Introduction to Prosody

A short course at the 2019 Linguistics Institute


Nigel G. Ward, University of Texas at El Paso

Francisco Torreira, McGill University

Course Description

Prosody, broadly defined as the aspects of spoken utterances that are not governed by segmental contrasts, is challenging to analyze because it operates close to the limits of conscious introspection, and because most spoken utterances involve multiple prosodic dimensions simultaneously conveying multiple meanings or serving multiple communicative functions. This course will help participants learn to identify, discover, and describe meaningful prosodic properties and patterns in spoken utterances.

The approach will be theory-neutral and descriptively eclectic. The focus will be on primary observation and preliminary analysis and ideation rather than hypothesis testing based on pre-existing theories. The course will include lectures, ear and production training exercises, discussions of readings, qualitative and quantitative analysis with Praat, R, and other tools, hands-on analysis of provided and contributed data, and the development and presentation of student research proposals. The course is designed to be broadly accessible, with knowledge of phonetics not required. Case studies will, depending on student interests, include sociolinguistic differences in the production and perception of prosodic forms, the mapping between prosody and other layers of linguistic and communicative organization (e.g. syntax, discourse, conversational turn-taking), cross-language comparisons, cross-cultural issues, and the prosody of non-native speakers.

Motivation for the Course

Prosody is of wide cross-cutting interest, and this course will highlight its relevance to topics beyond phonetics: grammar, discourse analysis, pragmatics, nonverbal communication, and other areas. The relation to the theme of Language in the Digital Era will be in terms of introducing participants to software tools and computation methods for analyzing prosody. There will also be digressions on ways to model prosody for applications including emotion detection, personality inference, detection of medical conditions, speech synthesis, information retrieval, engendering rapport in virtual agents, and so on.

Tentative Outline

1. Basic prosodic features (pitch, intensity, spectral stability, etc.). Frame level aspects: acoustic, perceptual and articulatory; properties; microprosody. Reading: Ogden 2017, Chapter 4

2. Unit-linked prosodic patterns: Syllable, word, and sentence-level prosodic phenomena. Representation in influential models and frameworks (British School, Autosegmental). Phonological approaches and typology. Familiarization with Praat’s pitch and intensity displays, and cautions regarding their use. Reading: Cole 2015.

3. Derived (mid-level) prosodic features (pitch height, pitch range, pitch slope, loudness) and phonetic features that pattern with prosody (lengthening, rhythm and other timing features, precision of articulation, devoicing, harmonicity, nasal, creaky, and breathy voice.) Reading: Szczepek Reed, 2011, Chapter 1.

4. Prosodic patterns of dialog acts and of turn-taking. Issues in analyzing dialog data. Familiarization with the Mid-Level Toolkit. Reading: Ward, 2018, Chapter 8.

5. Paralinguistic aspects of prosody. The prosody of emotion, attitude, and stance. More features of the Mid-Level Toolkit. Reading: Gussenhoven 2002 or 2016.

6. Prosodic patterns of topic management. Cross-level phenomena. Computational models of prosody. Reading: Xu 2016.

7. Historical Perspective. Discussion of areas of student interest and/or joint analysis of student-contributed data. Initial formulation and triage of research proposal ideas. Reading: Crystal, 1969, selections.

8. Student research proposal presentations. Dialectal and individual variation. Other outstanding issues in prosody.


This course will be held June 24, 2019, in Davis, California, as part of the LSA 2019 Linguistics Institute. Registration will be available soon at the Institute's Registration page.

Audio Examples

chotto matte

gohan desu yo

ii naa