Hidden behind the words

Communicating through spoken language involves more than just words. Tone, rhythm, stress and intonation – or modulation – also convey meaning and emotional state. These features are known as prosody. Intonation, for example, indicates whether the speaker is asking a question or making a statement. Michael Wagner, a researcher in the Department of Linguistics at McGill University, is studying the information encoded in prosody in different languages.

A better knowledge of prosody could have implications in a wide range of areas.

How do prosodic features transmit information? How much of this information is retrieved by the listener? How is it used in speech processing? The researcher took advantage of Montréal's linguistic diversity to gain a better understanding of how language functions in everyday speech, and the use of language in poetry. For example, French and English differ in their use of emphasis to signal new information. Close observation of language also reveals the reasons why identical rhymes (such as "sept, huit, neuf / dans mon panier neuf") are commonly used in French poetry, while in English they are considered unconventional or even unacceptable.

A better knowledge of prosody could have implications in a wide range of areas, including improving the intelligibility of synthesized speech and improving speech recognition systems. This project has also led to the development of a new tool for analysing recordings of speech, the "prosodylab-aligner", which can be downloaded on the lab's website. This research has been published in the journals Semantic & Pragmatics, Language and Cognitive Processes, and Cognition and presented at conferences in Canada, the USA and Europe. The researcher also contributed a chapter to an edited volume published by Cambridge University Press.