I can name a few: 1. Tones as numbers 2. Intonation contour as a line above the sentence 3. Tones as lines above segments 4. Stress marks before stress syllables ['white house] vs [white 'house]

But can you think of any others, common/accepted or esoteric and unused, it doesn't matter. I'm just looking for a general overview of symbols.

My reason for asking is because I'm interested in how the representation of features can influence analysis. How were symbols for prosodic features different before linguistics became a science, for ex?


  • The system in The Sound Pattern of English is to write stress numbers above stressed syllables. I use this system here, occasionally, but for con2venience 3put the 4numbers be1fore 3stressed 3syllables.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 16:34

1 Answer 1


The question "How were symbols for prosodic features different before linguistics became a science" presupposes that transcription of prosody predates linguistics as a science, which is untrue, at least at the level of granularity applicable to our knowledge of the history of linguistics. Linguistics as a science developed (thousands of years ago) partially as a means of representing prosody.

Representation and analysis are the same thing, in one understanding of "representation", e.g. in autosegmental phonology a string of H-toned vowels can be represented as one H associated to many vowels. This actually does not generally lead to a difference in transcription (the other sense of "representation"), although on Optimal Domains Theory, associations ("domains") are transcribed by br[acket]ting a substring of the word.

The usual way of transcribing syllables is with a period, though brackets are occasionally (rarely) used, and they generally look messy so people don't do that. Tone transcription usually is determined by a combination of fact and ideology. If a language has 4-6 levels and many contours, then accents are not a good choice and people tend to use numbers. If you have 2-3 levels and not a lot of contours, then accents suffice -- and sometimes a certain tone is "unmarked". This may reflect a frequency of occurrence fact, or a theoretical claim about underspecification (authors are not always transparent about that).

Length of segments is likewise represented sometimes with a lengthening sign after the segment, or by doubling the latter (so, gadda vs. gad:a). The latter often reflects a belief that a long segment is the same as two in a row.

  • You make a fair point that prosody, at least as we conceptualize it today, was not known as such prior to advent of linguistic science. However, I suppose philologists and pre-Chomskians have studied aspects related to language rhythm and tone, and had their own annotation systems, e.g. the Czech school of Jakobson et al.
    – Teusz
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 9:38

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