LINGUIST List 9.847

Mon Jun 8 1998

Review: Watt: Phonology and Semology of Intonation

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  • Karen Steffen Chung, Review: Watt, Phonology of Intonation.

    Message 1: Review: Watt, Phonology of Intonation.

    Date: Fri, 05 Jun 1998 15:38:27 +0800
    From: Karen Steffen Chung <>
    Subject: Review: Watt, Phonology of Intonation.

    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. Paper.

    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 supplement.

    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 excluded).

    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.