Wednesday 6 October 2010

intonation idioms

Imagine you’re a non-native speaker. You want to perform a dialogue that includes this exchange:
A: Let’s have another drink.
B: Now there’s a thought!
You want to decide on an appropriate intonation pattern for what B says. You apply the rules: locate the nucleus on the last new lexical item, unless there is a reason such as contrastive focus for it to go somewhere else.
You conclude that the nucleus should go on thought, which is actually the only lexical item available. You come up with
B: Now there’s a \thought.
Moreover, you might logically expect there’s to be weakened, and say
B: (ˈ)naʊ ðəz ə \θɔːt
Unfortunately, any native speaker will be able to tell you that this pattern is impossible in this context (or at best highly unlikely). What we would actually get in real life is
B: naʊ \ðeəz ə θɔːt
or possibly, though in my view less probably,
B: naʊ \ðeəz | ə /θɔːt
A nuclear accent goes on the demonstrative there’s. (The meaning of the whole is also idiomatic: something like “What a good idea!”.)

Cases such as this, where the typical NS pattern doesn’t result from the intonation rules we teach NNS learners, are in my analysis intonational idioms. I am always interested in collecting instances of such idioms. In my book (English Intonation, CUP 2006, page 172, or in the Japanese translation page 256) I give a number of examples similar to this one, with a nucleus idiomatically placed on a demonstrative (that or there).
What’s ˈthat supposed to mean?
You can say \that again!
\There’s a clever dog!

It explains nothing simply to claim that the speaker chooses to emphasize the demonstrative, treating the deixis as especially important (or some such wording).

My ideal is to supply EFL learners with an algorithm that enables them to predict with confidence an appropriate spoken intonation pattern for any written fragment of dialogue. Where I fail in this ambition, I may need to refine my rules. Failing that, I call the pattern idiomatic.


  1. I'd say the underlying logic for this pattern is:

    - Let's go home.
    -- Here's something not worth to be called a thought.
    - Let's have another drink.
    -- Now there's a thought.

  2. I suspect that it has something to do with 'this', 'that' and 'there' all being proforms. Note that the intonation pattern would be the same with "Now THAT's a thought!" even if that's deviating from the idiom a bit.

  3. I agree with Lipman: there's an implicit contrast with all the other things the speaker could have said at that point. A similar phrase is: 'Now you're talking!'

  4. Yes, but with respect - how does any of this help the NNS arrive at the right pattern?
    It's all too easy to think up an explanation after the fact.

  5. I asked my NNS wife if it was difficult to learn.

    Why not?
    You hear it.

    The lesson is: if teachers want students to learn it, they should keep saying Now there's an idea at every opportunity — but without comment.

    If you teach intonation ( which, sadly, few EFL teachers do), make sure that they know the contour before they know that it's an exception.

  6. wow, excellent posts ! But even better if you can record audio clips for the subject sentence!

    Actually I've just purchased your book yesterday, I really hope that the accompanying CD can cover all dialogues in the Exercises as it is sometimes quite difficult for non-native like me to put the theory into practice even with the transcription. Never learned from school, so more illustrations will definitely help!

    All the best !~

  7. Stressing the words in question seems the intuitive thing to do. I find stressing "thought" would make less sense, in spite of the fact that you have to assume the contrast to stress "there".

    That's so at least for the last example you cite; the frst two are different, and in theory (ie to the NNS), stressing "mean" would make sense, too, I think:

    What’s ˈthat supposed to mean?
    You can say \that again!
    \There’s a clever dog!

  8. Jérôme Poirrier6 October 2010 at 18:47

    I agree with Lipman and Steve Doerr that "THERE's a thought" contains an implicit contrast with all the other things the speaker could have said (or did say) at some point. And I agree with Mano Zezez that "THERE's a thought" is similar to "Now THAT's a thought".

    Still, it fails to explain the genesis of "What's THAT supposed to mean".

    Now, I can think of a supplemental reason for "treating the deixis as especially important",
    after observing a correlation with something happening in French (my mother tongue).

    Indeed, the French for
    "THERE's a good idea !" can be
    "En voiLÀ une bonne idée !" or
    "VoiLÀ une bonne idée !",
    (with capital letters signaling the most accented syllable)

    and for
    "THERE's a clever dog !" it can be
    "ÇA, c'est un chien intelligent !"

    and for
    "What's THAT supposed to mean!?" it can be
    "Qu'est-ce que ça veut dire, ÇA !?"

    All this leads me to believe that those deictic words that (in both languages) receive the accent are not just any deictic words.

