Tuesday, 16 June 2015

I cannot stress enough

Last night on the BBC television news the newsreader – who was, incidentally, a woman, though this sort of slip is not in the immortal words of Wossname [one of the usual suspects in the field of iambic pentameters; Shakespeare...? Milton...?...] A malady most incident to maids'   – got her intonation wrong.

Maybe it was a typo in the auto-cue, maybe it was a mis-reading.

It was caused by a not very common (but still quite common) phrasal verb: rein in: this is pronounced with the dying fall on the ↘in. But the context was a piece about Magna Carta, with its associations with kingship. So reined became reigned in the mind of the auto-cue-writer-or-newsreader-no-names-no-packdrill.

And, as my last sentence cunningly showed ...

I have to admit I'm fairly pleased with this, although I did cheat a bit, by using reign as an object: in real life, 'reigned in' is a fairly rare occurrence, except in sentences like 'King John reigned in the 13th century' or 'Charles I reigned in an atmosphere of suspicion' or 'The young king's uncle reigned in his stead' or 'The pre-revolutionary kings reigned in complete oblivion...'.... Hmm. For 'fairly rare' read 'not uncommon'. 
...when reigned is followed by in like this, the stress falls on the verb itself: '↘reigned in....'

So the newsreader said 'Magna Carta ↘reined [sic] in the powers of the monarchy' with 'in the powers of the monarchy' having a single intonation pattern, with pitch starting to rise at 'in' , reaching the top of the curve at the first syllable of 'monarchy' and then falling rapidly:

Whereas what she meant to say was
I don't know whether she even noticed that what she had read out was meaningless. If she did, she hid it well. But there's a lesson to be learnt here: a speaker's  intonation affects the way listeners understand the message. In this case, it forces the listener to assume a different spelling.

If I remember aright, the single intonation curve on 'in the powers of the monarchy' (in the wrong reading) marks what is known to linguists as 'a phonological word'; but...
...my understanding of theoretical linguistics terminology is a good 40 years out of date at best, and at worst I may have got the wrong end of the stick.  

If this sort of thing interests you, you could start here.

But there are nettles to be grasped – and not the figurative sort; I am thinking biocide in the vegetable patch. Though I am reminded (not clearly enough to remember the exact wording) of a politician on the radio last weekend talking about 'grasping the nettle by the horns' or 'taking the bull by the nettles'. I think the precise wording was better than either of those, but you get the gist.


Update 2015.06.1914:30.15.30 – Added PS

PS On Tom, Dick, and Harry

I don't know where I heard it first,...
<autobiographical note>
though it was probably in the Raised Faculty Building,  le Corbusier's contribution to the Sidgwick Site
</autobiographical note>
... but it's striking how often examples adduced in Linguistics discussions tend to involve violence. The default passive-voice example, for ESOL teachers, is

The boy kicked the ball
rather than 
Jane kissed John.

Anyway, the example I want to look at now –  to reflect on how intonation can radically affect meaning – is this, which I would attribute if I could. 
<autobiographical note>
It may have been mentioned in a lecture by the then Doctor, now Professor, Erik Fudge (though he may have read it somewhere else):
</autobiographical note>
Tom hit Dick and then Harry hit him.

On the face of it this might be a tale of righteous retribution taken on Tom by Harry's friend Dick:

There are two violent interactions with two agents and two patients, denoted by two similar intonation curves –  rising/falling from/to more-or-less the same levels.

But change the intonation, keeping the same words in the same order, and a rather darker tale of both Tom and Harry ganging up on Dick emerges:

The first curve denotes Dick's suffering, but that suffering is not finished yet; the second curve starts a bit higher than the and but not as high as Tom  – Dick's travails are not finished yet, and the end of the intonation curve is lower than the first. There's an up-tick in the intonation to mark the pause between blows, but the general sense of the whole sentence is downward.

I have no idea (with my ESOL teacher's hat on) of how to teach this intonation; like most useful language skills it can only improve with exposure, practice, and if possible immersion.

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