Grounding concepts

Before tackling the proper subject of this dissertation, it is necessary to clarify a few basic concepts.


Nuclear accent

 The nuclear accent –or main accent, nucleus or tonic, as has been variously called- is placed on a word selected as particularly important for meaning within the IP. The accent goes on the lexically stressed syllable within that word, so it is always placed on a strong vowel and has rhythmic beat. But what characterizes it as nuclear is the fact that it is given pitch prominence by the speaker. This means that there is a change in pitch or the beginning of a pitch movement. Thus the nuclear accent is located in the syllable which carries the tone[1] or where the tone starts.

In this work I signalled nuclear accents by underlining them, that is, by underlining only the stressed and pitch-prominent syllable where the accent goes.


The three Ts

As Wells (2006) puts it, “speakers of English face three types of decision as they speak: how to break the material up into chunks, what is to be accented, and what tones are to be used”. These three decisions correspond to the three parameters into which the linguist Michael Halliday divided the study of English intonation in 1967. These are known as the three Ts and, in Paul Tench’s words (2005), they “are now more or less universally acknowledged as valid, even though they appear under different terms”.

Here is a sketchy description of the three Ts and what they involve:

Tonality. The division of the speech into chunks, which are called Intonation Phrases (IP).

Tonicity. The distribution of accents within each IP and the assignment of the most important accent –the nucleus or tonic- to one word.

Tone. The pitch movement which is going to be used in the nucleus. There are four possibilities: fall, rise, fall-rise and rise-fall.

This dissertation deals with the second parameter, tonicity, so the other two, tonality and tone, are not going to be considered.


The Last Lexical Item Rule

Tonicity is a system whose main tenet is expressed by the Last Lexical Item rule. The rule establishes that, unless there is a reason for doing otherwise, the nucleus of the IP –that is, its main accent- falls on the last lexical item. At this point two clarifications are needed. First the distinction between lexical words (nouns, adjectives, adverbs and most verbs), which are those words which convey a clear meaning, and function words (prepositions, articles, conjunctions, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, modal verbs and the copula verb be), which are best described in terms of their syntactic function. Second, it must be taken into account the fact that the rule talks about “lexical items” and not words in order to include compounds.

Let’s see an example of how the LLI rule works. In the utterance

(1) I don’t know what she’s talking about.

the nucleus falls on the verb talking and not on the preposition about. In general this is somewhat difficult to grasp for Spanish speakers because the default word for the nucleus in Spanish is always the last one. But unfortunately there is a world of difference in terms of pronunciation between saying


(2) sound_loud_speaker I don’t know what she’s talking about.


(3) sound_loud_speaker *I don’t know what she’s talking about.


(2) is the correct, unmarked version in English and, if we produce (3), we are placing an unnatural emphasis on a preposition, which might puzzle our interlocutor and make him or her wonder if we are trying to imply something different. In the end, this will result in an unmistakingly foreign accent.

The matter becomes more complicated because we can have several function words in a row at the end of an IP, which will make the decision about the nucleus less straightforward. In this case, we will have to go back in search of the last lexical item. For example:


(4) sound_loud_speaker We know he’s been stealing money, but we’ve never caught him at it.


If we proceed backwards along the sentence, we will find:

  1. The neutral pronoun it –a function word-.
  2. The preposition at –another function word-.
  3. The personal masculine pronoun him –a function word again-.
  4. The verb caught, which is a lexical word and consequently receives the main accent.


Let’s now have a look at a couple of examples taken from real life.

(5) sound_loud_speaker His novel, Be near me, is a beautiful and poignant exploration of a life of a catholic priest, father David, who does not, it’s fair to say, have a very good time of it (James Naughtie; Aberdeenshire, Scotland. BBC4).

(6) Before I do that, there’s something I want to talk to you about (Frank Alberston; Fergus Falls, Minnesota, US, Room Service)


Broad focus and narrow focus

A few words about information structure are also required. The relationship between what is already known –usually called old information or just given in linguistics- and what is new in speech has been a concern of linguists’ for a long time. As Saeed (2009) explains, there are different ways of marking newness and giveness in language. Syntax is one of the obvious ones, as exemplified in the opposition between definite and indefinite article, e.g., whereas the nominal phrase the car refers to something already known, a car introduces a new element into discourse. The other important route to singalling new information is intonation.


Consider the two following examples:

(7) sound_loud_speaker John is going to rent a flat.

(8) sound_loud_speaker John is going to rent a flat.


While in (7) we are making a general, unmarked statement in which everything is new to our interlocutor, in (8) the knowledge that someone is going to rent a flat is already shared. Then, by dint of intonation, we proceed to identify that person, and this is the new piece of information we are contributing.

Now, these two examples correspond to two useful concepts:

Broad focus sentences or IPs, as in (7), in which the whole utterance constitutes new information.

Narrow focus sentences or IPs, as in (8), where part of the information conveyed in the utterance is old.

So, when an IP is produced with broad focus, the last lexical item is accented (flat, in the example). If, on the other hand, an IP is produced with narrow focus, the nuclear accent is not placed on the last lexical item but on another lexical word prior to that (John, in (8)). This accented word is the focus or the nucleus and marks the limit of the part of the utterance containing new information, which is known as the focus domain. Everything after that point is considered old information and becomes deaccented.

Of course this resource is not unique to English. In Spanish it is employed and understood too. Look at this example:


(9) –¿Qué te pasa? ¿No te gusta la comida?

      –La carne no me gusta.

It would be difficult to claim that this is not a natural way of answering in Spanish. The difference is that English makes a much heavier use of this kind of deaccentuation, whereas Spanish, in general, as we will see throughout this work, tends to rely more on a syntactic reorganization of the sentence, as in


(10) Lo que no me gusta es la carne.


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