LINGUIST List 13.845

Wed Mar 27 2002

Review: Discourse Anal, Phonetics: Wennerstrom (2001)

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  • David Deterding, The Music of Everyday Speech: Prosody and Discourse Analysis

    Message 1: The Music of Everyday Speech: Prosody and Discourse Analysis

    Date: Wed, 27 Mar 2002 16:23:40 +0800
    From: David Deterding <>
    Subject: The Music of Everyday Speech: Prosody and Discourse Analysis

    Wennerstrom, Ann (2001) The Music of Everyday Speech: Prosody and Discourse Analysis. Oxford University Press, xix+317pp, paperback ISBN 0-19-514322-1, $24.95, hardback ISBN 0-19-514321-3.

    David Deterding: National Institute of Education, Singapore

    SYNOPSIS The central theme of this book is that prosody, particularly intonation, should play an essential role in the analysis of spoken discourse. Wennerstrom argues that too often prosody seems to be regarded as an embellishment on the message carried by the words, and instead it ought to be studied as something absolutely central to the way that the message is conveyed.

    After two introductory chapters that discuss theoretical issues regarding the representation of intonation, stress, and rhythm, Wennerstrom devotes one chapter each to: the choice of H and L pitch accents to maintain coherence; the intonation of discourse markers; speech act theory; conversational analysis; oral narratives; and second language discourse.

    In each chapter, after a theoretical consideration of the issues involved, there is detailed analysis of some data. Most of these data originate from Wennerstrom's own speech corpora, but she also includes contributions from guest writers, with Kathleen Ferrara analysing the intonation on the discourse marker 'anyway', Philip Gaines describing the use of tag questions in legal proceedings, Susan Fiksdal considering changes in tempo that occur at uncomfortable moments during interviews, and Heidi Riggenbach investigating the way that pauses interfere with the fluency of non-native speakers of English.

    CRITICAL EVALUATION Wennerstrom aims to represent the intonation of conversational speech and also academic lectures using the model devised by Pierrehumbert (1980) and developed by Pierrehumbert and Hirschberg (1990), and she finds it necessary to modify and augment this model in a number of ways: the use of four pitch accents instead of the original six, echoing the doubts about the H*+L and H+L* tones that have been noted in the ToBI system and elsewhere (Ladd, 1996:95); the combination of the phrase accent and boundary tone into a single boundary, as she finds it hard in practice to maintain a distinction between phrase accents that are associated with intermediate phrases and boundary tones associated with sentences; the introduction of an additional partially-falling pitch boundary to the basic inventory of four boundaries: high-rising (= H-H%), low-rising (= L-H%), plateau (= H-L%), and low (= L-L%); the use of initial key, based on the work of Brazil (1997), to capture how the speaker's attitude relates to the previous utterance; and the use of paratones to mark major topic switches. All of these modifications were found necessary in order to capture the intonation of real speech, and this is the major contribution of Wennerstrom's book: much of Pierrehumbert's work was based on speech synthesis and the analysis of constructed examples, and when the model is used for large-scale transcription of real data, certain adaptations are found to be necessary. Wennerstrom has provided a substantial contribution to the development of the model in this respect, by analysing a wide range of data from a variety of perspectives, and her findings are exceptionally valuable.

    This book provides an impressive wealth of painstakingly transcribed data to illustrate each of the areas. All the examples are carefully explained with the regular provision of helpful computer-based pitch tracks. It is a pity that the data is not available for us to listen to, and one wonders if it might be possible for some of it to be placed on the web or provided in an accompanying tape. However, it must be accepted that this may not be feasible, for copyright reasons or considerations of privacy, and the careful and clear explanation of all the points together with the detailed transcripts and computer pitch plots do prove to be adequate even if not ideal.

    With such an impressive array of meticulously and lucidly presented data, it might seem a little churlish to note two areas where the data analysis is rather thin: the measurement of rhythm, and speech act theory. For the first of these, Wennerstrom makes a strong case for rhythm contributing to the success of conversational interaction, but in fact she only provides one brief example of a waveform with superimposed rhythmic beats (p.54), with no attempt to measure the durations between the beats in order to determine if they do actually occur at roughly equal intervals. In fact, Couper-Kuehlen (1993) has shown that the measurement of rhythmic beats is rather difficult, as for example it is hard to decide which point in the syllable to measure from and it is furthermore sometimes necessary to posit two separate coincidental rhythmic chains, so it is not surprising that Wennerstrom admits that the alignment of beats in her brief example "would not stand up to scrutiny with a precise ruler" (p.51). Nevertheless, it is a pity that some kind of measurement of rhythm was not attempted, even if only to illustrate the nature of the problem. The contribution from the guest writer, Fiksdal's analysis of interviews with foreign residents in the USA, demonstrates clearly that changes in tempo tend to accompany awkward moments in the conversation, but this could be interpreted simply in terms of speaking rate rather than changes in the timing of rhythmic beats, so we really have no extensive investigation of rhythm in the data.

    In the second area where the data is somewhat lacking, the chapter on speech act theory is markedly more theoretical than the others with very little analysis of real data, though it is probably true that the logical and philosophical nature of much of the background work in this field lends itself more to the consideration of constructed examples than real conversational data. While there is an interesting guest contribution from Gaines on the loaded use of tag questions by the defence lawyers in the trial of O. J. Simpson, this does not really get to the core of speech act theory. One wonders whether an investigation of differences between the intonation of yes-no questions and wh-questions might not be appropriate within the domain of speech act theory, particularly as Wennerstrom pays little attention to any distinction between these two types of question, in contrast to Pierrehumbert and Hirschberg (1990) who clearly regard them as quite different. Perhaps Wennerstrom has found in her analysis of conversational data that there is no real distinction and so any suggestion that yes-no questions tend to have rising pitch and wh-questions falling pitch is simply a myth, but it would have been interesting to find out more about this.

    However, these suggested deficiencies are exceptionally minor in comparison with the impressive wealth of data in such a wide range of areas, with convincing demonstrations of the semantic roles of the different pitch accents to introduce new information or refer back to old information and thereby maintain coherence in conversations, the use of paratones to mark the onset of new conversational topics, the role of the various initial keys and final boundaries to maintain links with previous and following utterances, the use of high pitch to represent quoted speech in oral narratives, and the effect of hesitations and pauses in interfering with the fluency of non-native speech. The presentation of the data in all of these areas is excellent, though ultimately one is left wishing that a whole book could be devoted to each one.

    In summary, this book provides a wealth of fascinating data illustrating a wide range of intonational phenomena in the analysis of conversations. The text is always exceptionally clear and it makes a highly convincing argument that the analysis of prosody should be central to work on discourse analysis. This book has made an important contribution to the field, especially as it is written in language designed to make it accessible to as many people as possible. It is certain to become widely used and highly valued.

    REFERENCES Brazil, D (1997) The Communicative Value of Intonation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Couper-Kuhlen, E (1993) English Speech Rhythm: Form and Function in Every-day Verbal Interaction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Ladd, D R (1997) Intonational Phonology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Pierrehumbert J (1980) The Phonology and Phonetics of English Intonation. PhD Thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA.

    Pierrehumbert, J & Hirschberg, J (1990) The meaning of intonational contours in the interpretation of Discourse. In P R Cohen, J Morgan & M E Pollack (eds) Intentions in Communication, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 271-311.

    ABOUT THE REVIEWER David Deterding is an Associate Professor at the National Institute of Education, Singapore, where he teaches phonetics, syntax, and translation.