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The Importance of Prosody

March 26, 2010

MIT's Norvin Richards (Photo:Patrick Gillooly)

In his newly published book, Uttering Trees, linguist Norvin Richards explains how the noises we make help to shape the sentences we speak.

From MIT.EDU NEWS (by Peter Dizikes): “In linguistic terms, a question is largely the re-ordering of a statement. Shuffle the words around, make a couple of other changes, and ‘John rode a horse’ becomes ‘What did John ride?’

Linguists call this re-arranging of words ‘wh-movement,’ due to the wh-words used in questions (who, when, and so on) and they believe it occurs in two forms. English displays what linguists call ‘overt wh-movement,’ in which word order is shuffled heavily, since many questions begin with wh-words. (There are exceptions: ‘John rode a what?’) But some languages, like Japanese, deploy ‘covert wh-movement,’ in which word order remains largely intact as a statement becomes a question, and the wh-words appear in a variety of locations.

But what determines which of these options a given language uses? In a new book, ‘Uttering Trees,’ MIT linguistics professor Norvin Richards asserts that if we carefully study prosody — the way the pitch of our voices goes up and down — we can determine which kind of wh-movement any language will employ. In turn, Richards believes, this suggests that for all languages, the sound pattern in sentences is more integral to the syntax — the processes and principles that govern the structure of sentences — than scholars have generally thought.” (more)

This is fascinating study, to me. I think anyone with a writer’s ear innately understands the role of cadence and prosody in the development of linguistic structures. For educators, particularly language educators, being attuned to languages’ prosodies — and how they might reflect and lend access to a universal grammar — can be a key to unlocking reciprocal language awarenesses (for both students and teachers).

More support for the adage “you know more than you think you know,” when it comes to understanding other languages. And what of music?

Read Dizike’s full article here:


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