Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Lies, damned lies, and intonation

A few months ago I discussed (here) the strange way that reported speech not only attenuates the intonation of direct speech but actually misrepresents it.  On a train more recently I noticed a case that is just totally artificial – lying in wait for the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) student just when they are at their most vulnerable, and providing a model of inaccurate intonation. A recording comes over the Tannoy:

We will shortly be arriving at <station-name> 

If one said this in the course of normal conversation (in a rather Ionesco-esque surreal universe?) the intonation would be something like this:
But instead of recording We will shortly be arriving at Iver, We will shortly be arriving at Langley, We will shortly be arriving at Slough ... etc etc ad nauseam, and running up enormous recording bills, they have recorded just We will shortly be arriving at ... (note the "...", what happens when there‘s nothing to be said is ironically quite significant) ...

...and separate recordings  of individual station names.

So what the disembodied voice says is

There are two problems with this, both having to do with the way a native speaker strings sounds together, one of which works in the student's favour:
  1. Pro
    There is no assimilation – the squidging of sounds together to make connected speech. For example, the /æt/ (or, more probably, /ət/) can (and often does) change in sympathy with whatever follows. If the next station is Maidenhead, for example, starting with the bilabial /m/, a native speaker saying the whole sentence might say /əp 'meɪdənhed/ (with the dental /t/ becoming the equivalent bilabial stop /p/).
    <festive_note theme="point of articulation">
    In Rutter‘s Shepherd's Pipe Carol the refrain starts 
    Angels in the sky
    Came down from on high.... 
    ... a bit of a tongue-twister I find (nearly every Christmas). Musing on points of articulation, I recently realized why; although clarity of enunciation isn't my forte, anyone might find the second line a bit of a trouble-maker (aided and abetted by the context established in the first). The consonants in came are the velar /k/ and the bilabial nasal /m/; down starts with a /d/ (dental) and ends with another dental (but this time it's the nasal /n/); from starts with a consonant pair – but the first is the labio-dental /f/, and at the end there's another bilabial nasal. 
    So the points of articulation (places where sounds are made, but in this case [beginnings and ends] articulation also works in  the same way as it does in an articulated lorry):

    CAME                                                      Velar (back of mouth) 
                                                                            last: Bilabial (front of mouth)
    DOWN                                                     Dental (halfway back) 
                                                            last: Dental (again) 
    FROM                                                   Labio-dental (not quite  
                                                                                   the front, but pretty near)
                                                  last: Bilabial 
    Just considering the first consonant in these three words (marked in bold), there is no problem: 
     Came down from... 
    Velar => Dental => Labio-dental the point of articulation is moving steadily forwards. But factoring in the ends of the words, the peaceful (pastoral?) picture is disrupted. After the bilabial nasal at the end of Came there is the temptation to take the path of least resistance...
    The path of least resistance is often significant in the way speech sounds develop, but... Update, maybe.
    ...and say from; besides, came from is a temptingly Christmassy collocation  came from afar/the East/Nazareth... 
    So I often find myself singing Came from down... and it's not until I bump  into the down/high paradox that my voice peters out.
  2. Con
    When the component bits of recording are spliced together, the intonation is totally wrong. There are two components: the first ends in an upward flick, a sort of auditory serif, that  has the meaning  "..." (in conversation  this rising tone warns: I HAVEN'T FINISHED YET, SO DON'T INTERRUPT); the second starts the place-name with a rising tone, which again gives the wrong message (as a rising tone often signifies HERE COMES A NEW TOPIC).
On the homeward journey I listened again to the Tannoy. And surprisingly (not to say inefficiently, on the same service run by the same company, but just in the opposite direction) the intonation pattern was different: it still wasn't right, but at least the first bit didn't have the misleading upward flick at the end; and the intonation at the beginning of each place-name at least did not start by rising.
Still unnatural, with the tone leaping up to mark the splice, but not so bad.

But ESOL students arriving from their home countries certainly have their work cut out. 


PS And here's a clue:

Sat up 60% of the way through loud passage, but too late for this. (9)

Update 2016.02.11.14:15 Fixed a few typos, deleted old footer and added PPS.

PPS The possible update mentioned in the digression from the festive note (which itself was something of a digression) has taken the form of a new post. And here's another clue:

Beseech Barnaby (fat chance!)  (8)

Update 2016.02.12.10:30 Added PPPS

PPPS A further thought on the subject of point of articulation, that arose last summer and may be of interest to choral singers. My choir was singing a setting of these words (from The Merry Wives of Windsor):
Pinch him, and burn him, and turn him about,
Till candles and star-light and moonshine be out.
These are the last words of the piece, with very quick notes and an extreme diminuendo, so it's important to watch the conductor. It seemed to me that the only way to do this was to learn it by heart. So far so unsurprising. The three nouns in the last line were a problem; how to remember the order?

Then I realized how clever (intuitive?, lucky?) Shakespeare had been. The points of articulation of the initial consonants move from the back of the mouth to the front:
/k/ (velar) > /s/ (alveolar ridge) > /m/ (bilabial)
So, as the music dwindles away to nothing (or a niente, as the Italians have it) the choir can whisper more and more with the point of articulation moving closer and closer to the audience and maintaining clarity.

Update 2016.03.12.17:50 – Supplied crossword answers:


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