Prominence and accent.

We have said that the sense group affects the situation; it is equally true that the sense group is affected by the situation in which it occurs. The same words in the same order will not have the same value in different situations: some words will make a greater a smaller contribution to the whole according to the context in which the sense group is uttered.

Consider the sentence It was an unusually dark night. As the beginning of, say, a story told on the radio the last three words would be all be particularly important. It is easy to show that the first three words play a minor part; suppose that the first three words were drowned by some outside noise and the last three heard clearly, ”… unusually dark night”. Then the listener would still get a pretty clear picture of the story’s setting. But suppose the reverse were the case and only the first three words were heard clearly and the remainder lost, “It was an …”. In this case there would be virtually no information gained at all. So in the situation we have imagined the last three words all help to paint a picture and to this extent they are important.

But if the same sentence were said in response to the question What sort of night was it? the word night in the reply would lose some of its force because the questioner is already in possession of the information that it might otherwise have given him. In this situation there are only two important words – unusually dark – and they could be used alone as a complete answer to the question. Going further still, in reply to the question Was it dark last night? the single word unusually would bear the major part of the information, and would in this sense be more important than all the others. The situation, then, largely decides which word or words of a sense group are important, and any word in any sense group may be important if the context makes it so.

In the written language the reader is generally left to make up his own mind which are the important words, helped to a greater or lesser extent by the style of the author and by such devices as italicisation, spacing and the like; but in speech these words are specifically pointed out, they are made prominent, so that the listener shall be left in no doubt. This prominence is achieved by means of what we shall call accent. The workings of accent, what it is and how it brings important words into prominence, will become clearer as we go on to analyse tunes.

Answer the following questions:

  1. What are the general characteristics of intonation?
  2. What is the role of intonation?
  3. What is a sense group? What does the length of a sense group depend on? Give an example of your own.
  4. Why is prominence so important? How does it affect the meaning of an utterance?