Monday 26 April 2010

implicational or not?

In the trailer for a television programme yesterday the voiceover invited us to join the presenter on
what’s con\/sidered to be | one of the ˈfinest ˈwalks in \Britain.

…which led me to reflect on an ambiguity in the meaning of the English fall-rise tone.
The voiceover actor, overemphasizing things as actors tend to, caused me at first to misinterpret the intonational meaning as ‘considered to be one of the finest (but actually not one of the finest)’. That is, I took the tone to be an “implicational” fall-rise (my English Intonation – an Introduction, §2.6–7).
I realized immediately that that didn’t make pragmatic sense. What was intended was merely a dependent fall-rise (§2.20), indicating only that we have not yet reached the end of the sentence, that there is more to come.
If I had had to read the voiceover script, I think I would have removed the ambiguity by saying just
what’s considered to be one of the ˈfinest ˈwalks in \Britain.
— with no accent at all on considered. But it would also have been unambiguous to use a non-nuclear accent on considered:
what’s conˈsidered to be (ˈ)one of the ˈfinest ˈwalks in \Britain.
— though, depending on speech rate, this might produce an uncomfortably long intonational phrase.
It may be the case that the falling-rising pitch movement tends to be wider in an implicational fall-rise than in a dependent one (or for that matter than in a “tentative” one). That would explain why the actor’s animatedness led to my initial misinterpretation of his meaning: he produced a fall-rise so wide that its primary meaning would be the implicational one. I would suspect that the wider the pitch range, the more likely a fall-rise is to be interpreted as implicational, and the narrower, the more likely to be interpreted as dependent. But it might conceivably also depend on the absolute pitches used.
Does anyone know of any evidence showing whether or not pitch and meaning in the fall-rise are linked in this way?


  1. Jack Windsor Lewis26 April 2010 at 11:20

    This attention to the semantic values of falling-rising versus other pitch patterns reminds me of the fact that a principal theme of my article on 'The Teaching of English Intonation' which I contributed to the book I edited in 1995 of Studies in General and English Phonetics in Honour of J D O'Connor. The two sections of that most relevant to the present question may be seen on this website at §8 paragraphs 9 & 10 in regard to which I commented
    "Things like this cause one to wonder whether the importance of mere pitch-direction contrasts on which so much of EFL attention to prosodic features has been focused is of less importance (always excepting tonicity matters) than other features that have had less attention". To put it a bit more crudely: The purely pitch-pattern contrasts in English speech seem to me to carry very little specific semantic content at all. This example John has pointed us to only serves to confirm that view for me.

  2. Jack Windsor Lewis26 April 2010 at 11:54

    Sorry! By "this website" I me'nt

  3. What are these more important "other features that have had less attention"?

  4. I don't find the intonation so surprising. As an amateur actor and a professional teacher, I've often found it communicatively effective to deliver a script in as many tone units as I plausibly can.

    In this case, the actor (though not necessarily the scriptwriter) decided to make a tone unit of considered. Once that decision is made, the reader then chooses an intonational contour.

    This particular choice makes sense for followers of David Brazil. It can hardly be a 'proclaiming tone' -- at least not unless it's the ONLY 'tone'. That really would suggest to me that it's matter of opinion, not fact.

    In Brazil's terms, though, there are two tone units with two tones:

    what’s con\/sidered to be
    referring tone

    one of the ˈfinest ˈwalks in \Britain.
    proclaiming tone

    Brazil does recognise that a referring tone may serve to highlight a contrast. He gives the example

    I don't proclaiming
    usually referring
    like it proclaiming

    The tone group usually signals contrast in that

    ' ...a speaker articulates an assumption that a choice between usually and one or more alternative adverbials is one that his/her hearer already recognises as having significance in the ongoing business; I am drawing attention to a distinction that we already know to be relevant.'

    As I interpret this, there's a pragmatic recognition of what speaker and hearer might see as a contrast, not a semantic signal.

    That being the case, I would say that you interpreted the referring tone as a signalling a contrast because of your pragmatic assumption that is considered to be was intended to exclude the concept is.

