Monday, 8 June 2009

Sure thing

Tami Date (pictured, right) has a remarkable talent for asking me questions about intonation that I don’t exactly have the answer to.
While listening to a CD based on one of the junior high school textbooks authorized by the [Japanese] Ministry of Education and Science, I came across the following:
Mother: Don’t forget to do your home work.
Daughter: I’ve already done that.
Mother: That’s great. Oh, will you pick up your little brother? He’s at Aunt Peg's house.
Daughter: Sure, I'll pick him up.
As for the underlined sentence, it sounded to me as if there was a high pitch or stress on I’ll. I don't know which term is more appropriate. In fact, if it is the former, as you write in your book, I take it as adding emphasis to the whole IP, whereas, if it is the latter, it seems to me there is no legitimate reason for I’ll to be stressed. Karen Chung says: I’LL pick him *UP. (rising intonation).
The capital letters indicate stressed syllables.
The symbol [*] indicates the nucleus.
Since the textbook has a pretty wide circulation across the nation, I think such an apparently unusual intonation is no petty matter to dismiss out of hand, because it must be a source of puzzlement and anxiety to most teachers, who are usually expected to model-read new material in class as well as play the CD. How about the following?
(1) A: Are you coming?
B: Sure, I'm coming.
(2) A: Do you know her?
B: Sure, I know her.

On balance, I think that the most likely pattern for these utterances is fall plus rise. But there could alternatively be a high head or a high prehead followed by a rise.
\Sure. || \I’ll | pick him /up.
or: \Sure. || 'I’ll pick him /up.
or: \Sure. || ¯I’ll pick him /up.
and likewise with the other two examples.

The problem is that the answers contain no new lexical or grammatical items. So there is no non-given item to place the nucleus on. Even the polarity remains the same as in the interlocutor’s question. These answers just mean “yes, OK”.
If yes or OK or (AmE) sure were all we had, it could have a rise (throwaway, routine, “encouraging further conversation”) or a fall (definite, neutral).

I have to say, though, that I don’t feel very pleased with my explanation so far. Probably this is yet another case where we need some input from the pragmatics people to unravel conversational situations that phoneticians like me feel we’re not very good at describing.
Or perhaps we just say they’re yet more intonational idioms.


  1. I find the idea of contrastive stress on I'll quite reasonable: the daughter is implying "I'll pick him up so you don't have to."

  2. That was my first thought, too, but only in case this is actually meant, not in a neutral sentence, and there isn't any (other) reason to assume the contrastive emphasis.

    But it could be a matter of phrase intonation or melody: stressed - unstressed - stressed. (If the 'sure' were felt as a part of the phrase the same pattern would render "Súre, I'll píck him úp.")

    The alternating stress reminds of the American South, of course.

  3. I think I'd pronounce the sentence with a higher pitch in "I'll" than on "up". In fact, I think I have a fall on "up", the rest of the utterance (starting from "I'll") being on a rather high level. But I'd have to record myself and analyze the frequency to be sure...

  4. Maybe it IS a question of pragmatics. My first thought was 'Daughter' is intentionally misinterpreting

    Oh, will you pick up your little brother?

    where she construes "you" - which is clearly meant as a Topic here - as Focal material and answers in keeping with this reading.