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Human-Robot Interaction Lab Sønderborg

Warm-up & Overview: finding the important words in an utterance

We are so used to reading and writing that we often do not think about it anymore, but when people speak, they are actually producing long stretches of talk.

In Norwegian (NO), Swedish (SE) and Danish (DK), speakers help listeners to pick out the important words in an utterance by using rhythm and by moving their voiced up and down, that is by using tonal movements.

When somebody asks you a simple question in a neighboring language, it is usually not that difficult to get what is being asked. Just listen to one of the utterances that are not your native language:

 

(1)         a.     Simple question in Norwegian: What does the speaker say?

      b.     Simple question in Swedish: What does the speaker say?

      c.     Simple question in Danish: What does the speaker say?

If the utterance is longer, it can start feeling overwhelming. Listen to one of the utterances that is not in your native language:

 

(2)         a.     Long question in Norwegian

                b.     Long question in Swedish

                c.     Long question in Danish


What you should to first is to listen for the important words. Those are usually stressed. Finding the important words in an utterance is a good way of splitting a long stream of talk up into smaller chunks that can be worked with to find out what the message is.

Listen to the utterances in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish in example (3) below. Listen for the most important words and underline them. This is not always an easy task, but this is what you have to do when meeting a neighbor who engages in conversation. You do not necessarily have to understand what is said, just try to identify the important words – please note that the words are not always pronounced as they are written. For example, the Danish word også (“also”) is often just pronounced os.

 

(3)         Underline the important words in the following utterances:

a. Norwegian:  Dei skandinaviske språgan… eh… kan du dei au, eller?

b. Swedish:             Tycker du att robotar ska användas i äldreomsorgen?

c. Danish: Taler du også andre sprog?


Syllables are stressed

Now to an important point: words are not stressed as a whole. Syllables are stressed.

 

In every word, there is one single syllable that has the strongest stress.

 

Primary stress: the strongest stress in a word

The strongest stress is called the primary stress. Now go back to exercise (3), repeated below, and listen to the stressed words again. Circle the syllables carrying the biggest stress in each underlined word.

(3)         Underline the important words in the following utterances:

a. Norwegian:  Dei skandinaviske språgan… eh… kan du dei au, eller?

b. Swedish:         Tycker du att robotar ska användas i äldreomsorgen?

c. Danish:            Taler du også andre sprog?

Secondary stress: less strong

In some words, there are also smaller stresses, called secondary stresses. This is for example common in compounds like Swedish äldreomsorgen in question (3b) above. You can listen to just this word in example (4):

(4)         Äldreomsorgen = äldre (“elderly”) + omsorgen (”the care”)

 

The word äldreomsorgen consists of the two words äldre (“elderly”) and omsorgen (“care” + definite ending “the”): the primary stress is on the first syllable of the first word: ÄL-dreomsorgen. Then there is a secondary stress on the middle syllable of the second word: äldreom-sor-gen.

(When taking the word apart, Swedish native speakers may react to the placement of the secondary stress is on (ÄL-dre)om-sor-gen. When the word omsorgen is used alone, the primary stress is on the first syllable, OM-sorgen. However, the syllable for stress placement can sometimes be shifted in compounds, for example for making the rhythm more relaxed.)

 

Rhythm and tonal movements divide the speech into chunks

The shift between stressed and unstressed words in speech in Swedish, Danish and Norwegian results in what is called rhythm.

But there is more than just stress. Tonal movements are used for making some stressed syllables stand out even more. If you listen to (and look at) the word äldreomsorgen again, you can see that there are tonal movements (i.e. the speaker moves her voice up and down) both on the primary-stressed syllables and the secondary stressed syllable in this word. Compare to the tones of the unstressed syllables:

 

(5)         In the pronunciation of this compound noun in Central Swedish, there are tonal movements on the primary-stressed and the secondary stressed syllable.

The tonal movements that start on primary-stressed syllables are called accents.

Rhythm and tonal movements help listeners understanding what words and phrases belong together and should be interpreted together.

So that is what we are going to deal with in this part of the presentation:

  • Rhythm: stressed vs. unstressed syllables
  • Tonal movements inside utterances: accented vs. unaccented syllables = accent groups
  • Tonal movements with utterance functions: end intonation and “global intonation”

Let us get started by investigating stress! That is the topic of this exercises in the section Stress: highlighting words by making syllables stand out.

Then we will go on to accents, which is primary stress + tonal movement, see Accents: highlighting words by changing the tone. However, the tonal influence of the accent melodies is not restricted to the accented syllables. The accent melodies can encompass a whole stretch of syllables and words and help us divide the speech we here into manageable chunks for processing, seeAccent groups: chunks of speech formed by accent melodies.

For those who are very interested in speech melody, or are learning to speak a Scandinavian language, it is important to notice that are accents with different degree of prominence, i.e. signaling words to be of different importance. You can read more about this in the text Accents: Important information and very important information.

There are also tonal movements with functions with respect to a complete utterance, see Tonal movements with functions concerning the whole utterance.

Finally, we will give you some examples of Scandinavian speech melody. We asked native speakers to interview each other for us. We gave them an interview script that contained several different question types, since certain question types are known from other languages to have characteristic speech melodies. For an explanation of the question types, see Questions of different types.

You can get an overview of how the different question types were pronounced by our speakers in the section Overview: Intonation in different question types. From this first overview, there are also links to some further examples of each individual question type, including a comparison of speech melody variations between different varieties of the same language. For the varieties spoken by our speakers, see The varieties in this material. In the section on varieties, you will also find some more examples of how pronunciation differences between the languages and their varieties.

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Stress: highlighting words by making syllables stand out

Stress

Accents: highlighting words by changing the tone

Accents-highlight

Accent groups: Chunks of speech formed by accent melodies

Accent-groups

Accents: Important information and very important information

Accents-important-information

Tonal movements with functions concerning the whole utterance

Utterance-functions

“Where were you born?” – Questions of different types

Question-types

Last Updated 30.10.2023