Thursday, 7 October 2010

clever dog

Thanks to everyone who commented on yesterday’s posting.

I don’t apologize for trying to devise “rules” for selecting an appropriate intonation pattern. They are exactly what typical NNS postgraduate students of phonetics need when faced with the task of marking up intonation on a written dialogue. Furthermore, without rules of the kind I offer they tend to suggest some very implausible patterns. NS students, on the other hand, know intuitively what will do and what won’t, but they can’t explain why. If I pair a NS and a NNS in class, we have the blind leading the blind — until they have some rules.

It’s all very well saying (I quote Glen Gordon)
a language is best learned in an intuitive way with free exploration, personal experimentation, encouragement of careful listening, contemplation, etc.
—but faced with a group of Japanese postgraduates who have been learning English for over ten years (often without, let’s be honest, enormous success) you need to offer them something more tangible.

Equally, when Glen writes
So when somebody suggests to have a drink, one says "There's a thought" with emphasis on the deictic to convey that this immediate suggestion is exceptional (compared to all other thoughts by anyone at any time). Likewise "That's a good dog" implies that a particular dog is more than just good; he's exceptionally so in comparison to the average dog.
—my reaction is that this is no doubt reasonable, but it doesn’t help. My students will immediately ask WHY the speaker would want to convey that the suggestion is exceptional (because it isn’t, really), and WHY the speaker feels it necessary to say that his dog is “more than just good”. Fine if you do the same thing in your L1; not helpful if you don’t.

Let’s go on with yesterday’s problem of how to supply the NNS learner with rules to generate an acceptable intonation pattern. Back to the dog.
\There’s a clever dog!

This is what you might typically say to your dog when he has successfully learned some new task or trick. (For certainty, I have made a quick-and-dirty video recording demonstrating the pattern I am referring to. Apologies for the domestic background.)

Consider the matter logically. Your utterance contains two apparently new lexical items, clever and dog. It also contains a demonstrative, and demonstratives behave like lexical items in that they are by default accented — as mentioned in §3.11 of my book. So in this exclamation there are three likely accents, there’s, clever, dog. We know that the nucleus goes by default on the last of them, which is dog.

However, both you and the dog know that he is a dog. (We have to assume that the dog knows — or perhaps we just have to approach things anthropomorphically.) So you can argue that dog is given, not new. That leaves clever as the last accentable word.

Is clever new? Yes, it’s the whole point of what you’re saying. You’re congratulating the dog on being clever. A “logical” accentuation pattern would therefore be
There’s a \clever dog.
But that is not what we say. Strangely, we deaccent clever, even though it might appear to be the most important word. Idiomatically (?), we place the nucleus instead on the demonstrative.

(Oddly enough, it would be fine to say something like
You’re a \clever little dog, | \aren’t you?
It’s also fine to say
ˈWhat a ˈclever \dog!
So with different wording you can express much the same meaning with the intonation nucleus somewhere else. There’s no general principle that renders clever and dog unaccentable.)

You could construct some kind of post-hoc justification for placing the nucleus on there’s. The dog training we are engaged in has the purpose of making the dog clever. Therefore both dog and clever are given by context. Therefore the nucleus has to go somewhere else, and there’s is the only other possibility.
\/Clever | \dog!
/Who’s a clever dog?
\You’re a clever dog!
\This is a clever dog!
\There’s a clever dog!
But be honest: would you have come up with this pattern just by following the rules? No, you need your NS intuition, or to be a speaker of an L1 that does the same thing, or at least to be familiar with what is idiomatic in English.
That was ˈone ˈclever \dog!
You ˈsee the \/problem.


  1. We native speakers of Spanish do need these rules, because even on hearing the correct pattern "\THERE'S a clever dog" we will go on interpreting it as "There's a clever \DOG". And if you insist on the former, without giving any explanation of what you are meaning to do, we will just think there's something wrong about your way of beginning the sentence (which in our view, I must insist, would be much more appropriately delivered as "There's a clever \DOG", paying no attention at all to such barbaric concepts as "given, implied etc information".