    Indeed, when I was a student, I had been taught that deictic words can be classified into two antagonistic sets :

    the set of "the sphere of me-speaker",
    the set of "the sphere of NOT-me" (which often matches the idea of "the sphere of YOU-listener").

    "Here, this" (French : ici, ceci, voici, ...-ci) pertain to the sphere of me,
    whereas "there, that" (French: là, cela, voilà, ...-là) pertain to "the sphere of NOT-me" or "the sphere of YOU-listener".

    So I am under the impression that the intonation sub-rule at work is "I accent a word that enables me to show I am expressing a judgment on you-listener".

    Examples :
    "THERE’s a thought !" => I approve of you.
    "THERE's a clever dog !" => I approve of you, dog.

    "What's THAT supposed to mean !?" => I disapprove of you.

    (The trickiest of all those is definitely "What's THAT supposed to mean !?", because it is the only time contrast does not seem to be a valid explanation... I wonder how offended people utter "What's THAT supposed to mean !?" in languages other than English and French...)

  9. Now what's that supposed to mean, as opposed to the unobjectionable other things you mentioned?

  10. @Jérôme Poirrier: Interesting. All of these would be "intonation idiomatic" in Polish, too. Other languages?

  11. @Jérôme Poirrier
    But you get the same intonation pattern when it's 'here' or 'this' instead of 'there' or 'that'. Google "now here's a" in quotes and you'll find plenty of examples that seem to fit exactly the same intonation pattern (Lipman actually used a construction like this in the first comment above).

  12. On the broader point, 'this' and 'that', and 'here' and 'there' are inherently contrastive pairs, so I wouldn't be surprised if the explanation flows from this.

  13. Another teaching suggestion:

    Get students to practise

    A: Let’s have another drink.
    B: Yes!

    with the target intonation. This can hardly conflict with any rules you might have taught, so it won't call for any explanation.

    Now get them to say There's an idea as a substitute for Yes with the same intonation.

    If by any chance they bring up some rule you've taught that conflicts with this, you can explain that — like a lexical idiom — it shouldn't be analysed.

  14. I've been thinking about this a bit recently. My thesis about it is quite strong - that these are fixed expressions in which the intonation is a crucial part of the meaning - sort of like an intonational 'set-play'. I'd also concur that they are highly idiomatic: in my experience they do not often translate cross-linguistically, and that other languages achieve the same effect either through differing intonation patterns or even vocal quality, e.g. creaky voice in certain varieties of Latin American Spanish.

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  16. To begin, I appreciate all this pedantic talk of rules. Yet at the same time, I'm worried for these poor students getting caught in the "academic crossfire" here. ;o)

    To me, a language is best learned in an intuitive way with free exploration, personal experimentation, encouragement of careful listening, contemplation, etc. Giving the student a list of rigid rules to memorize doesn't strike me as a good teaching technique and makes the difference between teaching someone to speak a language (while tripping over every sentence in trepidation) and COMMUNICATING with a language (flowing naturally from one's mouth as if it were one's own native tongue without fear of making mistakes... and one will... but that's okay). That's just my opinion though. I've never taught language but I have grown up in a French Immersion school system which was too caught up in teaching rules that I believe hindered my full understanding of the language, idioms and all.

    That said, what is the source and exact meaning of the intonation here. I would agree that it is a contrast. An implicit contrast between the "unmentioned, indefinite bland" and the "specific exceptional" (whether good or bad).

    So when somebody suggests to have a drink, one says "There's a thought" with emphasis on the deictic to convey that this immediate suggestion is exceptional (compared to all other thoughts by anyone at any time). Likewise "That's a good dog" implies that a particular dog is more than just good; he's exceptionally so in comparison to the average dog. "What's that supposed to mean?" compares the immediate sentence spoken by the other person with all other sentences ever spoken which are comparatively bland and uneventful.

    I also support Jérôme Poirrier's comment above on similar French intonation. English and French contours are indeed parallel in this respect. So can we really call this an "intonation idiom" or is this a tendency of languages in general?

  17. Couldn't it be explained just by exploiting the system in Brazil's terms? Intonation reflects speakers' choices and therefore it might all come down to the particular contexts in which these phrases appear and different meaning we might want to project as speakers. I can imagine other contexts for further choices..

  18. Daniela

    I'm a great fan of David Brazil's, but I don't think his system would help here. It explains that the second speaker chooses single a Proclaiming tone contour for Now there's a thought, but not (if I understand it correctly) why the contour is carried by there's.


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