Phonetic Prosody

The Music of Speech

prosody
Prosody is concerned with the linguistic features of the implicitly musical elements of spoken language. (George Peters/Getty Images)

In phonetics, prosody (or suprasegmental phonology) is the use of pitch, loudness, tempo, and rhythm in speech to convey information about the structure and meaning of an utterance. Alternatively, in literary studies prosody is the theory and principles of versification, especially in reference to rhythm, accent and stanza.

In speech as opposed to composition, there are no full stops or capital letters, no grammatical ways in which to add emphasis as in writing.

Instead, speakers utilize prosody to add inflection and depth to statements and arguments, altering stress, pitch, loudness and tempo, which can then be translated into writing to achieve the same effect.

Further, prosody does not rely on the sentence as a basic unit, unlike in composition, often utilizing fragments and spontaneous pauses between thoughts and ideas for emphasis. This allows more versatility of language dependent on stress and intonation.

Functions of Prosody

Unlike morphemes and phonemes in composition, features of prosody cannot be assigned meaning based on their use alone, rather based on usage and contextual factors to ascribe meaning to the particular utterance.

Rebecca L. Damron notes in "Prosodic Schemas" that recent work in the field take into consideration "such aspects of interaction as how prosody can signal speakers' intentions in the discourse," rather than relying solely on semantics and the phrasing itself.

The interplay between grammar and other situational factors, Damron posits, are "intimately connected with pitch and tone, and called for a move away from describing and analyzing prosodic features as discrete units."

As a result, prosody can be utilized in a number of ways, including segmentation, phrasing, stress, accentuation and phonological distinctions in tone languages — as Christophe d'Alessandro puts it in "Voice Source Parameters and Prosodic Analysis," "a given sentence in a given context generally expresses much more than its linguistic content" wherein "the same sentence, with the same linguistic content may have plenty of different expressive contents or pragmatic meanings.

What Determines Prosody

The determining factors of these expressive contents are what help define the context and meaning of any given prosody. According to d'Alessandro these include "the identity of the speaker, her/his attitude, mood, ages, sex, sociolinguistic group and other extralinguistic features." 

Pragmatic meaning, too, help determine the prosody's intended purpose, including the attitudes of both the speaker and audience — ranging from aggressive to submissive — as well as the relationship between the speaker and the subject matter — his or her belief, confidence or assertiveness in the field.

Pitch is a great way to also determine meaning, or at least be able to ascertain the beginnings and endings of thought. David Crystal describes the relationship in "Rediscover Grammar" wherein he states "we know whether [the thought] is complete or not by the pitch of the voice. If the pitch is rising ... there are more items to come. If it is falling ... there is nothing further to come."

In any way you use it, prosody is pivotal to successful public speaking, allowing the speaker to convey a broad range of meaning in as few words as possible, relying instead on context and cues to the audience in their speech patterns.