber, E.G. (1991)
"Units of Intonation in Discourse: A Comparison of Acoustic
and Auditory Analyses", Language and Speech 34, 207-234.

Jacqueline Monschau is a PhD Student and part-time Research
Assistant at the English Department of the University of
Bonn. She is currently working on a follow-up study to the
book reviewed above. This study focuses on the interaction
of Intonation, Syntax and Pragmatics in professional oral


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