What is Prosody (also known as “expression”)?

This is a term that refers to the communication of specific word meanings via the voice. Prosody comprises the use of punctuation when merging words, blending words together to form meaningful phrases, and the use of intonation.

One can call prosody the melody of language. It involves the stress, rhythm, and intonation of speech, which come together to provide vital information beyond the literal meaning of words in a sentence. Thus with prosody, a speaker can highlight certain elements in speech while putting forth his beliefs, emotions, and attitude as well. But how can prosody provide indications of, say, the speaker’s attitude or state of mind? Depending on the speaker’s intonation, the sentence “It was a great movie” could mean he liked it or just the opposite. Thus, prosody acts as a tool to express human emotions, which are put across acoustically through intensity, durational, and frequency cues. One may add linearity (e.g., smooth vs. sudden changes in loudness, pitch, or duration) as a potential fourth dimension to these traditional cues.

Typically, it takes several years to learn and master prosody. While some people can master it pretty well, others could struggle with it for a lifetime. Usually, such a lifelong struggle is caused due to the inability to perceive prosody effectively or because the pattern these people produce attracts unnecessary attention.

In a language community, prosody helps spread linguistic and paralinguistic (attitudinal and emotional) information appropriately and efficiently. Though linguistic prosody is usually considered a part of phonology, it interacts in a language-specific mode with syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, and morphologic domains of language processing as well. For example, in languages like English, phrasal stress is one of the common prosodic processes to give relative prominence to particular words. Other language-specific prosodic processes include pitch resetting, pausing, and syllable lengthening.

Unlike linguistic prosody, paralinguistic aspects of prosody are much less related to the language. Though it can’t be subject to control always, paralinguistic prosody can be intentional, and the outcome may not always match the content of the linguistic code. Some examples of this type of prosody would include the conscious signaling of sarcasm, affection, empathy, or the relation an individual has to his audience or the person he addresses.

Modern prosody has emerged as a multimodal tool of expression that includes the gesture dimension. Thus, body postures, head/hand gestures, and facial expressions too come within the domain of prosody.

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