Tuesday, May 31, 2005

What I Do - Part I

So, this is intended to be the first in a continuing series, attempting to tell people what I do. I mentioned in my summer fun post about writing an article on the uses of intonation in English rhetoric, so let me explain that. I took a class on intonation this last semester. Intonation is easier to show, than explain. Intonation is what makes the sentences "that's a pig" mean different things in the following paragaphs:

A mother and child are looking at a picture book. The child points at a page. The mother says, "that's a chicken." The child points to the next page. "That's a horse," says the mother. The child points at something else and the mother responds, "That's a pig."

N and H are drawing items on the chalkboard for little B to see. N draws a large bird with with wings outstretched, the wind fluttering the feathers, and large round eyes on the head. "That's an owl," says H. H draws a couple big round circles with two ovals in the front, and N says, "That's a pig?"

So intonation is basically the ways the ways that rhythm, pitch, and loudness are used to convey meaning in language. It can be a very subtle emotional tone added to the color of a sentence, or a very basic piece of the sentence, where if you do not understand the intonation, you miss what the person is even trying to say. If you start studying intonation, you discover that it is used in languages all over the world, very likely all languages, but that the way intonation is used is different. It is language-specific. In English, if you raise your pitch at the end of a sentence, the sentence is a question. In Hungarian, it is a statement. All of these things are learned by children as they grow. There are lots of interesting sociological facts about intonation. Intonation is a way that gender roles are defined. So, Spanish males spend more of their time in the lower part of their speaking range than speakers of English or French. Japanese women speak in the highest part of their range. I remember an account of a bilingual Japanese and English speaker - totally fluent, native speaker of both languages. She always spoke much higher in her range when speaking Japanese, than when speaking English. The point - intonation is used to define masculinity, positions of authority, and more.

So what was my project on intonation? Most, almost all in fact, studies of intonation look at very small chunks of language one at a time - individual phrases in fact. And there are a million things to say about how we control the way we utter particular phrases. Each language has its own way of structuring the intonation of phrases, how words are marked, how they break, and how they are grouped within the phrase. I became interested, however, in how these phrases fit together. When someone tells a story, or gives a speech, is intonation used to group these phrases in any particular way? I found an online bank of speeches- speechbank.org i think - with hundreds of speeches. I eventually decided to take a close look at a speech that Malcolm X gave in 1964 called the Ballot or the Bullet. His speech was useful, because he used many rhetorical devices, so there was clearly something to study, and there were very different tones in different parts, so it was not all the same.

My job was to transcribe this speech into an intonational transcription system called ToBI. I used some freeware called Praat, which does acoustic analysis of wav files, and displays the frequency of Malcolm X's voice as it moves up and down. Doing a transcription in ToBI means marking each word, phrase by phrase, marking each accented or prominent word in the phrase, as well as the category of accent, marking the boundary tone for each phrase, and making other comments. It takes about 30 minutes per 10 seconds of speech to transcribe. The hard part then comes with the analysis of a couple hundred separate transcription files. I did notice some repeating patterns. Malcolm X would often repeat the same accent tone sequence, when he wanted to group phrases together. He also would use different boundary tones. If a phrase depends on another, the tone is not one of completion, but a supended tone instead. There were other markers such as this. In the end, based on intonation alone, you could construct a tree of small portions of the speech, showing how they all fit together. Part of this could be considered the art of rhetoric. Part of it is also very basic to understanding the speech. It is important for the audience to know how to interpret the words they hear. When Malcolm X says that his religious views are personal, the intonation lets us know that it is to be opposed to his political view of black nationalism. When Malcolm X lists imperial powers of history, and keeps suspending the phrase, we know to expect more, and this expectation is fulfilled when he adds the US to the list. Intonation works hand in hand with the content and grammar of the speech to let us know how to interpret what we hear.

So my paper last semester were just some preliminary findings on this topic. I suspect that a more comprehensive view would be a publishable article, and that was the possible doing for this summer.

So there you go. An example of what I do.

1 comment:

Killer Llama said...

That's very interesting. I've never heard Malcom X speak, but I was running MLK's "I have a dream" speech through my head as you described how tone works in a speech. I know exactly what you are referring to when you talk about a suspended vs. a completion tone... fascinating stuff.

By the way, yes, Thai has aspirated consonants, but so does English (if I remember my Linguistics 101 from Vandy correctly). "T" is an aspirated "D", "P" is an aspirated "B", "K" is an aspirated "G"... I think maybe "F" is an aspirated "V". Isn't that correct?