I enjoy language columns, such as Johnson in The Economist, which discuss the evolution of language. But I notice that such columns tend to focus only on certain dimensions of language: new words, changing grammar, changing punctuation usage.

It seems to me that there are also innovations in the rhythms and tones of speech.

For example:

Whew, it smells strong in here!

Traditionally, the emphasis would be on a single word, probably "strong". But now we have a way of saying it with three equal stresses on *strong* *in* *here*, like three well-spaced drum beats.

As another example:

Tracy: Ugh, she looked better before the Botox.
Stacy: Right?!?!

Stacy's reply "Right?!?!" is said in an imploring, questioning tone. I think this is relatively new, right?

Plenty more examples, just with the word "right":
"Riiiight...." said in a long, drawn out, uncertain way indicates doubt or disagreement. Or "Yeah, right. That'll happen." said with heavy sarcasm. I don't think my grandparents, or even parents, ever used these speech patterns.

I would imagine these innovations in speech rhythm and tone would be difficult to study because we only have about 100 years of audio recordings for reference. Much easier to study the many centuries of written language.

Who studies innovations in speech rhythm and tone, how do they study them, and where can I read about it?

1 Answer 1


What you are describing isn't an innovation, as we talk about linguistic innovations, it's just a fact of the language. An innovation might be something like the rise of up-talk. but it's so widespread that it's not new anymore. From a multi-generational perspective i.e. compared to speech 150 years ago, perhaps, but the data is sparse. One thing to consider in using your elders as a data source is that the words shit and fuck are millenia old in English, but many parents and grandparents don't use them in public. Context for usage may be an area of actual but under-detected sociolinguistic innovation.

You would be looking for research by socio-phoneticians who specialize in intonation. But the area that you're talking about is the domain of phonetics, and has been studied for a century by many phoneticians – e.g. Palmer, Halliday, Abercombie, Wells, Roach, Crystal, Gussenhoven, Trager & Smith, Bolinger, Liberman, Pierrehumbert.

The main task in these studies is to find a way of symbolizing patterns. The physical stuff involves a way too rich stream of numbers reporting pitch, amplitude and duration, at the very minimum, and you will never find exactly the same stream of numbers in any two utterances. Instead, phoneticians devise abstract symbolic patterns with a few letters and a general system for arranging the letters, which allows some smallish number of "patterns" to be described. The system known as "ToBI" is one of the most parsimonious taxonomies. They also develop some means of categorizing utterances into one of these patterns. Theoretically, this means that each element in the system has some physical interpretation, a range of pitch values or a pitch-change function, so that one could automatically compute the intonational properties from the letters. Practically, though, it involves training, just like learning the IPA letters, where you are exposed to exemplars and figure out how to classify marginal cases.

There is a sub-theory that these elements have "meaning", though when it has real lexical meaning (the 4 pronunciations of "ma" in Chinese), we're talking about tone and not intonation. Progress in connecting intonation to meaning is slow, because apart from being a phonetician, you also need to be a semantician and psycholinguist. Typically, phoneticians rely on a set of postulated meaning correlates and terms, such as "focus", and don't get into what "focus" means, or how you validate the claim that some thing is "focused". Here is an overview article, which gives you a basic hook into semantic (pragmatic) problems and their connection to intonation.

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