In China and Japan, the term ‘keynote speech’ seems to have undergone serious grade inflation. At the Shanghai conference I alluded to yesterday there were no fewer than 15 different ‘keynote speeches’ delivered, which seems to imply a polyphonic reluctance to remain in tune. I would have just called them ‘plenaries’.
Anyhow, a particularly interesting one was given by the organizer of the conference, Bu Youhong. She reported on some of the intonation errors she had observed among Chinese learners of English. In line with Francis Nolan’s advice, she was concerned only with ‘the division of the speech chunks’ (tonality) and ‘nucleus placement’ (tonicity), not tone.
I have tended to regard chunking (tonality) as a pretty common-sense matter, not varying much across languages, and therefore not needing much explicit teaching. Judging by some of the material Prof. Bu presented, this is not entirely the case.
Her subjects had to read aloud a written passage of English. Some of their intonational treatments were nothing short of bizarre.
- English is spoken | as a | first language | in over forty countries | around the | world
Separating the articles a and the from their noun phrases and giving them nuclear accents suggests to me either extreme disfluency or complete failure to understand the meaning of the sentence. Isn’t it obvious that they need to be closely linked to their respective following noun phrases? (Evidently not.)
- … Crystal also estimates | that | English plays a significant part…
- …those | who speak | it |…
Isn’t it also obvious that the complementizer (‘subordinating conjunction’) that has to be grouped with the clause it introduces, rather than treated separately or grouped with the verb it depends on? Again, evidently not: the example quoted is only one of a whole number in which Bu’s subjects had wrongly treated that as if it were a determiner (= demonstrative) rather than a conjunction ( = relative pronoun or complementizer). And isn’t it obvious that a pronoun object (here, it) has to be grouped with the verb that precedes it? It would get its own i.p., and therefore a nuclear accent, only in the rare case where it was thrown into contrastive focus.
These points are all subsumed in the general rule for not accenting function words — a rule that nevertheless calls for quite a bit of work. Do we really need to spell out that the indefinite and definite articles are covered by this rule, along with that when it is not a demonstrative, and pronouns?