Skip to 0 minutes and 13 secondsWelcome to week 4. In this week, we will address English pronunciation features that apply to larger stretches of speech than individual sounds. These features are, therefore, called supra-segmental features. But what are these supra-segmental features? As an experiment, we will try to read the following excerpt from Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice, as if we were a robot, so in a robot voice. You can read along and also try it! "He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies-- and what's his reason? I am a Jew." "Hath not a Jew eyes?

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 secondsHath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?" "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" I think you'd agree with me that it's nearly impossible to speak like a robot. For comparison, let's listen to the same excerpt, performed by Al Pacino.

Skip to 1 minute and 29 seconds"He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies-- and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" Now, what is happening here?

Skip to 2 minutes and 31 secondsWe do not speak like robots because we naturally attempt to assign meaning to what we say. This is additional meaning beyond the dictionary meaning of words. Note, for example, that when Al Pacino says, "He hath disgraced me," and I say, "he has disgraced me!", the sentence means the same-- namely, that a male person has shamed a fellow man. But "he hath disgraced me" is sad in anguish, and "he has disgraced me!", in anger. We assign the additional meaning to speech units from one to five words that have a grammatical connection. Think of short sentences, like "he has disgraced me", but also verb phrases, like "scorned my nation", and noun phrases, like, "the same food".

Skip to 3 minutes and 15 secondsWe deploy supra-segmental features to convey the additional meaning. For example, in order to express anguish or anger, I can lower or raise the tone of my voice. This supra-segmental feature is called "pitch". The linguists Collins and Mees have identified four major uses of supra-segmental features. The first is a focusing function, the second an attitudinal function, the third a grammatical function, and lastly, a discourse function. These four functions can be performed by a variety of different supra-segmental features. However, for reasons of transparency, I will illustrate each function with one supra-segmental feature here-- that of stress, tempo, intonation, and pausing. First, in the focusing function, we can use supra-segmental features to focus on certain parts of the utterance.

Skip to 4 minutes and 9 secondsFor example, we can highlight a word by pronouncing it louder, with more breath and greater effort.

Skip to 4 minutes and 15 secondsThis supra-segmental feature is called: "stress". For illustration, listen to the way in which the verb "scorned" is emphasised. "Mocked at my gains, scorned my nation". We can also deploy stress to contrast a word with another word. If somebody would ask me, "did they celebrate your nation?" I could reply with, "no, they SCORNED my nation." Then, in their second attitudinal function, supra-segmental features can show the attitude of the speakers through the sentence that they utter. For example, we can deliver speech in a slow or a fast rate to express or invoke a particular emotion, like excitement, boredom, or suspense.

Skip to 4 minutes and 57 secondsThis supra-segmental feature is called: "tempo". For illustration, consider the way in which the protagonist varies his rate of speech in the excerpt. Note how Al Pacino increases his speech rates to show that he is upset. "Laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies-- and what's his reason? I am a Jew!" In their third grammatical function, supra-segmental features can provide information about the grammatical function of the sentence. In this context, we return to the supra-segmental feature of "pitch". In English, we can provide grammatical information by varying our pitch across parts of the utterance. This special use of pitch is known as intonation.

Skip to 5 minutes and 48 secondsFor example, when we lower our pitch at the end of a sentence, a pitch movement that is known as a fall, we make a statement, as in-- "He hath disgraced me." However, when we raise our pitch, a rising intonation, we ask a question. "If you poison us, do we not die?" Note that native English speakers frequently use a greater pitch range than speakers of other languages. That is, they vary their pitch more often and to a greater degree. Note, also, that in so-called tone languages, like Thai and Vietnamese, speakers can actually express different denotational meanings by pronouncing single words with different pitch contours. For example, the same word with different pitches can either refer to a dog or a horse.

Skip to 6 minutes and 38 secondsHowever, English is NOT a tone language. Finally, in the fourth function, the discourse function, supra-segmental features can help organise the structure of conversations by indicating that the speaker is finished, or that there is more to come. For instance, we can use the supra-segmental feature of "pausing" to demarcate sentences. Note that in the excerpt, to say, "he hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains", is different from saying, "he hath disgraced me and hindered me, half a million laughed at my losses, and mocked at my gains." Pausing also gives speakers time to breathe and think, and listeners time to process what is being said and to respond.

Skip to 7 minutes and 30 secondsI already mentioned that the four functions may actually be performed by a range of different supra-segmental features. In fact, features may be combined to express a function. One example of this is that when we present a list of things, like here, in The Merchant of Venice, we will stress each item in the list, pause between them, and pronounce them with a rising intonation until we have reached the last item. "Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?"

Skip to 8 minutes and 22 secondsAs a well-known saying says it, it's not what you say, but the way you say it. Supra-segmental features are the signposts in our language. Try to package the information that you communicate by providing clear markers, colour, and accents. And dare to exaggerate. What may sound like way over the top to you will probably be perfectly natural. In this week, we will discuss supra-segmental features and the effect that they may have on intelligibility. You will practise supra-segmental features of English. You will make a second recording for the assessment of the course. You will reflect on the progress that you've made in the past four weeks. And there will be opportunity to ask your educator questions online.

Introduction to week 4: suprasegmental features

Supersegmental features apply to speech units larger than sounds. They can be used to convey meaning in addition to the meaning denoted by words. Watch Laura Rupp explain more. You need to understand the information provided by the video in order to be able to work on your suprasegmental features.

The video will also outline the learning objectives of this week: you will read about the impact of suprasegmental features on intelligibility and you will analyse and practise them in English. You will also assess the progress that you have made during the course in an exercise and by making a second recording of the word list and the reading passage.

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This video is from the free online course:

English Pronunciation in a Global World

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam