Thursday 15 October 2009

nuclear-free zones

The recorded voice of the tour guide that comes over the headphones provided in the Seoul City Tour Bus is available in five languages. The English one is spoken by a Korean lady with an excellent American English accent.
But every now and again she says something in a way no native speaker of English would. She uses a non-English intonation pattern. It’s not a matter of the choice between rises, falls and fall-rises; it’s not the division into chunks. It’s the location of the accents.
The National Theater | is divided into a large theater | and a small theater.

If a native speaker distributed accents in that way you’d think he must be suffering from some kind of pragmatic defect (the kind that SLTs used to call “bizarre use of language”).
The problem is the speaker’s placing of the nuclear accent on repeated occurrences of the same word.
What I would say, reading these same words from a script, is
The National Theater | is divided into a large theater | and a small theater.

An Indian speaker at the conference I attended in the same city spoke of
the world’s alphabets, | including the Indian alphabet.

A Thai lady told us about the two types of syllable in Thai:
ˈlive /syllables | and ˈdead \syllables.

These are all instances of the same failure by users of English as an International Language to place the nucleus correctly (which even Jennifer Jenkins thinks they should).

As well as making them sound bizarre to us native speakers, it means, too, that EIL users are missing out receptively on part of the richness of linguistic and pragmatic information that native speakers of English convey through intonation.


  1. That is one of those things where one tends to think it's against universal logic, not just against a single language's arbitrary habits. It seems normal to stress the distinguishing, not the common part.

  2. Unrelated, but while on a bus tour of Berlin, there was a language option called 'Interskan' alongside others such as German, English, French.

    It's obviously intended for speakers of all North Germanic languages, but I don't know how it works and it's the only time I've ever seen a reference to Interskan.

  3. I'm not sure we're (all) losing out. There are plenty of nuances that I'm aware of - and likely also unaware of - that I can understand, but cannot reliably reproduce, myself.

    In my case voicing and rounding are issues. But even if I conflate luck/lock or sink/zink in my own speech, I don't believe I ever do so while listening.

  4. care to venture an explanation? (what do you know about the way things are in their respective native languages?) it's hard to believe in pragmatically "less endowed" languages, obviously something gets "lost in translation" and the clauses are enunciated quasi out of context

  5. Some languages do not operate an intonational focus system (tonicity, accentuation). Even those that do may lack the English system of distinguishing between old (given, repeated, background) information and new (foreground) information by accenting the latter but not the former.
    We Germanic speakers tend (like Lipman) to think it's a matter of universal logic, but it isn't.

    1. I was thinking the same. At first I thought "C'mon man, stress the new information! How can you not realize that's what you have to do? You're a tourist guide!"

      But the, I rememberded that tonal languages like chinese use tone to distinguish between different words, so they need special particles to realize the 'question' o the 'exclamation' aspect of a sentence, or to emphasise .

      For example:
      ni hao (you good) Hello
      ni hao ma? (you good?) How are you?,or.r_cp.&bvm=bv.124272578,d.Y2I&biw=1366&bih=636&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=es&client=tw-ob#zh-CN/en/%E4%BD%A0%E5%A5%BD!%0A%E4%BD%A0%E5%A5%BD%E5%90%97%3F

      PD: I know I might have made a salad of concepts, but I think you'll get it.

  6. Just out of curiosity: what does "SLT" stand for?

  7. The robot voice that announces stops on the MBTA in Boston has a similar problem: all words were rendered with what one might call "citation intonation". So every evening on my way home I hear "Common. Street. Cushing. Square."

    Also: I am unfamiliar with the notation conventions in your transcription of the Thai lady's explanation of Thai syllables. What do / and \ mean? And if underscoring marks stress, what does the stress-mark ' mean?

  8. Here's another category of speakers who regularly make such errors: bad actors. It's remarkable how ofter I hear native English speakers turning Shakespeare into perfect nonsense with this sort of misapplication of the tools of intonation.

  9. SLT = speech and language therapist
    Intonation notation as in my book English Intonation. (ˈ = accent; underlining = nuclear accent; \ = fall, / = rise.)

  10. [part deux] but if these languages are -- from our "parochial" germanic viewpoint -- handicapped, they certainly wouldn't lack the syntactic counterparts of these pragmatic phenomena: ellipsis, pronouns, auxiliaries, ..., would they? (perhaps there is a connection between this pragmatic "deficiency" and tonality?)

  11. @ lipman
    I am Italian and to me it doesn't seem normal not to stress the last word of the phrase. There may be cases where you need to highlight a word inside the phrase, but the last word has to have at least the same degree of stress, otherwise the phrase just doesn't sound complete.

  12. This is hard to believe, or rather, I might not quite understand what you mean.

    I'm sure you would stress large and small more than theatre. That doesn't mean theatre is inaudible.

    Even when you say the last word of a phrase has to be stressed for you, that would refer to the last intonational entity.

    Just translate the sentence to Italian! Would you really stress the word teatro each time, not the adjectives?

  13. I am afraid that that particular sentence would not work, because in Italian the adjective is normally after the noun, so it would be:

    "Il Teatro Nazionale e' diviso in un teatro grande ed un teatro piccolo" (it is obvious that "grande" e "piccolo" will be stressed).

    However, it would work in this sentence:

    "Porto una giacca rossa ed una cravatta rossa" (I am wearing a red jacket and a red tie).

    In this case you may highlight "cravatta" slightly, but you would give the biggest stress on "rossa", regardless of the fact that the information is old.

    To us, the last word always has to close the phrase.

  14. I'm afraid I disagree. If in your example, rosso is really the topic and giacca/cravatta is the comment (new, rheme), you'd stress giacca and cravatta.

    If this is not so, and you're simply listing articles of clothing with no particular interest in the fact that both amazingly share the colour, you'd indeed stress as you describe.

  15. We can agree to disagree if you like, but I really wish I could hear you say "giacca rossa e cravatta rossa" in Italian without sounding incredibly English native speaker.

    This is a better example: "non porto una giacca rossa, ma una camicia rossa" (I'm not wearing a red jacket but a red shirt), as there can be no doubt that this is not about listing articles of clothing.

    You certainly would need to emphasise "camicia" by placing more stress than usually, but the final word "rossa" would have the most pitch variation, or at least it would have the same amount of pitch variation that is always necessary to close any phrase in Italian.

  16. I'm quite sure we mean the same, but hear differently.

  17. Meant to say express ourselves differently.

  18. I believe that indeed the best way to put it is that some languages (like Italian and probably the majority of the others) are "nuclear-free".

    In these languages there is no such a thing as a nucleus that gets all the stress (or the pitch variation) of the phrase, but all the words have some degree of pitch variation.
    In particular, the last one always has a fairly big degree of pitch variation because it has to "close" the phrase, while the internal words may also have a high degree, but only if there is a reason to put emphasis on them.

  19. "a way no native speaker of English would" -- not quite! Contrastive stress is lacking in certain types of Hawaiian English, spoken natively by said Hawaiians.

  20. I remember reading about the incomprehension of (some) Spanish-speakers when a native English speaker tried to use contrastive stress within a word (as is commonplace in English), producing something like this:

    Sómbrero o súmbrero?


  21. David Marjanović24 October 2009 at 16:01

    So Germanic languages have contrastive stress... which others do?

    I've never noticed a lack of contrastive stress in French. Is it present, or have I been fooled by my native German?


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