Thursday 6 October 2011

scope disambiguation

Have a look at this clip.

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?


  1. Dutch does the same, although I'm not sure about the exact intonation contours:
    (i) Ze deed het niet omdat ze /moe \was.
    (ii) Ze /deed het niet | omdat ze /moe \was.

    I think the up on "moe" is stronger in (i).

  2. I have no difficulty understanding Cameron's statement. I can't say if that is because Dutch works the same, but I wouldn't be surprised. (Dutch being my L1)

  3. - "She ˈdidn’t do it because she was \/tired" would be (in Spanish): ˈNo lo hizo porque ESTUVIERA (subjunctive) can\sada.
    - "She ˈdidn’t \/do it | because she was \tired" would translate as: ˈNo lo /hizo | porque ESˈTABA (indicative) can\sada.

    As regards "So ˈI don’t supˈport gay \/marriage", could this be considered an instance of leading "dependent (?)" fall-rise, merely implying that there is more to come?

  4. In French, it's just as in English : you can have these very same two written sentences that mean the opposite just through an intonation effect :
    (i) Elle ne l'a pas fait parce qu'elle était fatiguée. (low-toned syllable "fait",lower than "pas"; high-toned syllable "-guée", higher than "fa" and "ti".) (= She did it, but for some other reason.)
    (ii) Elle ne l'a pas fait, parce qu'elle était fatiguée. (high-toned syllable "fait", higher than "pas"; + pause after "fait"; low-toned syllable "-guée", lower than "fa" and "ti"). (= She didn’t do it. Here’s why.)

    Jérôme Poirrier

  5. I got it. I am Danish. And I think Danish does the same. I am not fully sure about the exact contours, but I think it looks a bit like this:

    'Jeg støtter ikke 'homoægteskaber ... (I do support)

    Jeg 'støtter 'ikke 'homoægteskaber ... (I don't support)

  6. In German: Ich unterstütze gleichgeschlechtliche Ehen | nicht ob/wohl ich ein Konservativer bin, sondern (gerade) \weil ich ein Konservativer bin. I would insert a short pause before nicht although it's not obligatory.

  7. American English is a different language as far as intonation is concerned. If a (brave) American politician said this, I'd expect contrastive stress on spite as marked, but with the other contrastive stress on (be)cause, plus high pitch on spite. Contrastive stress on am would be possible, but I myself find it less natural; in fact, I would normally reduce I am to unstressed I'm here.

    In your other example, in the first example I'd expect a somewhat exaggerated pronunciation of tired carrying a high-low pitch even among speakers who normally smooth it to [taːd]. In the second example, there would be a short break after do it which would be conspicuously absent in the first example. In either case, the sentential stresses would be on do and tired.

  8. Hi, I'm Spanish. I ratify Beatrice Portinari but I also affirm that in informal Spanish you can say both sentences with the same wording, following the same intonation patterns than in your English examples:

    No lo ˈhizo porque estaba \/cansada. (= She did do it, but not because of being tired)
    No lo \/hizo | porque estaba \cansada. (= She didn't do it, that's why).

  9. @ Simon: You're probably right, but I would trigger the onset on "No" (in both sentences) and on "-ta-" (in the third IP).

    @ myself: IF "So ˈI don’t supˈport gay \/marriage", was considered an instance of leading "dependent (?)" fall-rise, then it would mean that Mr Cameron doesn't really support gay marriage.

  10. In Porteño or River Plate Spanish, I would use the following intonation patterns:

    No lo \hizo porque estaba cansada.

    The version for the second example would be the same as Simon's, with the possibility of using a level tone instead of a fall rise in "hizo"

    No lo >hizo | porque estaba \cansada.

    I wonder if it would be possible to have a fall rise in "didn't" instead of in "tired" and still convey the same idea in English in the first example.

