Wednesday, 12 October 2011

low level or low fall?

The first exercise in my book English Intonation (CUP 2006) asks the reader to observe and imitate the difference between speaking ‘normally’, i.e. with intonation superimposed on the phonetic segments of the utterance, and speaking on a monotone.
E1.1.1 Listen to the following sentences spoken (i) normally and (ii) strictly on a monotone (= the pitch of the voice stays level, not going up and not going down). Repeat them aloud in the same way.

Jacob Chu writes from Hong Kong to claim that when the female speaker says Silly old fool! for the second time she uses not a monotone but a low fall. He asks
Is a low falling nuclear tone considered a monotone?
The answer to that question is of course no.

I have listened again to the sound clip. I still hear not a low fall but a low level pattern, i.e. a monotone. Do you, too?

Anyhow, I then made a spectrogram of all ten utterances: five with intonation, five on monotones of various heights. Here it is. (As usual, click to enlarge. You can access the whole sound clip here.)
As you can see, the tracing for the fundamental frequency for the bit we are interested in (ringed in red) does seem to show two slightly falling tones.

On the face of it this looks like that bugbear of intonation work, a mismatch between what the human ear perceives and what physical measurements of the speech signal tell us.

Then again, Jacob Chu must either be a native speaker of Cantonese or at least very familiar with it. And Cantonese tone 4 is described as “low-mid to low, falling” (the IPA Handbook) or “low falling, very low level” (Wikipedia, see graphic). In Daniel Jones's description (Principles of the IPA, 1949) tone 4 is described as "low falling (with very low level as a common variant)", tone 6 as "low level (...but higher than the variant of [tone 4])".

This would suggest that speakers of Cantonese might well find it difficult to hear the difference between low fall and very low level, since both map onto their tone 4 (as against a not-maximally-low low level, which maps onto tone 6). Could it be that Jacob’s L1 is influencing his perception? Or is it my L1 influencing mine? Or do we just say that different people sometimes hear the same physical reality differently?


  1. Hm. As a native speaker of Serbian, I seem to have the same problem as Jacob with both of those low level monotone sentences (your rendition of 'What do I do now?' and 'Silly old fool' as uttered by the female voice).

    Now, I don't doubt that I could tell which one was which if I heard back to back two recordings of the same sentence, one aimed to be a low level monotone, and one with a low fall. But hearing the monotone as produced above on its own... I wouldn't find it extraordinary, nor would I immediately peg it as a monotone.

    None of this holds true for the high level monotones, which are very conspicuosly monotone to me.

  2. «speakers of Cantonese might well find it difficult to hear the difference between low fall and very low level, since both map onto their tone 4»

    My explanation exactly, before I even read that. I doubt if the hedging which follows is necessary! What is more, Daniel Jones's description (Principles of the IPA, 1949) "low falling (with very low level as a common variant)" suggests that the low falling variant is the canonical one, so that a NS would not only have learnt NOT to hear the difference, but would tend to perceive both as the canonically low falling variant, and even with a trained ear, could well be influenced by that perception in cases like this in another language.

    I was prepared to believe that the intended monotone in English might nevertheless have a fall audible even to a NS of English, but no, like you I hear not a low fall but a low level pattern, i.e. a monotone.

    I was prepared also to believe that my hearing of that would be inconclusive, as there might be some similarly distracting free variance in English intonation, but no, the "very low" monotone is a recognizable intonation in its own right, with completely different connotations from the low fall with which I said it for comparison. In my English at least there is distinct distinctive function there!

  3. I also hear the monotones as monotones, and I perceive them as being sung recitativo rather than spoken.

  4. I wish a NS of Cantonese or any other tonal language had answered the question about Cameron’s speech.
    I understand that the reason why they are so sensitive to tone is because in their languages it plays a whole different role. So can they understand the role of tone in non-tonal languages?

  5. John C,
    As my earlier comment would suggest, I don't perceive all of them in that way, but the versicular one I certainly do. Parsonical influence there, I think. Is that you, John W?

  6. Native speaker of both Cantonese and English here (also musically trained, but only a beginner linguist):

    On my first casual listen to the clip, I thought I heard a falling intonation too, but listening more carefully managed to erase that perception. I wonder if also the tendency to perceive a fall at the sentence final position is significant, since I intuitively feel that Cantonese declarative sentences don't fall as much in intonation overall compared to English (so over compensatory perception?). But I may totally be off the mark here.

    Antonio: despite having lexical tone, yes, we have also intonation at the sentence level.

  7. Yes, "O Lord open thou our lips" is an antiphonal versicle from the Book of Common Prayer, often sung (chanted). Response: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise. (I am not John Cowan.)

  8. No of course you're not John Cowan. I addressed him as John C and you as John W, with the question "Is that you?" And is it? The antiphonal one, I mean. Don't be coy about your antiphonal accomplishments (or your parsonical genes).

  9. Oh, I see, you're asking if I am the first speaker on the clip. Yes, I am. The second is Jill House. Eight people took part in the recordings.

  10. Thank you. Unreasonable demands have been made of late (by understandably disappeared commentators) on your attention to your readers' comments, and I was afraid my prolixity may have been one of them. Well it is, sort of, so I am grateful for even a cursory glance.

  11. I'm a native speaker of English and to me the way the woman says "silly old fool" doesn't sound terribly out of the ordinary.

  12. The way she says it at the very end of the second clip that is.

  13. It depends, yuriive, on what you mean by "out of the ordinary". The point is that it's on a monotone. True, we do sometimes use a low monotone to make sotto voce sentence-fragment comments such as this, or of course it could easily come in the tail of an utterance such as

    He's done it a\_gain_, the silly old fool.

  14. It could be that I just need to train my ears. Intonation is one of my weak points in linguistics. Even the way the woman said, "Are you ready to answer?" near the end of the second clip didn't sound so strange, but it should to a native speaker, right? Maybe my brain is sort of taking the wrong intonation and putting the right intonation in its place when I listen to it. I can't think of a better way to phrase that at the moment unfortunately. I'm clearly out of my depth here.

  15. Whether the second “Silly old fool” from the recording is heard as a low level or low fall depends on context:

    as part of a tail, such as "He's done it a\_gain_, the silly old fool."

    it is low level and as a standalone utterance, it is a low fall.

  16. My mother tongue is Spanish. I can perceive the monotones that have been discussed here, but I’m afraid I can hear a fall rise in “Lord” in the first IP of the utterance (0:22). In the second IP, the monotones are clear to me.
    Can anybody else perceive the same? Can a native speaker clarify this for me, please? Thanks!

  17. It is clearly a fall rise, yes - Oh \/Lord|...

    Sentiment can make us tremble.