Supra-segmental Phonemes and Phonetics

Phonemic particles that we have so far been considering such as vowels, consonants, diphthongs, etc. are called segmental phonemes. They contribute to the meaning of a speech segment. Apart from this class of segmental phonemes, there is another class of particles that’ play equally important role. These are supra-segmental phonemes.

Features of stress, pitch, intonation and juncture comprise this class, and are said to be ‘overlaid’ on the segmental units. It is difficult to imagine human communication without these features. They invariably accompany our speech and lend the additional dimension which is mote immediately and directly understood. These features convey the speaker’s identity, attitudes, emotional states and his/her evaluation of how he/she is being received. Often, in the totality of communicational situation, a listener doesnot pay so much attention to the wards as he does to the rise and fall of pitch, volume of voice, stress and pauses, and so on. He understands the meaning by simply responding to these extra-linguistic indices.

We will now look at these features or phonemes a little more closely.
Physiologically, stress means greater articulatory effort. By putting stress on particular segments we give it greater prominence. Various types of meaning are conveyed by distributing stress pattern over speech segments in a controlled manner.
Two types of stress can he established
1.   Word stress (or accent)
2.   Phrasal (or sentence stress)
Word Stress
In words made up of more than one syllable, some syllable stands out from others. In a word like fable it is the first syllable that receives ‘stress’ or more articulatory energy which results in its’ sounding louder and longer than the other syllable’ the second syllable here. The distribution of stress over the word fable can be shown in this manner – fa-ble.
In monosyllabic words – these words may contain more than one phoneme, but that doesnot matter-stress falls on the only syllable they contain:
l                 /ai/             (single phoneme word)
see             /si:/             (two-phoneme word)
cat              /kaet/          (three-phoneme word)
flame          /fleim/         (four-phoneme word)
tract           /traekt/        (five-phoneme word)
In words made of more than one syllable, the stress is distributed over the syllables; one of the syllables is pronounced with greater syllabic energy or prominence. In words like sector and enable, the first syllable is prominent in sector and the second syllable in enable.
The syllable that is strongly stressed is called a strong syllable and weakly stressed syllable is called weak syllable. In sector, sec is strong syllable and-tor weak syllable. In enable, en is weak syallable and no srong syllable followed a weak –bl. In polysyllabic words the stressed syllable may be more than one, for example these words – understand, appetizing examination. Syllabic division is shown as follows:
Un-der-stand; ap-pe-ti-zing; e-xa-mi-na-tion.
A polysyllabic word is graded in terms of the release of syllabic energy. It can be seen that from the strongest to the less strong to the weak, we can easily perceive different parts carrying these stresses. For example, in a word like consolidation, the strongest stress falls on the fourth syllable /-dei-/, the next prominent syllable is the second one, the other syllables carry weak stresses.
One reason why the fourth syllable is the strongest is that the pitch of the voice changes on this syllable. Therefore, this is also called primary stress or tonic stress. A strong stress accompanied by a pitch-change or pitch movement is known as primary stress. Roger Kingdon says that ‘the prominence of a syllable is also affected by its pitch; high-pitched syllables sound more prominent than low-pitched ones’.
Stress features are thus divided into the following levels:
1.       Primary stress
2.       Secondary stress
3.       Tertiary stress
4.       Weak stress
The strongest release of syllabic energy accompanied by a potential change of pitch direction marks the primary stress. The next strong stress is called secondary stress. Primary stress is represented by the half straight bar [‘], and the secondary stress by the bar placed at the bottom before the syllable that is stressed. Thus in apple the primary stress is on the first syllable ‘apple; so with ‘father; but in ga’rage it is on the second syllable. The word understand carries a primary and a secondary stress indicated as /unders’tand. Tertiary stress is weaker than the secondary stress and close to weak or unmarked stress. It is somewhat difficult to define and describe it. The two identically pronounced words nightrate and nitrate, show that the second example has a tertiary stress while in night rate rate carries the secondary stress. A weak stress is always left unmarked. Here the pitch is low and the vowel lax as in to’bacco.
Stress pattern in English has to be learned; there is nothing in a syllable itself which indicates that it may receive stress or not. In some disyllabic words the first syllable is stressed, for example ‘writer, ‘bellow, ‘coral, ‘glimmer, ‘ginger, while other disyllabic words have the second syllable sressed: re’cord, be’low, con’sort (vb), di’sable. Compared to the unstressed syllable, the vowel in a stressed syllable is longer. Similarly, a long vowel becomes reduced in length when it occurs in an unaccented syllable.
