Posted: Apr 28, 2012 2:57 pm
by Zwaarddijk
Side topic

Stress and prosody
In most languages, there'll be some differences between syllables. Some syllables will be more prominent, for lack of a better word. Depending on language, the difference may be one of duration, volume, manner/intensity of phonation, pitch, articulation, ...

There's several things this does:
1) In some languages, the stress occurs in a regular spot in every word, so you get like Finnish, where it occurs on (almost) every initial syllable, Polish where it occurs on pretty much every final syllable of words, etc. Secondary and even tertiary stresses may also occur. For some reason, stresses tend to repel each other, but this isn't quite absolute. This means that in a word, you seldom get two syllables next to each other where both are stressed.

Anyways, in languages with such regular stress it provides a simple cue as to where a word ends and where another begins.

2) In some languages, where the stress goes can be lexically determined. This also means there can be pairs of words that essentially are the same strings of phonemes, but have distinct stress patterns. In English, this often is used to distinguish noun-verb pairs. In some languages there's very many pairs and even triplets distinguished by stress, and there's no requirement that two words distinguished by it are related. This obviously helps less with determining where one word ends and the next begins, but increases the number of distinct words of the same length. For some reason, regular stress systems tend either to stress initial, final, next-to-final or even the one prior to that syllables; in Latin, the penultima (next to final) is stressed if it is heavy (closed or containing a long vowel or diphthong), otherwise the antepenultima. If the word only has two syllables, the first is stressed.

I've heard of a dictionary that went so far as to list six levels of stress, but I've got doubts that many linguists take that many levels seriously for most languages - the difference between say fourth and fifth levels already probably are so small that which one gets the more stress probably is rather random. With the caveat of course that over enough tries, you'd get a good idea about which one's more likely to take fourth or fifth or sixth, but still - who's going to record a hundred random utterances containing those words and measure them and make stats for it? Even then, in a dictionary-sized thing, to get every instance right you probably need rather big samples - the likelihoods stack against every single word having the samples give the right distribution.

3) In some languages, there's more than one kind of stress - e.g. most varieties of Swedish have grave accent and acute accent. In Swedish, grave accent consists of lowered pitch, acute of raised pitch. The exact contours differ a lot from region to region, and even idiolectal variation can be great.

Intonation vs. tone
There may be some almost universal traits to intonation - e.g. there's a likelihood for questions to be marked by rising intonation, although these aren't fully universal. In tonal languages, pitch is lexically or morphologically determined - that is, either the word itself isn't just a series of syllables, but a series of syllables with pitch as a property of the syllables as well. Chinese is a language most people know is tonal, but it turns out the majority of languages spoken in the world are tonal as well. Very many African, Asian, native American and so on languages are tonal. Europe is the main area where languages generally haven't been tonal.

Tone is about as important a distinguishing feature between words (most of which are monosyllabic) in Chinese, and about as important as the actual vowel quality. The tones in some variety of standard Chinese are high, mid-level rising to high, high-falling and low, but dialectal variety on them seems rather huge. Some languages only distinguish two tones, some as many as five (but never more than four levels, apparently.)

Intonation is not a thing I've thought a lot about or read a lot about, but they're things that can't be omitted entirely.