  2. "or to be a speaker of an L1 that does the same thing": intriguing, crosslinguistic idiomaticness

  3. Isn't it better to say accents fall on lexical items that carry the most information in the information theoretic sense, regardless of whether they are strictly new? For instance, if we'd established a given that there are two dogs, one clever and the other stupid, we'd still find ourselves putting an accent on 'clever' or 'stupid' to switch between referents in the utterances that followed, even if these lexical items had recently been introduced.

  4. @ Mano Zezez: I'm very much afraid that the "information theoretic sense" would also count as a barbaric concept.

  5. @Anonymous
    Would you care to elaborate?

  6. @ Mano: I mean, there's only one general rule ie. Put the nucleus on the last lexical item (regardless of its "value") unless this is separated from the preceding by a comma; any other consideration would result in a funny and apparently whimsical style of speaking.

  7. ...and sometimes insufferably pedantic (when transposed to Spanish, I mean)

  8. ...especially when in combination with the fall-rise tone, hence our pupils resistance to imitate the patterns they hear from the CD.

  9. Extending the approach that I suggested yesterday, you could teach these progressive substitutions:

    1. Yes!
    2. Yes, Fido!
    3. Yes, Fido, boy!

    all with the target intonation.

    From the student' viewpoint, the difference would be one of length alone. Once they've got it, substitute

    4. There's a clever dog!

  10. Maybe my sentence "THERE'S a clever dog!" presupposes (psychologically, though not logically) another sentence, such as "I can't find any clever dogs, all these dogs are stupid". And therefore "clever" isn't actually a new item either.

    The presupposed thought needn't be literally true, of course: I'm just flattering Fido, trying to encourage him. And that's exactly what the intonational pattern of my sentence does. The sense it conveys is: "(No clever dogs around here.) Oh yes, here you are, Fido: THERE'S a clever dog!"

    You might answer that you're looking for an "algorithm" that works, so to say, automatically. But I don't think that's a good idea: language is not mathematics, and one can't ignore the psychological aspect.

  11. (I'm the author of the preceding post, and I'm not the same anonymous commentator of before.)

  12. I think discussion of constructions (in the Construction Grammar sense) is pertinent here. A construction is defined as a 'form-meaning pairing'. Most researchers working in this area add to that definition that the pairing is in some sense arbitrary - i.e. that the meaning cannot be recovered from piecing together the meanings of the individual parts. Simple examples of constructions are idioms like 'It's raining cats and dogs', but construction grammarians extend this idea to cover most spontaneous spoken language (ranging from 'slot-fillers' like 'What's X doing Y?' (What's the cat doing eating my breakfast?'), topic-comment structures like 'Him, be a doctor?' to abstract syntactic frames like 'If X, then Y').

    I'd suggest that intonation is part of the 'form' in the form-meaning pairing, and thus is also not necessarily predictable on the basis of either (compositional) syntactic form or meaning. In other words, we learn intonation patterns that are specific to particular form-meaning pairings. This doesn't mean that there aren't 'rules' that can be abstracted from the way in which many constructions behave; but just that these rules may be artefacts, rather than constituting a generative system.

    Of course nonnative speakers are (unhappily) familiar with the idiomatic, non-literal nature of much of English (and I suspect most other languages). Maybe it would do them a service to focus on this, instead of the 'English has lots of rules, but lots of exceptions' approach.

