Tuesday 8 June 2010

nouns and verbs

Tami Date wrote to me about a textbook he was reviewing. In one exercise, students were given a printed dialogue that read in part as follows.
John: There are many students from different countries in our school.
Su Chol: What language do you speak to each other?
John: We all speak English.
Yong Sil: Do you speak English at home, Salma?
Salma: No, I don't. I speak my mother tongue, Swahili. Are there any Korean high schools in Tokyo?
Su Chol: Yes, there's one. There's a Korean university, too...
Salma: By the way, when did Koreans come to Japan?
Yong Sil: Our great-grandparents came over to Japan before 1945. Then Korea was under Japanese rule....

(He makes no comment, and neither do I, on the extreme implausibility of the wording in this invented dialogue. Can you imagine live human beings talking like this to one another? Nor can I.)

Tami asks about nucleus placement in the second line. He thinks, rightly, that the nucleus should go on language.
What language do you speak to each other?

Yet if we apply the rule of thumb that the nucleus goes on the last new lexical item, we would expect it to go on speak.
(?) What language do you speak to each other?

Tami defends his view by saying that there is a hierarchy of accentability among lexical words, in which nouns rank first because of their richer semantic value.

I’m not sure that I would know how to measure so nebulous a quality as ‘semantic value’, but Tami is certainly right that nouns tend to be preferred over other parts of speech when we assign the nucleus. I touch on this point in my English Intonation book, §3.29.
…a more general tendency: we put the nucleus on a noun where possible, in preference to other word classes.
This is seen in various constructions which involve having a verb at the end of a sentence or clause. A final verb is usually deaccented, and the nucleus goes on a preceding noun.
ˈHow’s the ˈhomework going?
I’ve ˈstill got an ˈessay to write.
ˈWhich ˈbook did you choose?
You can contrast the Which/what/whose N type with the case where there is no overt noun, so that the nucleus defaults to the verb:
ˈWhich did you ˈchoose?
ˈWhat ˈbooks are you reading?
ˈWhat are you ˈreading?

Going back to the example from the dialogue, we would have
ˈWhat ˈlanguage do you speak?
ˈWhat do you ˈspeak?


  1. I would think that "What language" as a whole would receive stress, with the syllables "what" and "lang" on the same (high) level, and a drop after that. This as opposed to stressing only "lang", in case "language" is somehow contrastive ("I wasn't referring to your accent, but to what *language* you speak").

  2. Kilian: I agree that "What language" is the ‘focus domain’. But in my analysis, the nucleus goes not on a phrase, not on a word, but on a syllable. (This avoids the absurdity of claiming, for example, that the last syllable of "language" is stressed.)
    You're quite right that "which/what" would be accented, which is why I wrote an accent mark before it in the examples at the bottom. The actual pitch patterns that result depend on the choice of "tone", and you are right in what you say about likely high pitch on "what". However, other tones are possible. For the sake of clarity, I am here discussing only tonicity (not tone, and not tonality).
    I think it is important to keep the difference between tonicity and tone clear in one’s mind.

  3. As an admirer of David Brazil, I look to pragmatic, not formal, considerations.

    There are students from different countries in the school. It is pragmatically straightforward to gather that at least some of these students are speakers of foreign languages. Equally, one gathers that within the school they are obliged to, and probably actually desire to speak to each other.

    So, Su Choi is represented as taking speak to each other as given information. John has sort-of implied ('implicated' perhaps?) that this happens. But he he has said nothing that would suggest What language. That's the new information and that's why it receives what Brazil calls the 'proclaiming tone'.

    There's a Hallidayan way of expressing this, probably more precisely. But Halliday's terminology is a pain — forever using close cognates for contrasting concepts. Generally it's too confusing for me to remember more than a day or so after reading him.

  4. Just a thought that I only half believe. We are talking about fronted interrogative phrases, so, in a very abstract way, we might say that rule concerning nucleus placement on the last new lexical item still holds, only that that item is fronted in interrogatives: you speak what language- what language do you speak? you wear what size shoes -- what size shoes do you wear? Just a thought...

  5. David C: sorry you find Halliday’s terminology difficult. If so, replace “tonicity” by “(last item in) focus” (or “nucleus placement” or “tonic placement”), replace “tonality” by “chunking”, and replace “tone” by “contour selection” or something of the sort.
    My point remains: I am discussing only the first. Whether we have a fall (“proclaiming”) or a rise (“referring”) — both are possible — is a different issue from the one I am addressing.
    The problem Tami asks about can be reformulated as asking why speak is not in focus, given that it too appears to be new information.

  6. This failure to stress verbs is found in other languages as well. In German, when a nonfinite verb form is found at the end of the sentence, the main sentence stress is usually NOT found on it, despite being the rightmost element. For example, "I read a book" is Ich habe ein ˈBuch> gelesen, not *Ich habe ein Buch geˈlesen. In Vedic Sanskrit, finite verbs don't receive any pitch accent, and in Greek, they get the "automatic default" stress rule rather than word-specific lexical stress that nouns and adjectives get, leading Indo-Europeanists to assume that finite verbs were unaccented in the proto-language as well.

  7. John

    Thanks for the mnemonic for tonicity, tonality and tone. I do understand Halliday while I'm reading him — it's remembering the argument that's the problem.

    I've always believed that given and new information in cases like this are assumptions in the mind of the speaker.

    Sometimes the speaker fails to appreciate that the hearer may not share his or her assumption. Sometimes the speaker uses intonation to signal the assumption. In this case, I feel there's an 'understood' inference

    [You must speak to each other.]
    What language do you speak?

    I hadn't spotted that you didn't assign a contour to language. I read it to my inner ear with a fall.

    This is an intonation that I associate with signalling inference. Indeed, i can imagine myself saying

    You speak ̀ English to each other

    as a yes-no question.

    I could make the inference aspect clearer by adding something lexical e.g.

    You speak ̀ English to each other, then

    This is still declarative — which makes it a risky conversational ploy. Utterances like this may confuse the hearer, prompting the response:

    Are you asking me or telling me?

    I could make the interrogation clearer with a question tab. This leads into the interesting but rare grammatical context where the tag does not have 'reversed polarity':

    You speak ̀ English to each other, then, do you?

  8. Sorry, make that 'question tag'.

  9. Mr Wells,
    I admire your work. I wanted to ask you if you have ever worked with spontaneous, or natural, speech in conversations, as I am currently working on my thesis with this type of corpus.


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