I'm looking for some correct terminology to use within the fields of and (I assume).

In spoken language there is generally some kind of very brief pauses, changes of intonation, etc which give audible cues which roughly indicate where one word ends and the next begins.

This is roughly analogous to spaces between words in written language but there is rarely a direct 1:1 mapping even though speakers without linguistics training may intuitively feel that there is.

The terms which keep popping into my head are "phonotactics" and "prosody" but I'm sure those are not really what I'm talking about.

Which term or terms really are pertinent to what I have described?

1 Answer 1


What you are referring to are prosodic word boundaries. Prosody deals with the relative prominence of linguistic units, but it also deals with the delineation of those units at different levels. Prosody can be encoded in the "ups and downs" of speech melody, but it also manifests itself in terms of duration (of speech units and of pauses) and intensity, among other things. All of these acoustic properties can be used by a speaker to cue prosodic boundaries, including word boundaries.

Other prosodic boundaries include syllable boundaries and phrase boundaries. I added the phonetics tag to your question because phonetics is the field of linguistics that deals with how phonological units like words and phrases are delineated acoustically (acoustics is not a field of linguistics per se; one can study the acoustics of jet engines or the acoustics of a concert hall, but phonetics deals with the acoustics of speech) and how those acoustic cues are produced and perceived.

As you noted, the prosodic word is not always equivalent to the morphological word or the orthographic word. For example, a prosodic word can often consist of a content word and a function word that cliticizes to it.

One final note: the term phonotactics is not directly relevant for the discussion of the phonetic realization of prosodic boundaries. Phonotactics is the branch of phonology that deals with what combinations of phonemes are permitted in a language. Sometimes the phonotactics of a language can interact with its prosody such that, say, certain consonant clusters are only able to appear across syllable boundaries.

  • Now I don't know which tag to remove to add the word boundaries tag I just created (-; Nov 5, 2012 at 14:48
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    Haha! By the way, I had actually decided to leave the acoustic-analysis tag because phoneticians can use acoustic analysis to determine instrumentally what acoustic properties are present in the speech signal that might cue word boundaries. Nov 5, 2012 at 14:59
  • What do you think is best then between phonology and phonetics to keep? Nov 5, 2012 at 15:01
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    I would keep both, since you're basically asking about the phonetic realizations of phonological units. If I had to "vote one off of the island" it would be spoken-language. Signed languages have word boundaries, too! Nov 5, 2012 at 15:15
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    I must say, given the variety of theoretical terminologies here, the tag system seems more or less useless (though nowhere near as useless as it is on english.stackexchange).
    – jlawler
    Nov 5, 2012 at 15:54

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