    But then I don't teach EFL any more, so I don't have to deal with this! :-)

  13. Jérôme Poirrier7 October 2010 at 20:25

    The general rule states:
    "Locate the nucleus on the last new lexical item, unless there is a reason such as contrastive focus for it to go somewhere else."
    I'd like to add something after this "unless". There's a general assumption that in a given language, when it comes to the "new versus given" property, most words are lexically neutral; however, in French and English, I feel that there might exist a few words that come in pairs, in which one member of the pair is lexically loaded with novelty, whereas the other one is lexically loaded with givenness.
    When a speaker is faced with using either the pronoun "it" or the pronoun "that", that speaker may opt for "it" in order to make it clear that in the sentence the focus is elsewhere, whereas in opting for "that", the speakers knows that "That" is bound to attract some of the focus (if not all of it).
    The first time the idea of novelty-loaded lexical item came to my mind was when I had to explain a Russian learner of French the difference between
    "J'en veux !" and "Je veux de ça!" (I want some!)
    Indeed, both "en" and "de ça" are partitive pronouns; how on earth might the two utterances be differing? Well, I eventually came with the following explanation: "en" by nature is a focus-repellent, so it leads the listeners to direct their attention to "veux". Whereas "ça" is intrinsically a focus-attractor, so "Je veux de ça" means that a certain food ("ça") has been spotted and is judged more attractive than the rest of food; the main information stops being "I do not want VS I do want".
    Perhaps the English equivalents would be :
    "J'en veux !" -> "I WANT some!" or "I WANT some of it !".
    "Je veux de ça !" -> "I want some of THAT!" or "I want some of THIS!»
    Likewise, a speaker who chooses "it" in "What's it supposed to mean?" does so i order to let the listeners free of directing their attention to the predicate "mean what ?";
    conversely, the speaker who opts for "that" in "What's THAT supposed to mean ?" intends to direct the audience's attention to the peculiarity of what "THAT" has stood for.
    The pair "it/that" is not the only lexical "new/given" couple I can think of.
    It seems to me that, as centuries pass by, the English language tends to create more such pairs, through the art of creating weak forms. Thus, some forms of "be" are more of accent-attractors than others:
    "am", "is", and "are" may have some accent-attracting quality, whereas " 'm ", " 's ", and " 're " seem clearly accent-repelling.
    (Compare the pitches of inflected "be" in "How're you ?" and "How are you ?", for example as they are recorded in LPD3's CD, entry “How are you” then "UK” voice" and "US” voice...)

    (To be honest, I fail to understand why semantically speaking "are" should attract focus; so I dare not call it a "focus-attractor"; still, when it comes to the audio form of the utterance rather than its meaning, I think it safe to say that "are" does seem to attract pitch-prominence (or … "accent" ?) ).

  14. Oh noez! I've been made an example of, haven't I? ;o)

    Seeking clear mechanical rules in all things is certainly rational, but only when possible. Yet are we trying to squeeze mechanical rules out of an inherently fuzzy concept, I wonder? This then would be an unreasonable expectation. This is certainly a complex topic so forgive me if I drown in its seas.

    "[...] but faced with a group of Japanese postgraduates who have been learning English for over ten years (often without, let’s be honest, enormous success) you need to offer them something more tangible."

    My cheeky, sarcastic side says "Like what, a brain transplant???!". My diplomatic side says "If anything, offer patience and persistence."

    Given neuro-diversity, not all brains are hardwired for easy language learning just as some brains are not good at handling marketing or the excess stimuli from an extreme roller-coaster ride. At worst, the teacher/student team can only try the best they can together respective of their skills, creativity, interest level, and determination.

    "My students will immediately ask WHY the speaker would want to convey that the suggestion is exceptional (because it isn’t, really), and WHY the speaker feels it necessary to say that his dog is 'more than just good'.

    Okay, then let's try an opposite approach.

    If we simply accept at least some "intonational idioms" as they superficially appear (ie. ruleless, fuzzy and defiant against further analysis), then we're really talking about a higher-level, sociocultural-dependent set of "intonational vocabulary" (consisting purely of musical contours), overlayed on top of the lexical vocabulary. What you term "intuition" would be necessarily learned intuition, so there's still salvation for the NNS.

    At that, I recall whistling languages in the Alps and elsewhere.

    Just as languages have arbitrary sets of words whose shape cannot be predicted by semantics, intonational idioms would be likewise, by their nature, resistant to any meaningful analysis-breakdown despite our attempts. The analyzable constituents of the word (ie. phonemes) or those of a genuine intonational idiom should then have no bearing on the meaning as a whole. The vocabulary is simply memorized by the speaker.

