As the Guardian comments, the British Prime Minister David Cameron’s declaration in support of gay marriage yesterday at the close of the annual conference of the Conservative party
…was revealing, and not only of the oceanic distance that now separates British conservatives from their counterparts in the US, where such a statement is unimaginable from someone in Cameron’s position.
It also supplies us with an excellent example of how intonation disambiguates what would otherwise be a structurally ambiguous assertion.
On paper, the words I don’t support gay marriage might seem to imply that Cameron doesn’t support gay marriage. But if you listen to the clip (and are sensitive to English NS intonation) you will see that he is saying precisely the opposite. He does support gay marriage. He thinks that this support is not opposed to Conservative principles, but follows from them. Like all marriage, gay marriage is a form of commitment, and he’s all in favour of people being committed to one another.
With intonation marked up, his words (0:37-0:45 on the clip) are
So ˈI don’t supˈport gay \/marriage | in \/spite of °being a Con°servative. ||
\/I sup°port gay °marriage | because I \am a Con°servative. ||
In English intonation: an introduction (CUP 2006), p. 32, I wrote
The fall-rise tone has a special function in a negative sentence. Namely, it indicates that the scope of negation includes the word bearing the nucleus, but not the main verb (unless the main verb itself bears the nucleus). A falling tone, on the other hand, does not restrict the scope of the negation in this way.
I can see now that this wording is not quite correct. It does not cover cases like this, where the speaker chooses to divide his assertion into two intonation phrases, which means there are two nuclei. Here, it is the fall-rise on spite that marks its inclusion in the scope of the negation (‘I support gay marriage, but not in spite of being a Conservative’).
To illustrate this point in my book I chose an example which is (I hope) easier to grasp.
(i) She ˈdidn’t do it because she was \/tired. (= She did it, but for some other reason.)
(ii) She ˈdidn’t \/do it | because she was \tired. (= She didn’t do it. Here’s why.)
How many foreign learners, and of what language background, immediately get this intonation distinction? What other languages disambiguate the scope of negatives in this way? What are the implications for mutual intelligibility between NSs and NNSs?