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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: June 2014

13 - Analysing phonetic and phonological variation on the suprasegmental level



This chapter describes methods of analysing phonetic and phonological variation on the suprasegmental (or prosodic) level. The suprasegmental level comprises all phonological units and processes that are larger than individual speech sounds. Thus, the prosodic features that can be investigated to document language variation and change include:

stress placement in words and utterances

speech rhythm and


There are a number of widely accepted research methods for studying and describing phonological and phonetic variation on the suprasegmental level. In Section 2, the auditory (Section 2.1) and the acoustic method (Section 2.2) of analysing word stress are discussed. Section 3 presents methods of analysing variation in speech rhythm. The methods of studying variation in intonation are presented in Section 4. This comprises the auditory method (Section 4.1), the combined auditory-acoustic method (Section 4.2) and the acoustic analysis of pitch and intonation (Section 4.3).

Word stress

Stress is a property of syllables and refers to the relative prominence a syllable has. It is defined as an abstract phonological category that forms part of a speaker’s knowledge: it refers to the speaker’s mental representation of a property of a specific syllable of a word. While in intonation languages such as Mandarin and Igbo stress seems to play a minor role, in other languages words have specific stress patterns. In the case of fixed stress languages, all multisyllabic words of a language have stress on a particular syllable, for example on the last syllable in Turkish or on the penultimate syllable in Welsh. In languages with free lexical stress like English, all content words with two or more syllables have at least one stressed syllable. Which of the syllables is stressed can be at least in part predicted by a set of complex rules (see e.g. Roach 1991: chapters 10 and 11).

Further reading
Ashby, Michael and Maidment, John 2005. Introducing phonetic science. Cambridge University Press.
Beckman, Mary 1986. Stress and non-stress accent. (Netherlands Phonetic Archives, Vol. 7). Dordrecht: Foris.
Beckman, Mary, Hirschberg, Julia and Shattuck-Hufnagel, Stefani 2005. ‘The original ToBI system and the evolution of the ToBI framework’, in Jun, Sun-Ah (ed.), Prosodic typology: the phonology of intonation and phrasing. Oxford University Press. 9–54.
Cruttenden, Alan 1997. Intonation. 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press.
Gut, Ulrike 2009a. Non-native speech: a corpus-based analysis of the phonological and phonetic properties of L2 English and German. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.
Kent, Raymond and Read, Charles 2002. The acoustic analysis of speech. 2nd edn. Albany: Delmar, Thompson Learning.
O’Connor, Joseph and Arnold, Gordon 1973. Intonation of colloquial English. 2nd edn. London: Longman.