  11. @ María Lafayette:

    If I remember rightly, when you have a fall rise in the negator the whole intonation phrase is negated, so that:
    - In "I ˈdon't want to \/kill it" the negation refers only to "kill" (and we could continue by saying "...I just want to capture it").
    - In "I \/don't want to kill it" the negation would refer to the whole sentence (and we could add "...but I might change my mind").

    As to "She \/didn’t do it because she was tired", I find now that I'm at a complete loss. Could a native speaker help us? -David Crosbie, Sidney Wood, Lipman, Mallamb, John Wells, JWL, John Cowan, John Maidment,... GLENN GORDON!!!

  12. Gulp! I swear I didn't misspell your name on purpose, GLEN.

  13. Beatrice

    I don't claim to be an expert, but since you've named me I'll tell you what I reckon I would hear and/or say.

    I can heart myself saying She didn't do it because she was tired with a fall-rise in two distinct ways:

    1 with all the pitch movement on the word didn't

    In this case
    didn't would carry contrastive stress
    • I would interpret it as a contrast with something recently said, or with an implicit context
    • I would make a second unit of because she was tired with stress and falling intonation on tired

    For example:
    Then it was Jenny's turn to do it. She didn't do it because she was tired.

    Thus in case [1]
    • She didn't do it
    • She was tired

    2 with the pitch movement distributed over the whole sentence

    In this case
    didn't would carry stress and a fall
    tired would carry stress and a rise
    • I would interpret it as setting up a contrast with a following expression or with words subsequently left unsaid

    For example
    She didn't do it because she was tired, but because she angry.
    She didn't do it because she was tired. I think you know what I'm saying.

    Thus in case [2]
    • She did do it
    • She may or may not have been tired
    • She did it for some other reason

    There is, I suppose, a third way of saying it, albeit a very difficult one to pull off.

    3 with no intonation-bearing stress after didn't

    In this case
    do it because she was tired must be said in a brisk monotone (or continuation of the rise in didn't) with the minimum of secondary stress
    • The words do it because she was tired must be perceivable as an echo — therefore those exact words (or most of them) should have recently been uttered

    For example
    Everybody was certain she would do it because she was tired. But she didn't do it because she was tired. She just disappeared.

    Thus in case [3]
    • She probably didn't do it
    • She probably was tired
    • Either way, she didn't fulfil expectations

    This third way is hard to say, and there's no guarantee that the hearer would understand it as intended. Perhaps the most plausible context is in rehearsed storytelling with frequent stylised repetitions.

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  15. Thank you very much, Beatrice Portinari and David Crosbie! I've erased my previous comment because I had posted it before noticing Mr Crosbie had given such clear explanations!

    Anyway, I would like to share some more comments as to how the question came to mind. It happened when I discovered that in my version of Spanish, the first sentence would have a fall rise in “cansada” (“tired”) only if the word were to be clearly exposed. In written form, punctuation would fulfill that function by means of inverted commas, implying, “Come on! You and I know that’s not the real reason why she did it,” or “She says she was tired, but we know that’s not true.” Using a falling tone in “hizo”, I would imply that I simply want to correct the interlocutor without suggesting that he/she already knows what I know.

    Then, when I compared the unmarked form in Spanish with a similar intonation pattern in English, placing an early nucleus in “didn’t”, the version seemed to have implications similar to those in the original one in English, but I didn’t know if I had that idea because my mother tongue was misleading me. It seemed to be a question of tonicity, after all.

    Thanks again!

  16. @ David: As always, thank you -I'm just printing your answer.

    @ María Lafayette:
    An amazing (or perhaps not that much) thing: I've been thinking about the (Spanish) intonation patterns that you mention, and I have to say that I agree with you entirely (Simon Per was definitely right too). I mean I would also use them; free speech is much more complex than what one can imagine. My first comment seems to me rather stereotyped now.

    Your name is just beautiful, María Lafayette. Had I heard of it before I would have adopted it instead of BP.

  17. As I said, when it comes to intonation I don't speak English at all, never mind natively.


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