Stress Shift
It has been observed that stress shifts in derivative words. The following table shows how different derivative words take stress on different syllables.
1st syllable           2nd syllable                3rd syllable
‘fraternise            fra’ternity
‘fragility              fra’gile
‘fragment             frag’ment                   fragmen’tation
                           Or’thographer           ortho’graphic
‘syllable               sy’llabify                    syllabifi’cation
‘product               pro’duce                    produc’tivity
‘excavate                                              exca’vation
‘excellence          ex’cel
‘photograph         pho’tographer            photo’graphic
Shift of Primary Stress in Syllables
In derived words also there is no predictability about the placement of stress. However, an interesting aspect of the stress distribution is that for noun/adjective, stress is on the first syllable and for verb it is on the second syllable.
Noun/Adjective                   Verb
‘produce                             pro’duce
‘import                               imp’ort
‘subject                               sub’ject
‘perfect                               per’fect
‘record                                re’cord
‘contract                             con’tract
Compound Word Stress
Compound word consists of two words, which are written as one word. Mostly the nuclear, tonic or primary stress falls on the first syllable of the first word as in ‘postman, ‘batsman, ‘chairman, etc. Distribution of stress varies greatly according to the syllabic composition of the compound words.
Primary stress on the first syllable
‘Honeymoon, ‘honey suckle, ‘market day, ‘main spring, ‘long shore, ‘live stock, ‘liveryman.
Primary stress on the first, secondary on the third syllable
‘borderline, firebrigade, copyright
Primary stress on the first, secondary on the fourth syllable
National issue, labour exchange, cabinet maker
Primary stress on the third, secondary on the first syllable
Secondhand, country farm, easygoing, seargent major
Phrasal Stress
Although words have more or less fixed stress in connected speech, the intonational and contextual imperatives guide a speaker’s choice of stress. Longer utterances, clauses and segments can show changes in stress pattern. This is accompanied by the rise and fall in the pitch level. For example in a sentence like
Bring those chairs closer
different words can be stressed in the manner shown below:
bring                those                chairs               closer
bring                those                chairs               closer
bring                those                chairs               closer
bring                those                chairs               closer
Each of the above examples conveys a different meaning. Normally, content words receive the primary stress, grammatical words donot As T. Balasubramanian says, ‘The choice of the syllable receiving primary accent depends on the meaning the speaker wants to convey’.
Speech Rhythm
In connected speech certain words receive the primary stress and other words are unstressed. A pattern of alternations between the stressed and unstressed words is formed. If we consider the sentence, see the cat on the roof we will find that the second, the fourth and the fifth syllable are unstressed; the third and the sixth words are stressed. It is the tendency among the English speakers to crowd together the unstressed syllables between the two stressed syllables. The effect is a rhythm which makes English a stress-timed language.
There is another process that produces the characteristic English rhythm, that of weakening of the accent on certain words. In connected speech stress tends to be re-arranged due to elision and assimilation. Syllables that in isolated expressions appear stressed may be unstressed in such instances. Form-words, like articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions and other elements may show this, where consonant and vowel quality of the weak form is affected. Let us look at these sentences.
a.   I shall let you have it transcribed as
      /ai òl let ju: hæv it/; the verb shall has become weak and is represented as /òi/ instead of /òæl/.
b.   Lend me the book, I’d read it transcribed as
      /lend me buk, aid ri:d it/; would becomes simply /d/ here.
a.   There was a book on the table transcribed as
      /ðәwәzә buk* nðә teibl/; note the weakening of vowels in there /ðeә/ ® /ðә/ and was /w*z/ ® /wәz/.
We can, therefore, say that such words have two forms; a strong form (in isolation) and a weak form (in raid speech). Below are listed a few words with the two forms.
Strong form                        Weak form
æt                                      әt /t
bai                                      b∂
in tu:                                  intә
tu:                                      tә, tu
iz                                       z,s
kæn                                    k∂n, kn
will l,                                  әl, l
kud                                    kud, kd
jә: ‘selvz                             jә’selvz
maiself                               m∂self
tu him                                tuim
hæd                                   hәd, әd, d
m^st                                  mәst, ms
aend                                   әnd, әn, d
aez                                     әz
eni                                     ni
s^m                                   sm
sәu                                     sә
frәm                                    fr∂m
fә:                                       fә
Another significant suprasegmental feature of English language is intonation or variation of pitch from one segment of an utterance to another. A lot of emotional meaning is conveyed by consciously varying intonation level.
