LINGUIST List 14.1288

Tue May 6 2003

Review: Phonology: Fox (2000/2002)

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  • David Deterding, Prosodic Features and Prosodic Structure

    Message 1: Prosodic Features and Prosodic Structure

    Date: Tue, 06 May 2003 01:44:39 +0000
    From: David Deterding <>
    Subject: Prosodic Features and Prosodic Structure

    Fox, Anthony (2002) Prosodic Features and Prosodic Structure: The Phonology of Suprasegmentals, Oxford University Press, paperback ed. [The hardback edition was published in 2000.]

    Announced at [The hardback edition was originally announced in issue 11.1566, and the paperback edition in issue 13.3260 --Eds.]

    David Deterding, NIE/NTU, Singapore


    After a brief introductory chapter outlining the phonological basis, phonetic basis and scope of prosody, this book consists of four main chapters, analysing length, accent, tone, and intonation, before the final chapter considers the structure of prosody.

    The chapter on length, at 102 pages the longest of the book, considers in some detail the length of vowels and consonants in a variety of languages, including Latin, Greek, German, French, English, Japanese and Estonian, and concludes that patterns of compensatory lengthening are best analysed at the syllabic level, which explains why the occurrence of long vowels and geminate consonants is in fact a prosodic issue. As with all areas that are covered in this book, there is extensive discussion of the work of traditional scholars, particularly Trubetzkoy and others from the Prague School, so evaluation of more recent models such as autosegmental phonology is prefaced with a solid foundation of earlier scholarship.

    In connection with length, rhythm is considered in some detail, as it is claimed to have a vital role in determining the length of segments. Even though Fox reports (p.88) that experimental evidence has failed to support the idea of rhythmic isochrony, he maintains that an underlying rhythmic beat, which may be based on the syllable, the mora, or the foot, exists at the perceptual level.

    Chapter 3 considers accent, both at the word level and the sentence level. Many models have suggested multiple levels of accentuation, so that a phrase such as 'elevator operator' has been analysed by some scholars with three degrees of stress in addition to the unstressed level (p.145), and metrical phonology with its iterative allocation of stress proposes in principle no limit to the number of levels. But Fox concludes that such multiple degrees of prominence are not justified, and only two levels are needed: Level 1 accent, which is governed by rhythm, and Level 2 accent, which is equivalent to the intonational nucleus. Furthermore, in a language such as French where there is no rhythmical contrast between syllables, only a single level of accentuation is needed, a Level 2 accent in Fox's terms (p.147), and the same applies to Japanese, where the pitch-accent provides for a single fixed falling pitch pattern following a high pitch (p.149).

    In Chapter 4, the nature of tone in a variety of languages is considered in an attempt to derive a common framework that encompasses both the tones of African languages such Igbo, Efik and Mende, which can be represented in terms of sequences of level tones, and those of East Asian languages such as (Mandarin) Chinese and Cantonese that cannot be represented so well in terms of level tones and are best analysed as contours. Fox concludes that the domain of tone is generally the syllable, though sometimes it is the foot as well (p.267), and that autosegmental phonology provides the best framework for the representation of tone.

    The nature of tonal accents in languages such as Swedish and Serbo- Croat is also considered in some detail, and an attempt is made to provide a classification of all languages into fours categories (p.262): those with bound accent, such as English; those with partially free accent, such as Swedish and Serbo-Croat; those with free accent, such as Japanese; and true tone languages, such as Chinese and Igbo.

    Chapter 5 covers intonation, considering in some detail the debate between a representation in terms of levels, as favoured by such American linguists as Pike and Hockett, and the use of complete pitch configurations, as adopted by British linguists such as Kingdon, Palmer, and O'Connor and Arnold. Fox by and large comes down in favour of the British model, for otherwise how can a pitch sequence such as 241 be seen as similar to 231 but with a greater pitch excursion (p.299)?

    Of modern approaches to intonation, most space is given to Pierrehumbert's model which decomposes the intonational contour into separate parts, including H and L pitch-accents, phrase accents, and boundary tones, though Fox suggests that there is insufficient evidence to justify all these three separate components (p.306).

    The chapter on intonation includes some consideration of the nature of declination, and also features such as paratones that extend beyond a single intonation unit and encompass a complete utterance. Finally, an attempt is made to derive a universal typology of intonation, involving envelope features that determine the height and range of the pitch contour, prominence features which serve to highlight particular points in the utterance, and modality features that distinguish contours such as rise and fall.

    The last chapter considers the structure of prosody and compares various modals. It is concluded that a hierarchical modal is essential, though the number of tiers in the hierarchy will vary from language to language. For example, though the syllable may be universal, only some languages may need to make reference to the mora.

    Optimality Theory is briefly considered in the final chapter but not in much detail because the coverage of the book is focused ''on the nature of the structure itself rather then on the mechanisms whereby it might be specified'' (p.333), which seems to suggest that Optimality Theory can only contribute to the representational mechanisms rather than the nature of prosody.

    Strictly binary representations are also dismissed, as the rhythmic structure of a word such as 'happily' is best analysed as ((s) w w) with no bracketing for the two weak nodes (p.353), for Fox claims that the insistence on binary-branching creates a ''spurious unit'' in order to deal with two final unstressed syllables (p.357).


    This book has a rather classical feel to it, in two senses of the word: first, it has substantial analysis of Latin, especially in the chapter on length; and second, there are extensive references to the work of traditional linguists, especially those from the Prague School such as Trubetzkoy. In fact, the entry for 'Prague School' is the longest in the index, with 16 separate entries, 3 of them to a range of pages.

