Suprasegmentals

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The days (and leaves) are falling fast in (mostly sunny) Martinsburg, and RT has been busy arranging further linguistic and grammatical explorations for friends and followers… in particular, set aside a day on your calendar for Tea-Time with the Dragons of Grammar, which promises to be a most illuminating (and mischievous) event…but for those who can’t wait for the latest hit from the Dragons, here is something feisty and fiery.

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In linguistics, a segment is any discrete unit that can be identified in the production or reception of human speech (for instance, a phone or phoneme). Suprasegmentals are phonemes that cannot be easily broken down into segments. For instance, the segments of sign language are visual–hands, face, eyes, and body gesture. Vowels and consonants are also segments, that is, discrete speech units.

On the other hand, some speech units do not exist independently from others; these are the suprasegmentals, and include such items as tone and secondary articulations (for instance, co-articulated consonants). Suprasegmentals are in essence additional and simultaneous speech information that augments or completes a speaker’s meaning or articulation.

Just imagine Mandarin Chinese without its tones; the language has been robbed of most of its articulation. That’s how important suprasegmentals are.

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As far as charting and scribing these erudite beasts, patience is in order. For English speakers, stress is a familiar concept (especially if you’re a poet) and helps structure the sound of our speech. On the other hand, no adult English speaker will be able to master the subtleties of the Chinese tones. The other marks fall somewhere in the middle in terms of familiarity…but more on that from RT in the next little while…

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Chart: WikiCmns; Authors: Grendelkhan, Nohat; Licence: CC 3.o Unported.

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