What is the difference between phrase prosody and sentence prosody?

I know that prosody is a phonological suprasegmental--its components, such as intonation, are more than one phoneme long. I know that possible components of prosody in a given language such as pitch, intonation contour, stress, and tempo can be modulated to convey lexical, syntactic, and pragmatic information. In English, for example, rising intonation is a prosodic cue that marks a lot of questions. I know that prosody can vary quite a bit across languages. For example, some languages don't have word stress, a fact mentioned in this paper: http://www.let.leidenuniv.nl/pdf/lucl/lwpl/1.1/roosman.pdf

Note this definition of prosody: http://www.glottopedia.org/index.php/Prosody

I've run across a reference to distinct phrase and sentence prosody in this conlang, http://yiklamu.ludiware.com/grammar.html

But I can find darned little introductory information on natural language prosody on the Internet, let alone any typological information about it.

Do any natural languages distinguish phrase and sentence prosody? Do most natural languages do so? Does this distinction occur in English? If so, what are some English examples? Also, where can I find more information about prosody on the Internet or in a still-available book?

1 Answer 1


It is standard to talk about the prosodic hierarchy, which is a theoretical construct that divides utterances into smaller, phonologically relevant constituents called phrases, which are in turn divided into smaller constituents called prosodic words, and so on. There is not an absolute consensus as to what the exact levels of the prosodic hierarchy are or even how many there are, and (as with many theoretical constructs in linguistics) slightly different models lend themselves to different languages. For example, the mora is a prosodic unit that is more motivated in some languages than in others.

Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of levels in the hierarchy:

  • Utterance
  • Phrase (some distinguish a major phrase and a minor phrase)
  • Word
  • Foot
  • Syllable
  • Mora

Generally, each presumed level in the prosodic hierarchy is motivated by the observation that certain phonological processes (some may be prosodic in nature and others may be segmental) are associated with that constituent. For example, in standard Japanese there is a prosodic constituent called the accentual phrase, in which only one accented syllable may occur. If multiple words that are lexically accented are combined into a single accentual phrase, all but one of the accents gets deleted.

Often, presumed prosodic constituents are motivated by more phonetic-y phenomena. For example, in English it is common to observe the lengthening of word-final, phrase-final, and utterance-final syllables. In many languages there is also a pitch reset (where the downward trend of the overall pitch range—sometimes called declination—stops and starts again at a higher pitch) at phrase boundaries.

The usage of the term prosody in the conlang grammar you linked to is a bit confusing and seems to conflate prosody and intonation. It's not really that languages "distinguish" between "sentence" and "phrase" prosody; rather, as described above, different phonological and phonetic processes are observed to occur at different prosodic levels (i.e. over different prosodic constituents).

Often-cited references for the prosodic hierarchy include those by Selkirk, Pierrehumbert and Beckman, and Hayes. I'm not sure how technical you want to get, but if you search for "prosodic hierarchy" online, you'll find links to online course materials that are relevant for your question.

  • +1 Very well put. The point in the next-to-last paragraph can't be overemphasized -- cool hierarchies are theoretical constructs, like aluminum holiday trees, while dirty old data is the living phenomenon that motivates them, like the forest primeval. Data governs rules, not the other way around.
    – jlawler
    Commented Sep 16, 2013 at 15:27

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