Prosody, Information Structure, and Modality (Marianne
Mithun - University of California, Santa
There has been a tradition in linguistics of
investigating grammatical structure by poring over isolated words, phrases, and
sentences on a page. The tradition is understandable: before the mid-20th
century it was nearly impossible to capture the sound of substantial stretches
of spontaneous speech in natural, interactive settings. The written data did
provide a foundation for understanding basic grammar. But technological
advances in audio and video recording, acoustic analysis, and corpora and corpus
software are now making it possible to investigate language in new ways. This
paper demonstrates some ways in which adding considerations of prosody and discourse
context can enhance our appreciation of certain structures and their functions.
One area of structure that continues to arouse
interest is complex syntax. For some, the essence of syntactic complexity is
the property of recursion, the occurrence of constituents within constituents
of the same type. Prototypical recursive structures are complement
constructions: John knows [that Mary
left]. In their much-cited 2002 paper, Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch propose
that recursion is in fact universal to all human language, and the only property
that distinguishes it from other communication systems. Everett (2005) has countered that recursion
may not be a language universal after all.
A language that might appear to support Everett’s objection is Mohawk, indigenous to northeastern North America. Many Mohawk utterances that are translated
into English complex sentences consist simply of sequences of finite clauses,
each a grammatical sentence in itself. A passage translated ‘The government
tried to displace us’, for example, was literally ‘the government tried; he
would displace us’. Cristofaro has proposed that ‘subordination and
non-subordination ... can be equated with (pragmatic) non-assertion and
(pragmatic) assertion respectively’ (2003:30). If this is true, Mohawk would appear
to be severely impoverished in its communicative capacity.
Yet there is more to linguistic structure than
words on a page. Mohawk sequences of clauses like those above are usually integrated
prosodically under a single intonation contour, which shows its own internal structure.
The initial (matrix) clause begins on a high pitch then descends to a non-final
fall. The following (subordinate) clause begins with a small pitch reset, but the
whole is spoken with lower pitch and a narrower range of pitch variation, ultimately
ending with a terminal fall. The prosodic structure thus appears to signal
It could be that the lower pitch does not actually
signal subordinate status; it might simply continue the overall declination pattern.
But not all Mohawk sequences translated as complex sentences show declination. Sometimes
what is translated as the complement is significantly higher in pitch than the preceding
matrix. Interestingly, these are constructions in which the main information is
conveyed by this prosodically more robust (complement) clause: ‘I think [you
were away]’; ‘We heard [one woman was taken to the hospital]’; ‘Would it be
possible [for you to say your name]?’. The initial, less prosodically-robust (matrix)
clauses serve epistemic, deontic, evidential, evaluative, or interactional
functions. The prosody conveys information structure that the syntax does not.
Prosody can also tell us more. It can provide
glimpses of the dynamic development of grammatical structures over time. A
number of modal constructions, for example, can be seen to have developed from complement
constructions like those just described. With increased use, the matrix verbs take
on more abstract modal meanings. Already prosodically weak, they are further
reduced prosodically and segmentally. Patterns of interaction show that the
erstwhile matrix verbs lose their salience as assertions and even as predications.
At a certain point, they can cease to be anchored to their original sentence-initial
position, sometimes taking on new text-structuring and interactional roles. The
modern modal system mirrors this pathway of development nicely. A number of
modal constructions at various stages of development now coexist in the modern
language, many differentiated primarily by prosody.
2003. Subordination. Oxford University
Everett, Daniel 2005.
Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã: Another look at the
design features of human language. Current
Hauser, Marc, Noam Chomsky, and W. Tecumseh Fitch
2002. The faculty of language: What is
it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science