    Further, if we could accurately define this set of "contour vocabulary" and add it to the curriculum, why not the vocabulary of culture-specific facial expressions or hand gestures then? Probably because this can quickly get intensive, overwhelming and laborious for both the student and teacher.

    Where does language end or begin? Or the teacher's involvement, for that matter? Arbitrarily, it seems, we stick to the oral language and in particular the lexico-grammatical.

    Does any of my rant help one's lagging ESL students? Doubtful, but what can if some intonation patterns are culturally learned rather than emergent from grammatical rules? Perceptive intuition isn't a tidy computer program otherwise I would have fervently coded it by now and made millions of dinero. ;o)

  15. Glen said:

    'My cheeky, sarcastic side says "Like what, a brain transplant???!". My diplomatic side says "If anything, offer patience and persistence."'

    But patience and persistence with what? Having just given my 'Learner Differences' lecture to the new cohort of TEFL students, the main message was that all learners really are different. You say that you prefer a more natural approach to learning a language, without to many rules, but many people don't. In fact, I would agree that a a group of PG Japanese students who are still struggling are just the type of students who might want, and benefit from, explicit rules like this. For any learner, you can be as patient and persistent as you like, but if you aren't giving them what they need, it will have no effect.

  16. I'm an English teacher, I can't let this go without correcting 'too many' :)

  17. @Glen Gordon: With all due respect: Brevity is the soul of wit.

  18. Kraut, then don't read my message, troll.

  19. Rob Drummond: "But patience and persistence with what?"

    Naturally with the learning process itself.

    Also, I see my answers disappoint you yet you haven't solved John Well's riddle for yourself. So I'd like to hear what answers you suggest.

    "You say that you prefer a more natural approach to learning a language, without to many rules, but many people don't."

    What I mean is that drowning students with a long list of rules is just as unproductive as not having any clear rules. I suppose diverse stategies are required, which is where the creativity of a teacher comes in.

    Naturally we must begin with simple, generalized basics and progress to more detail with short lists. Furthermore, this must progress towards a goal or limit that is clearly defined to the student from the beginning.

    Yet, how much detail is enough? When is language mastery "achieved" when native speakers themselves will never live long enough to learn everything about their own native tongue?

    So a reasonable teacher must have limits in mind. Where does "language" begin or end? Where does the role of the teacher? Limits placed by the teacher on these questions will naturally be arbitrary to avoid excessive coddling of a consistently poor student.

  20. "He's a \CLEVER little boy!" illustrated (by Monty Python's Flying Circus)

  21. You can find the sentence "He's such a \CLEVER little boy!" fairly at the beginning at about 0:09 of the video clip and again at 0:23.

  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

  23. MKR, Kraut,

    The second utterance, but not the first, is comparable to John's There's a clever dog. All that's needed is a general rule restricting the possibility of accenting he.

    [Something like 'only when used for deixis or contrast'.]

    In John's example there are two participants in the discourse, but only one is capable of human speech. In the Monty Python example there are two speakers, so the discourse contains given and new information.

    In the second utterance, boy is given information so the absence of any accent is not surprising. In the first utterance boy contains the new information that will be the point of the joke. So it's not surprising that it is appreciably more accented than dog in john's example or boy when the second speaker agrees with the first.

  24. The difference I noted between He's such a clever boy and There's a clever dog got me thinking along the lines of restrictions on what can be treated as an intonational idiom of the type in question.

    Seen as a pedagogical problem of presentation rather than a theoretical problem, I suggest presenting:

    1. the use of high fall in favourable reactions

    2. the principle of unanalysed idioms with pitch movement on the first word

    3. the constraint that such idioms must have as their first words one of the following:
    — demonstratives This, That, There
    What or Such introducing exclamations
    Who? with the addressee as referent
    [There may be others that I've missed.]