5. Prosody: The Suprasegmental Features of Spanish

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In previous chapters, we focused our attention on segments, individual sounds like vowels and consonants.  In this section, we present suprasegmental or prosodic features.  Prosody comes from the latin prosodia, which means “accent of a syllable.”  It refers to suprasegmental features, another important element of languages that applies to groups larger than single sounds like syllables, words, or phrases.  The suprasegmental level includes aspects such as stress, rhythm, pitch, and word junction.  While segments carry the real meaning of language, suprasegmentals will help your listener understand and interpret what you say.

Suprasegmental features are not as crucial as individual sounds.  However, attaining a native-like fluency requires an understanding of how suprasegmentals work in Spanish and how they are different from English.

The first feature we will address is stress.  Stress or accent refers to the prominence that one or more syllables receive relative to other syllables in a word.  Stress is realized by modifying the pitch, the length, and the volume or any combination of these phonetic features.

Next we will focus on rhythm.  In language, just as in music, rhythm refers to the distribution of sounds as they move through time.  Rhythm in language is closely related to how stressed and unstressed syllables in words and phrases combine.  Rhythm is responsible for the “feel” of a language.  Does it transmit a galloping sound as in Da-da-da Da-da-da, or does it have a staccato quality like in da-da-da-da-da.

Another suprasegmental feature is intonation.  Intonation is the variation of pitch when we speak.  Pitch variation is used in all languages for linguistic purposes.  In tonal languages like Chinese and Vietnamese, pitch is used to differentiate the meaning of words.  For example, in Chinese, depending on the tone, the word ma can mean “mother” or “horse.”  In Spanish and English pitch does not differentiate meaning.  It is used to convey discourse-related meanings.  That is, different pitch variations specify different kinds of utterances.  This use of pitch is called intonation.  Intonation tells us, for example, whether an utterance is a statement or a question.  Further, intonation combined with tempo is used to express emotions.

Finally, word juncture is the suprasegmental feature that studies word boundaries and the ways in which speakers of a language join words together to give a natural flow to their speech.  Two fundamental aspects of word juncture, which we will address in a later chapter, are synalepha and resyllabification.

It is important that you understand what you have learned in this section.  Please take this quiz before proceeding to the next section.



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