I was walking to Sainsbury’s recently, and overheard a young woman asking a question to a man, who was presumably her boyfriend, while pointing in the direction of an expensive-looking shop-window pen. The question was common enough — “Do you think it costs much?” – but there was something peculiar in her way of speaking this phrase, something that immediately marked it in my mind as distinctively British. The way it dipped in the middle, and rose at the end, with the middle syllable elongated, was not unfamiliar to me. But I realized something: the way she spoke this sentence (perhaps you can picture it in your mind), combined with the meanings it is likely to have had, would simply have been impossible in American English.

There are at least two possible implications of this phrase, when said in this way. Firstly, we have the serious interpretation, which suggests 1) that the couple should investigate the true price, and 2) that the woman in question wants to buy it. Secondly, we have the sarcastic interpretation, in which 1) The woman is pointing out the sheer ridiculousness of a pen shop and 2) is implying that the pens are likely to be outrageously overpriced. Tellingly, I can think of no way to convey these meanings, much less this ambiguity, in standard American English.


So far, in our investigation of British and American English differences, we’ve looked at the historical evolution of the American speech and the differences in the style of politeness. This week, we focus on prosody.


It’s time for a bit of definition. Prosody is the study word segments that can be as large as a whole phrase or as small as a syllable. Prosody includes, most basically, intonation, stress, and quantity. Its role is to emphasize words, change the meaning of an utterance, and resolve disambiguity. Prosody can also be used to convey the mood of a speaker. Interestingly, prosody comes before proper human speech—babies can speak nonsense with correct intonation.


Intonation can be explained in terms of variation in pitch(the frequency of a sound—high or low) over segments. Intonation marks the difference between a statement and a question, and can signify attitude and emotion. Stress, on the other hand, refers to prominence due to effort. One can stress either a syllable, as we do in distinguishing the noun DIgest and the verb diGEST, or a word, as we see in Neither HERE nor THERE. Finally, we have quantity, which is also known as “contrastive duration”—think of this in terms of the “short” i in “bit” versus the “long” i in “bite”.


What does this have to do with British and American English? As Baugh and Cable have noted in their History of the English Language, “There can be no gain-saying the fact that American speech is a bit more monotonous, is uttered with less variety in the intonation, than that of Britain.” This statement came as a bit of a surprise to me at first, but when confronted with questions like those in front of the pen shop, I began to wonder if it may be true after all.


Let’s look at the linguistic facts.


To get an idea of the scale of the prosody differences, we turn to a 2002 study on computer speech recognition, which has a number of interesting conclusions. In terms of duration, the study attributes the differences between British and American prosody to a tendency in British English to pronounce vowels at the beginning and end of the sentence in shorter time, and to pronounce last syllable of a sentence quickly. In pitch, the study found that British speakers pronounced vowels with lower pitch than Americans. Further, British speakers, the study concludes, have a steeper rise and fall than American speakers, though this range narrows toward the end of an utterance.

More whimsically, though perhaps infinitely more offensively, another study (though admittedly dated 1977) sought to find an explanation for the reason that Americans often find the speech of British men effeminate. The conclusion rested on the function of tone groups, which are groups of words over which intonation is distributed. Briefly, a tone group possesses a head, a nucleus (the strongest syllable in the accented word), and a tail, denoting its place in the group.

The British linguist Halliday has created a hierarchy of prosodic tones, each denoting differing degrees of rising and falling. His rising tone is the one that is relevant here. This is the tone used in asking simple yes/no questions, such as “Are you coming?,”  in the sense of “I don’t know if you are coming but want to know”. 


The study found that “the British rising head is interpreted by Americans as a tone used with children, while the rising head in American speech is used to show doubt, and is used mostly by women.” Further, the study notes, what is called “an upglided (here, rising) nucleus” is rare in American male speech, but more common in American female speech. Rising nuclei are common in both men’s and women’s speech in British English, and that could account for the fact that British men often sound effeminate to Americans”.


As pointed out in the last post, such generalizations are both inaccurate and outdated in linguistic circles, and in this case, somewhat offensive. But they might just give us insight into cross-linguistic, and by extension, cross-cultural differences. And they shouldn’t discredit the general theory of prosody as a means of investigating linguistic differences.


Through the lens of prosodic differences, we can take a look at complex semantic phenomena, as we see with the vexing question the pen at the beginning of this post. Subtle changes in intonation can spell the difference between different modes of speech both within a single language, and, in our case, across languages. That’s it for this week, but to see more on the general intonation differences in British and American English, take a look at this book, complete with cool diagrams!: http://books.google.com/books?id=xFuUFtDyqJsC&lpg=PA28&ots=n7Z32b9V_k&dq=intonation%20differences%20british%20american%20speech&pg=PA28#v=onepage&q=intonation%20differences%20british%20american%20speech&f=false