Objects of general reference

Closely related to the previous item is the next instance of exception to the LLI rule, which consists of the routine deaccentuation of common words with very low semantic content, like people, thing, stuff, place or expressions such as the man, that woman, this guy, etc. They are called empty words by Wells and objects of general reference by Ortiz-Lira.


Ortiz-Lira provides the following examples, taken from Schubiger[1]:

 (27) sound_loud_speaker Jack is forever displeasing people.

(28) sound_loud_speaker I must explain matters.

(29) sound_loud_speaker I must believe in things.


Wells (2006) stresses the fact that these kinds of words are “little more than pronouns” with these examples:

 (30) sound_loud_speaker Have a word with the guy. (= Have a word with him)

(31) sound_loud_speaker I can’t stand that woman. (= I can’t stand her).


Let’s now turn to some instances of this type of deaccentuation found in natural occurring language.

(32) Oh! Isn’t that just typical of the chattering classes! Chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter! You know… Imposing your views on people! (Hugh Laurie; Oxford, England. Fry & Laurie).

As the graphic shows Hugh Laurie’s funny outburst reaches a climax on the word views (205 Hz.), after which it violently falls to 125 Hz at the beginning of the noun people and to 75 Hz at the end. Of course this is comedy and emotions and expressions tend to be overemphazied, but for this very reason it also provides a good insight into where the emphasis must be put.

The following three recordings provide more subdued instances of the same phenomenon, with the additional interest that they come from very different areas of the English-speaking world.

 (33) sound_loud_speaker You’re a little drop of water in this great ocean. You’re a little speck in the whole scheme of things (Seamus Heaney; Dublin, Ireland).

(34) sound_loud_speaker All the empty spaces in there are filled up with made-up stuff (Charles Frazier; North Carolina, US).

(35) sound_loud_speaker I think he got it because he saw how oppressive the world could be if you couldn’t write. He saw that the written word could both oppress and liberate people (Richard Flanagan; Tasmania, Australia. CBC Radio).

[1] Schubiger, M. 1935. The Role of Intonation in Spoken English. Cambridge: Heffer.

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