Learning the sounds of a language – consonants, vowels, and diphthongs, or – in other words – the smallest segments of speech is very important, though not sufficient to speak that language correctly. Although segments do carry some information, it is the elements larger than sounds – syllables, words, phrases, clauses, and sentences – that are able to express more complex linguistic information: the form of utterances (statements, questions, imperatives etc.), emphasis, contrast, focus, the speaker’s attitude or emotional state, etc. When we read a book, many of these elements are not directly present in the text, or – at best – the reader must guess or conclude them themselves. When we listen to the text of the same book performed by a trained actor in an audiobook, these elements come to us in the form of speech, making it easier for us to recognize whether the narrator is happy or sad, whether he speaks with anger or irony, or sarcasm. This is all done by means of prosody, which is comprised of suprasegmental elements such as stress, intonation, rhythm, and connected speech. Is the actor’s rendering of the text the only one possible? Certainly not. Each time we see a performance of Hamlet, we may leave the theater with a different idea of who the main protagonist actually is. Our impressions will depend on how the actor portraying the Prince of Denmark wanted us to see his character by means of using various aspects of prosody.
To some extent, learning prosody can be intuitive, particularly when it comes to expressing emotions or attitudes. Even if we don’t see the speaker, we will probably recognize that he or she is happy or sad, laughing or crying. There are, however, many aspects of prosody which are not universal but characteristic of a specific language only. Learning the rules of word stress may not be a difficult task in Polish or French, or Italian, or many other languages in which these rules are fairly simple and consistent. English, however, does not have a fixed word stress and so the word combine can be pronounced as combine or combine, wet suit can be a single lexical item pronounced wet suit, or a phrase pronounced wet suit, the word democratic does not have the strongest (primary) stress on the same syllable as the word from which it is derived – democracy, and in fact its stress pattern may even change in a phrase such as democratic government. Learning where to put the primary stress in a phrase or clause and what kind of tone to use is crucial to distinguish the different meanings of sentences like Tim is my brother who lives in France and Tim is my brother, who lives in France, or This is my sister Betty and This is my sister, Betty, or sentences where even punctuation cannot offer any help: The police shot the rioters with guns [meaning either that the police shot the rioters who had guns or that the police used guns to shoot the rioters].
Say It Right – Prosody contains hundreds of useful exercises with thousands of words, phrases, sentences, and short dialogs presenting all elements of prosody. They have been recorded in Standard British and General American by professional voice over artists.
The Prosody module is a separate product and is currently available only in English for Windows, iOS, and Android.