    Now there is, of course, nothing wrong with reference to Latin, especially as the details of its metre and length of segments are fairly well known and so can contribute significantly to our understanding of these issues. Furthermore, there is certainly still much that we can learn from the emphasis on paradigmatic contrasts that was central to the work of the Prague School linguists, even if it does seem odd that there is nearly half a page (p.181) explaining why Trubetzkoy had little to say on tone, and a further paragraph (p.277) discussing why he did not have very much to say about intonation.

    However, despite this somewhat old-fashioned ring to the book, it does succeed quite effectively in providing a solid foundation for the analysis of prosodic structure, so that when the focus proceeds to more recent models, such as metrical theory, autosegmental phonology and Pierrehumbert's model of intonation, the discussion takes place within the context of a solid theoretical grounding.

    The dismissal of one modern model of phonology, Optimality Theory (OT), on the basis that it merely contributes a mechanism for representing the structure, will not meet with the agreement of everyone, for surely the form of OT constraints and their relative ordering in different dialects and languages make some interesting claims about the nature of phonology itself. Furthermore, OT would seem to have quite a lot to say about accent placement (see, for example, Hammond, 1999), so maybe it is a pity that more reference is not made to the contributions of OT in this respect. But it is certainly true that Fox is not alone in regarding OT as less valuable than other recent models of phonology, and his careful discussion of other recent phonological models is both informative and thoughtfully presented.

    Although the model of intonation proposed by Pierrehumbert (1980) is accorded considerably more attention than OT, there are some criticisms of it, for example that the way that it breaks down the pitch contour into three components, namely pitch-accents, phrases accent, and boundary tones, is indeterminate and not fully justified (p.305). Fox then goes on to suggest that there are problems even when the maximal L+H* L H% pattern is used for the description of a pitch contour, partly because this entire pattern needs sometimes to be repeated in the intonational head of an utterance such as ''but it / certainly / couldn't be / animal''. But the text (p.303) already admits that it is not clear whether an example such as this should be regarded as more than one intonation unit or not, and if it is analysed as more than one unit, surely Pierrehumbert's model can handle it quite well? Furthermore, if one allows intermediate units of the kind proposed in Pierrehumbert and Hirschberg (1990), surely such partially-linked intonation patterns are actually handled rather well by the model? Finally, even if it is true that the decomposition of intonational contours into three separate parts is not always fully justified, the basic principle of breaking down the intonation contour into distinct components may still be sound, as it can successfully deal with the problem of a double tonic (p.319), and maybe Fox does not give sufficient credit for this.

    It is in keeping with the Prague School emphasis on paradigmatic contrasts that the chapter on length is the longest, though it remains somewhat surprising for a book on prosody that the chapter on intonation is the shortest (60 pages) of the four main chapters. The material in Chapter 5 is concerned almost entirely with the structure and representation of intonation and makes little reference to the context or meaning of various intonational patterns, and the only references (pp. 309 & 316) to the discourse-related work of Brazil (1997) concern the analysis of key, which is maybe a pity as Brazil made many overall contributions to the description of intonation. However, this relative absence of consideration of the context and meaning of intonation should not detract from the value of the careful discussion and evaluation of the different ways of representing it and the lucid overview of the debate between pitch levels and whole pitch configurations.

    In one other reflection of the traditional flavour of this book, there is an almost complete absence of any acoustic data. The statement (p.88) that experimental results fail to confirm perceptual judgements of rhythm is unfortunately no longer quite true, as various recent works have reported that distinct rhythmic differences between languages can in fact be measured (eg Ramus et al,1999; Low et al, 2000). Now, one cannot blame Fox for failing to refer to these recent papers, as his text was written before they were published, but reference to the detailed measurements of Couper-Kuhlen (1993) might have been valuable. For example, Fox observes (p.169) that speech does not exhibit the complex simultaneous rhythmic beats found in music, but Couper-Kuhlen does report overlapping coexisting rhythmic chains in her meticulous analysis of the rhythm of conversational speech.

    In line with the absence of any acoustic data, there are no acoustic pitch plots, which is a pity, as real plots of pitch movements can add substance to discussion of the nature and structure both of tone and of intonation. Fox reports (p.183) that though the movements of pitch can easily be plotted, ''this apparent phonetic simplicity is, paradoxically, a source of difficulty in the phonological analysis of tone.'' While this does of course justify the absence of pitch plots, it would be that much more credible if some examples were included of apparently straightforward pitch plots that are hard to interpret phonologically.

    Despite the absence of acoustic data to illustrate the issues under discussion, the text is always clear, and there is an obvious careful attention to detail. There are occasional lapses, such as the claim (p.229) that assimilation may involve ''the replacement of a 1st tone by a 2nd tone in Mandarin Chinese when followed by a 1st or 4th tone'', while the relevant figure (p.197) actually shows something entirely different, with the tonal sequence 1 2 4 becoming 1 1 4. But such oversights are very rare, and overall the clarity of the presentation is admirable.

    This book therefore provides a highly valuable and thoughtful overview of the structure of prosody, discussing a number of modern phonological models on the solid foundation of traditional scholarship, with an impressive analysis of prosodic issues in a wide range of different languages. The presentation is always lucid and the analysis always carefully presented, even if not everyone will concur with some of the conclusions. This book therefore does offer an excellent contribution to an understanding of the nature and representation of prosody which many readers will find exceptionally useful.


    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.

    Hammond, M (1999) The Phonology of English: A Prosodic-Theoretic Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Low E L, Grabe E, & Nolan F (2000) 'Quantitative characterizations of speech rhythm: syllable-timing in Singapore English' Language and Speech 43(4), 377-401.

    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.

    Ramus F, Nespor M & Mehler J (1999) 'Correlates of speech rhythm in the speech signal', Cognition, 72, 1-28.


    David Deterding is an Associate Professor at NIE/NTU, Singapore, where he teaches phonetics, syntax, and translation.