Pitch is closely associated with vibration of the vocal cords. In males the vocal cords vibrate at a rate of 70-125 times per second, and in adult females it is between 150-200 times. Increase in the vibration of the vocal cords results in the rise of pitch. In normal conversation, pitch variations are quite an integral part and cannot be completely ignored.
A combination of stress on a syllable and change in pitch-range produces tone, a significant element of intonation. Two types of tone have been identified i) static tone and ii) kinetic tone. A syllable pronounced on a level tone of unvarying pitch is said to have static tone. The kinetic tones show different kinds of change in pitch contour. Physiologically, this is explained by variation in the tension of the vocal cords.
Different levels of kinetic tone have been postulated by different phoneticians, some grade it into fie, some into four. This shows that precise location of a tone contour is not possible – gradations are made only as identification of a range, where correspondence with modulations in the emotional level can also be identified.
In rapid speech pitch contours rapidly alternate but it must be remembered that all pitch movements are not discriminating, and therefore, significant. Only those variations that serve as significant units, discriminating between meanings are phonemic.
Below are presented the signs that are used for indicating itch contours
Rising Tone is symbolized as [‘]
Falling Tone is symbolized as [`]
Falling – Rising Tone is symbolized as [v]
Rising – Falling Tone is symbolized as [^]
Intonation pattern in English can be understood by dividing an utterance into breath-groups. Each breath-group forms a tone group.
In a sentence like She will ‘not` go we can identify the whole utterance as a breath group, a sense group and an information unit. Under normal conditions it is the final syllable /gәu/ that shows the pitch variation. This syllable, therefore, contains tonic prominence. It is known as tonic syllable. Tonic prominence is a stress on the syllable, plus change in pitch level. A speaker can vary the tonic syllable to correspond to the meaning, sense and emphasis he wishes to convey. That means that tonic prominence can shift from final syllable to any other in a sentence.
Thus in the example cited above, she will not go, shifts in tonic prominence can be demonstrated alongwitht he corresponding meaning changes:
i)    She will not go = it is she who will not go.
ii)   She will not go = come what may, she won’t go.
iii)  She will not go = she will do anything but go.
We shall now consider below some examples of all the four tones.
1. Rising Tone:
‘Are you coming?                (stress on are)
Is, he at home?
‘Wait, , keep it in place       (gentle command)
‘Come, ,here                       (encouraging, inviting)
‘Really?                              (surprise)
2. Falling Tone:
When this tone is used, special implication is conveyed which is not verbally expressed, like sympathetic attitude, surprise, disbelief, sarcasm, boredom, routine greeting, detached attitude, and so on.
‘Put it on the stool               (neutrality)
‘Good ,morning                  (routine greeting)
‘How ,nice                          (routine, bored)
,Sit down ,please                (polite command)
,Such a ,waste                    (mildly sarcastic)
3. Falling-Risging Tone:
The pitch registers a fall from about mid to low and then from high to mid.
We are vwaiting                  (= better make haste)
vCarefully !                         (soothing, encouraging)
The vfood was nice              (=but the hotel awful)
vWell done                          (appreciating)
You may vre lax                   (you really need it)
vCan she do it?                   (=are you sure?)
4. Rising-Falling Tone:
The pitch changes from low to close to mid and low again. Normally, sarcasm, surprise, interest, enthusiasm are expressed.
Is he^alright?                    (surprise)
She looked^beautiful         (enthusiastic)
Yes, it is^nasty                  (full agreement)
But,^will that do?              (doubt)
In connected speech it is necessary to distinguish within one macrosegment such phonems whose function is to keep utterances apart. We must, for example, convey to the listener whether we mean a part (a+part) or apart when we use these segments, however rapid our speech may be. The accent feature of course plays a significant part in it; but we must also give a brief pause that would separate a  from part when we wish to say a part, and remove that pause when we wish to say apart. As Hockett says, ‘Any difference of sound which functions to keep utterances apart is by definition part of the phonological system of the language’. Such transition from one segmental phoneme to another is called juncture and represented by [+] mark. Juncture is thus a type ‘of boundary between two phonemes. Often, juncture helps the listener to distinguish between pairs such as see Mill and seem ill in Did he see Mill? And Did he seem ill?’ (Richards, Platt, Weber). Terminal juncture is represented by the [+] sign as in the following examples.
a                + name
an              + aim
that            + stuff
that’s          + tough
Ice              + cream
I                 + scream
Two vowels in close proximity both bearing the primary stress must receive a terminal juncture.

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