Suprasegmental Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

woman talking to a cat
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In speech, suprasegmental refers to a phonological property of more than one sound segment. Also called nonsegmental, the term suprasegmental, which was coined by American structuralists in the 1940s, is used to refer to functions that are "over" vowels and consonants.

Suprasegmental information applies to several different linguistic phenomena (including pitch, duration, and loudness). Suprasegmentals are often regarded as the "musical" aspects of speech.

How We Use Suprasegmentals

"The effect of suprasegmentals is easy to illustrate. In talking to a cat, a dog or a baby, you may adopt a particular set of suprasegmentals. Often, when doing this, people adopt a different voice quality, with high pitch register, and protrude their lips and adopt a tongue posture where the tongue body is high and front in the mouth, making the speech sound 'softer.'"
"Suprasegmentals are important for marking all kinds of meanings, in particular speakers' attitudes or stances to what they are saying (or the person they are saying it to), and in marking out how one utterance relates to another (e.g. a continuation or a disjunction). Both the forms and functions of suprasegmentals are less tangible than those of consonants and vowels, and they often do not form discrete categories."

(Richard Ogden, An Introduction to English Phonetics. Edinburgh University Press, 2009)

Common Suprasegmental Features

"Vowels and consonants are considered as small segments of the speech, which together form a syllable and make the utterance. Specific features that are superimposed on the utterance of the speech are known as supra-segmental features. Common supra-segmental features are the stress, tone, and duration in the syllable or word for a continuous speech sequence. Sometimes even harmony and nasalization are also included under this category. Supra-segmental or prosodic features are often used in the context of speech to make it more meaningful and effective. Without supra-segmental features superimposed on the segmental features, a continuous speech can also convey meaning but often loses the effectiveness of the message being conveyed."

(Manisha Kulshreshtha at al., "Speaker Profiling." Forensic Speaker Recognition: Law Enforcement and Counter-Terrorism, ed. by Amy Neustein and Hemant A. Patil. Springer, 2012)

Varieties of Suprasegmentals

"A very obvious suprasegmental is intonation since an intonation pattern by definition extends over a whole utterance or a sizable piece of an utterance. ... Less obvious is stress, but not only is stress a property of a whole syllable but the stress level of a syllable can only be determined by comparing it with neighboring syllables which have greater or lesser degrees of stress."
"The American structuralists also treated juncture phenomena as suprasegmental. Differences in juncture are the reason that night rate does not sound like nitrate, or why choose like white shoes, and why the consonants in the middle of pen-knife and lamp-post are the way they are. Since these items contain essentially the same sequences of segments, the junctural differences have to be described in terms of different juncture placement within sequences of segments."
"In most of these cases, the phonetic realization of the suprasegmental actually extends over more than one segment, but the key point is that, in all of them, the description of the suprasegmental must involve reference to more than one segment." 

(R.L. Trask, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts, 2nd ed., edited by Peter Stockwell. Routledge, 2007)

Suprasegmental Information

"Suprasegmental information is signaled in speech with variations in duration, pitch, and amplitude (loudness). Information like this helps the hearer segment the signal into words, and can even affect lexical searches directly."
"In English, lexical stress serves to distinguish words from each other...for example, compare trusty and trustee. Not surprisingly, English speakers are attentive to stress patterns during lexical access."
"Suprasegmental information can be used to identify the location of word boundaries also. In languages like English or Dutch, monosyllabic words are durationally very different than polysyllabic words. For example, the [hæm] in ham has longer duration than it does in hamster. An investigation by Salverda, Dahan, and McQueen (2003) demonstrates that this durational information is actively used by the hearer."

(Eva M. Fernández and Helen Smith Cairns, Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

Suprasegmental and Prosodic

"Although the terms 'suprasegmental' and 'prosodic' to a large extent coincide in their scope and reference, it is nevertheless sometimes useful, and desirable, to distinguish them. To begin with, a simple dichotomy 'segmental' vs. 'suprasegmental' does not do justice to the richness of phonological structure 'above' the segment;...this structure is complex, involving a variety of different dimensions, and prosodic features cannot simply be seen as features which are superimposed on segments. More importantly, a distinction can be made between 'suprasegmental' as a mode of description on the one hand and 'prosodic' as a kind of feature on the other. In other words, we may use the term 'suprasegmental' to refer to a particular formalization in which a phonological feature can be analyzed in this way, whether it is prosodic or not."
"The term 'prosodic,' on the other hand, can be applied to certain features of utterances regardless of how they are formalized; prosodic features can, in principle, be analyzed segmentally as well as suprasegmentally. To give a more concrete example, in some theoretical frameworks features such as nasality or voice may be treated suprasegmentally, as having extended beyond the limits of a single segment. In the usage adopted here, however, such features are not prosodic, even though they may be amenable to suprasegmental analysis." 

(Anthony Fox, Prosodic Features and Prosodic Structure: The Phonology of Suprasegmentals. Oxford University Press, 2000)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Suprasegmental Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Suprasegmental Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Suprasegmental Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).