    The actor, I presume, was thinking in terms of

    Now let's talk about reputation, when it comes to that, the verdict is....

    OK, what people 'considered' wasn't a shared topic of interest, but the actor decided to establish it as one.

    What is unusual, perhaps even odd, is to make two tone groups of the sentence. But once the actor made that decision, I think the choice of fall-rise was the natural choice.

    If I were recording the passage for a listening comprehension test, I might consider it only fair to give the testees an opportunity to notice the word considered, to decide for themselves how significant it is, to display their decision and gain credit if it's correct.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Or the reader was thinking of what mummy and the primary-school teacher said, sc. to read more slowly, or nobody will understand you. This is often done by more or less random stops and highlighting parts that wouldn't be stressed in natural speech. Alternatively, the first acting teacher told the actor to put in meaning.

  7. My primary-school teachers were so tolerant of rapid reading that I spotted it even at the age of seven. Other children were marked down for stumbling over a word, but I got away with it because my delivery was fast and fluent.

  8. As a professional actor (though not as experienced in VO as some other actors who follow this blog), I'd like to point out that actors generally are capable of giving beautifully nuanced readings, and many would prefer to do so if given the choice. For certain types of VO work, we may be directed to emphasize certain words and even syllables, no matter how eccentric we may (privately) find such a reading. Getting and keeping the gig and the paycheck is dependent on understanding the trends in the industry, and taking direction without fuss.

  9. I must wholeheartedly endorse Amy's post. I make an extremely good living in the (American) voice-over market, and I very regularly experience bizarre direction from copywriters, "directors", advertising executives and their clients. What is professionally required is to give them what they ask for and make as much sense of it as one can. Sometimes it is immediately obvious to everyone in the room that the reading makes no sense, but sometimes it's not. Occasionally, the committee of 12 directing the session will cause the actor to produce utter gobbledygook 79 different ways, and then stitch together a final edit out of the most nonsensical pieces, which gain nothing for being welded together like some unnatural beast. I don't mean that actors are incapable of coming up with nonsense on our own -- we certainly are -- but it is unsafe to assume, on hearing a reading that does violence to the language or to common sense, that it is the actor who is primarily responsible. (We have to eat...)

  10. Amy, Erik: I hope I made it clear that the error was not the actor's but mine. My point was not to criticize the actor, but to explore the ambiguity.

  11. John, I quite understand, and I apologize if I came off as prickly at all. But it is our job to make the meaning clear. Anything that we do to distract the listener from the message gets in the way of that. (This is one reason that most voice-overs -- in the US, anyway -- use some kind of "non-regional" accent. Identifiably regional accents are apparently distracting.)

    I accept that you feel it was only your heightened sensitivity to inflection that caused you to mistake his meaning, but the fact is that this sort of thing happens all too often. If he was, indeed "overemphasizing things" in a way that obscured the sense or made possible an unintended interpretation, then he was, in fact, not doing his job, or else someone else made it impossible for him to do his job (by requesting a strange stress or inflection, insisting on a line reading or choosing to use a bad take). I find that it is all to easy (even for me) to forget sometimes that the actor is not in charge of the final product -- is not even involved in the process of editing & mixing. So I like to take opportunities to point it out!

  12. Is nobody going to challenge the David Brazil line? I've always been enormously impressed by his work on intonation, but then I've never read any criticism.

  13. Well, OK, David: to proclaim that all rises and fall-rises are "referring" is not enough. You have to prove it, which Brazil never succeeded in doing. I think particularly of "truculent" rises (You \did! --- I /didn't!), which as far as I can see are no more or less "referring" than contradictory falls (You \did! --- I \didn't!), which B would have to call "proclaiming".
    In this blog I was concerned with discriminating two meanings of the fall-rise. Reformulating this as discriminating two kinds of referring tone gets us precisely nowhere.

  14. The purely pitch-pattern contrasts in English speech seem to me to carry very little specific semantic content at all. I find that it is all to easy to forget sometimes that the actor is not in charge of the final product.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.