I read that the division between suprasegments and segments is not black and white. I take this claim to have two logical entailments:

  1. There are prosodic features that are segmental. For example, lexical tone in Chinese is only on the single vowel of the syllable. Therefore, tone is always prosodic but not always suprasegmental.
  2. There are non-prosodic features which are suprasegmental. I'm not sure about this, but maybe for example vowel harmony is an example of non-prosodic suprasegmental feature (or, conversely, is harmony prosodic?)

Is my simplistic understanding accurate or am I going down the wrong route? Any insight is appreciated!

  • 2
    If you start by assuming a non-binary distinction (the division between suprasegments and segments is not black and white), you can't assume a binary distinction in your conclusions (There are prosodic features that are segmental and There are non-prosodic features which are suprasegmental). What you should be looking for is continuous phenomena, not binary features.
    – jlawler
    Aug 30, 2016 at 14:36
  • Great observation, thanks. What kind of continuous phenomena are you referring to?
    – Teusz
    Aug 31, 2016 at 11:20
  • Vowel height, f0, voicing onset time, pitch, etc. And modifications imposed on them. Pretty much all of phonetics is continuous phenomena. Binary distinctions like "sub-/suprasegmental" are artifacts of theoretical positions which impose presupposed binary distinctions on continuous phenomena. And then argue about what they mean. Any binary distinction that isn't clear in the data has to be taken as a working hypothesis, which means you can dispense with it when it's obviously contradicted by reality.
    – jlawler
    Aug 31, 2016 at 13:34

2 Answers 2


"Prosody" derives from προσῳδία, which you can read all about here: it roughly is about pitch being superimposed on speech. In Latin this was extended to poetic meter. Modern linguistics (in the past 70 or so years) has extended that to pretty much all properties. It is not a technical concept, so it doesn't have a precise definition and it doesn't sharply contrast with something else. The essence of "prosody" is that it is any sound property of speech that can extend over more than one segment. It is equivalent to "autosegment".

"Segment" on the other hand is a much crisper concept, although there are unresolved debates of the "one segment or two?" variety, e.g. "Is [tʃ] one segment or two?" – typically the answer is deferred to some higher-level a priori postulate such as objecting that [tʃ] can't be a cluster because in the language there aren't any other obstruent clusters in the onset. In feature-geometric theories the answer is trivial: something is suprasegmental iff the thing dominates the root node (mother node of all segments).

The London School of Phonology spearheaded by Firth would give a "prosodic" analysis to whatever it could, and that use of "prosodic" is very similar to "autosegmental". In essence, vowel harmony would be said to be prosodic just in case it marks off a continuous span of speech. By inspecting the history of vowel harmony in autosegmental phonology, one can clearly see that "suprasegmental" vs. "segmental" is completely orthogonal to dominance relations. In early work on harmony, harmonizing features such as front/back, round, ATR (see Clements' Vowel harmony in nonlinear generative phonology) were "suprasegmentalized" just in case they spread. However since the first hierarchical model of features in Clements 1985, it was understood that sub-segmental features can spread just as well as suprasegmental features.

It is completely controversial where tone features in Chinese (any Chinese language) attach -- subsegmentally or suprasegmentally. Sticking to the most-Greek understanding of "prosody", only tone would be prosody, so everything else would be non-prosodic: therefore, Chinese at least has been analyzed as a segmental prosodic feature, and Turkish (in Clements' analysis) has been analyzed as suprasegmental non-prosody.

However: that is all just a terminology game. There is no utility to the term "prosody", which has largely been coopted by people working on intonation. The distinction "subsegmental" vs "suprasegmental" refers to something well-defined which is not easily detectable (that is, we know what the terms mean, and we don't have tools that easily identify whether is it one versus the other), for which reason "suprasegmental" is a fairly useless term as well.

  • question: the notion that prosodic or tonal or whatever "attaches" or is "superimposed" on something else seems like a very strong hypothesis. has this been challenged? it seems very dubious to me.
    – mobileink
    Aug 30, 2016 at 19:03
  • 1
    I don't exactly understand the question. Are you questioning the choice of words like "attach"? There is some relationship between specific properties and segments or segment sequences. That's actually a rather weak hypothesis, but there are pretty good arguments that the stronger 1-to-1 immutable bonding hypothesis does not work.
    – user6726
    Aug 30, 2016 at 21:00
  • no, what I'm trying to get at is the idea that we can split actual speech into these theoretical parts. e.g. I'm very skeptical about the idea of separating tone and .. whatever it is tone is supposed to "attach"to. Or to take something more straightforward: the idea of speech as a string of phonemes. To my knowledge nobody has ever been able to identify a phoneme in the wild. enormous gulf between actual spoken language, and the theories of language promoted by modern linguistics. so iI know there are scientists who challenge the phoneme theory. not sure about tones prody, wtc.
    – mobileink
    Aug 30, 2016 at 21:14
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    The claim isn't that actual speech is composed of theoretical parts, it is that actual speech behavior is partially created by a symbolic representation of an "output", interacting with various physical systems. If you know a way to model linguistic behavior without a theoretical decomposition of the events, that would be interesting to see. I don't think phonemes exist in the wild, but that doesn't matter.
    – user6726
    Aug 30, 2016 at 21:27

I would use the term "suprasegmental", as in "going above the level of a single segment/phoneme".

While some linguists claim everything above the level of segment into prosody, I find it more useful to put into prosody the features that "inherently" go over the level of a segment (pitch, pace, accent,...) even though they may be occasionally reduced to a single segment, while vowel harmony seems to be more of a distant/inconcatenative assimilation (generally, we do not consider assimilation of place between /n/ and /k/ in the word "bank" to be a prosodic phenomenon, do we).

  • Why does pitch inherently go above the level of the segment and voicing doesn't? Or, how do you know that it does?
    – user6726
    Aug 30, 2016 at 21:01
  • I would say because pitch is inevitably defined by contrast, not by some absolute position within a delimited field
    – Eleshar
    Aug 30, 2016 at 21:56

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