Prosody: The Music of Language

Written by: Dain Hong / Accent Modification / March 2019

What is prosody?

Prosody is a fancy word to describe the pitch, loudness, and rhythm of speech. As these characteristics are above the level of alphabet sounds—segments—they are also known as suprasegmentals, since they are above segments. Suprasegmentals are crucial in our spoken language as 38% of a spoken message’s impact comes from our prosody. The remaining 62% can be further broken down into the words themselves (7%) and our body language (55%).  

Take for example, the words “come here.” Depending on the tone and facial expressions the words accompany, the production can be perceived as a forceful demand, a playful invitation, or even a desperate plea.


Let us further explore the musical 38% of our message’s impact to employ them with greater expertise. 


Prosody can be understood in two components: stress and intonation

What is stress?

Stress is equivalent to accentedness and can be used within the context of words and sentences. Word stress is found in words of more than one syllable, such as in popcorn, America, and celebration. To identify stress, it is important to first identify how a word breaks down into syllables. 


For the aforementioned words, the syllabification would be as follows: pop/corn, A/me/ri/ca, and ce/le/bra/tion. 


Once the words have been broken down into such consonant-vowel components—as CV structure ensures clarity in each syllable production—one can begin to identify which of the syllables receives stress. While stress is a tool native speakers employ without much analysis, English learners may require a more explicit review of stress patterns across words.   


In the three words above, the stress would fall on the bolded syllables: pop/corn, A/me/ri/ca, and ce/le/bra/tion.

Do English stress patterns lack order?

Although stress patterns may appear to lack order, rest assured that they are far from random! The stress patterns in English words are retained from their language of origin, may it be Greek, Latin, German and French, to list just a few. Due to the existence of numerous loanwords in English, there are just as many diverse stress patterns.


If you read popcorn, America and celebration aloud, how did you stress the bolded words? While there are several ways of stressing a syllable, speakers create a unique combination that they identify to fit their speaking style. Such methods of stressing include increasing pitch, increasing volume, and lengthening the syllable. Try them out and identify what feels natural to you. 


So far, we have seen that word stress can clarify a speaker’s production, thus distinguishing a fluent English speaker from one who is still familiarizing with the stress patterns of English. 


Impact of word stress on meaning

In addition to adding clarity, word stress can change meaning. We see the impact of word stress on meaning in heteronyms—words that have the same spelling but differ in pronunciation and meaning. Such heteronyms include 2-syllable words like produce, contentand reject


When the stress is placed on the first syllable, as in produce, content and reject, the word functions as a noun: the produce section, essay content, team’s rejects. Alternatively, when the stress falls on the final syllable, as in produce, content and reject, the word receives verbal or adjectival qualities: produce berries, be content, reject them. 

Having recognized the impact of stress on the clarity and meaning of a word, one must apply it masterfully. 

What about intonation?

Intonation is the second aspect of prosody. This component, unlike stress, is observed only within the context of sentences and can be understood as the rise and fall of the voice. While there are simple and compound tones to indicate polarity—the truth of a statement or whether something is known versus unknown—we explore two basic intonations: falling and rising. 


A falling intonation involves the voice falling on the final stressed syllable of a phrase or sentence. Such an intonation denotes certainty in a statement: There are no more doughnuts. This same falling intonation is used in wh-questions. Such are questions starting with words like who, what, where, when, why, and how: Where have you been? 


In contrast to the falling intonation that can grammatically indicate both a definite statement and a wh-inquiry, the rising pattern is observed only in yes-no questions:Are you going out tonight? In recent decades, a phenomenon coined valley girl speakor uptalkhas gained popularity. This is the approach of producing a statement with a rising intonation. With this approach, even the most definite of statements can exude doubt and hesitation. Try reading these sentences with a rising intonation and evaluate the level of certainty you display: Hi, my name is (your name). Yesterday I (what you did). Today I am (what you will do).  Although you are stating facts and plans, the intonation contradicts your certainty. 

Now what?

Overall, prosody—as understood through stress and intonation—has multiple layers that subtly yet dynamically impact our message’s meanings. To send messages that are reflective of one’s moods and attitudes, one must have refined control over the pitch, loudness and rhythm of their voice. 

Crombie, W. (1987) "Intonation in English: A systematic perspective".

McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (1995). Messages, the communication book. p. 5-79 Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

If you desire to master the music of language, book an initial consultation with us today!