Suprasegmental Features

Suprasegmental Features

"It a'int what you say but the way you say it." This familiar comment, immortalized in song, is the time-honored way of briefly indicating what suprasegmental analysis is all about. 
The segments of spoken language are the vowels and the consonants, which combine to produce syllables, words, and sentences. 
But at the same time as we articulate these segments, our pronunciation varies in other respects. We make use of a wide range of tones of voice, which change the meaning of what we way in a variety of different ways. Suprasegmental features operate over longer stretches of speech, such as rhythm and voice quality as opposed to segmental features, which are the individual sounds. 
Students of language and those who plan careers in language teaching, coaching, therapy, acting, and speaking will benefit greatly from understanding how they can influence meaning by things like length, intonation, stress, and tone and other suprasegmental features.


Click the underlined words in this lesson to hear the words and phrases pronounced. 

Length - the amount of time it takes to produce a sound

Some sounds are longer than others.
English:beat vs. bead
If you were to pronounce both words with longer vowels, the pronunciation might seem strange but the meaning is not lost. In other words, the meaning of beat and beat are the same.
But in other languages, vowel length actually changes the meaning of words. Therefore, pronunciation of the lengthened sound is very important because the word means something completely different. Study these examples in Hawaiian. Length in Hawaiian is indicated with the diacritical mark that looks like a dash over the vowel, called a kahakō.
Hawaiian:kau "to place"
kāu "to belong to you"
lolo "brain"
lōlō "slang - hardheaded
kala "to forgive"
kāla "money"
ka lā "the sun"
pau "finished"
pa'u "soot"
pa'ū "skirt"
In English, you can express your emotions by lengthening certain sounds in sentences. By varying the tempo of words (such as lengthening specific sounds) you can communicate your feelings.
English:Should I leave now?
Yes. (snipped, implies irritation)
Ye-e-e-e-s-s-s-s (implies thoughtfulness)

Intonation - the rising and falling of the voice (pitch) over a stretch of sentence

If pitch varies over an entire phrase or sentence, we call the different pitch curves by the term intonation.  Intonation conveys the speaker's attitude or feelings.  In other words, intonation can convey anger, sarcasm, or various emotions.
How do these sentences - with the exact same words -- mean very different things with different intonation?
John told me to leave.(normal intonation)
John told me to leave.(emphasis on John: John, not Mike)
John told me to leave.(emphasis on told: told, not asked nicely)
John told me to leave.(emphasis on me: me, not you or Mary)
John told me to leave.(emphasis on leave: leave, not stay)
Other languages don't use intonation in this way. "John told me to leave" is "Jose me mando a salir" in Spanish. But it's not possible to say Jose me mando a salir or Jose me manda salir, as we can in English. Instead of raising your voice to emphasize a word, Spanish uses word order and places the word to be emphasized at the end of the sentence (note: the written accent marks are left out below):

Stress (tense or lax syllables) and Juncture (pauses within sentences to separate words and meaning)

In English, the stress you place on a syllable can change the meaning of a word. 
White House (the US President's house)white house (a house that's white)
nitratenight rate
record (noun)record (verb)
address (noun)address (verb)
When combined with pausing after certain words, the meaning of the whole sentence can completely change. Click the underlined words to hear the phrases, paying attention to the pauses. Sometimes the resulting change of meaning is funny, as examples 1 and 2 below demonstrate. (Click the underlined words to hear them pronounced.) 
Example 1: tight-rope walker is an acrobat. A tight ropewalker is a drunk ropewalker. 

Example 2: Light housekeeping means chores such as sweeping, mopping, and cleaning windows. Lighthouse keeping is running lighthouse operations. 

Example 3: Here's a true life example demonstrating stress and juncture that isn't funny. This poor waitress thought she was being rewarded for her hard work with a new car, a Toyota. I wonder if the guy who thought it would be funny to give her a toy Yoda, a character from the Star Wars movies, instead is still employed at the Hooters.

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