• Wednesday, November 29, 2023
businessday logo


Achieving prominence in spoken communication

Discourse markers in communication

Beyond the mastery of grammar and possession of a wide vocabulary, language use, especially spoken language, can be characterised by finesse and eloquence. One of the ways second-language users of English can achieve eloquence is to be mindful of English as an intonational language which relies on stress.

This is different from most Nigerian languages which are tonal. In Yoruba, for instance, the tone of a single orthographical representation can be varied to derive four different words:

Igbá (calabash)

Ìgbà (period)

Igba (two hundred)

Ìgbá (garden egg)

This also applies to the Igbo language:

Ákwá (cry)

Àkwà (bed)

Ákwà (clothe)

Àkwá (egg)

What is clear from the examples drawn from the two tonal languages is that the syllables in the words are given equal prominence. The semantic difference is, thus, achieved through tone variant. In English, however, prominence is achieved through stress and not tone. The placement of stress on different syllables facilitates different meanings. Stress is a combination of loudness, duration and pitch.

When a particular syllable is made louder, more durable and of a higher pitch than the others, it will have a semantic implication on the word and, possibly, on the whole sentence. For instance, when the word “produce” is stressed on the first syllable, it is considered a noun, and its articulation becomes different from when it is stressed on the second syllable when it serves as a verb.

Having given this general background into how prominence is achieved in spoken English, I shall discuss three kinds of prominence that can be achieved in utterances to aid meaning and communication. They are focus, theme, and emotive emphasis.

Information structure, for starters, needs focus. In English, generally, there is the use of end focus. As such, prominence is often on the last content word (noun, verb, adjective or adverb) in a sentence:

Dr Bamgbose works in LAGOS.

Recall that the focus here means the prominent word which is louder, more durable and of a higher pitch. Moving on, there could be contrastive focus where the focus of the expression is shifted from the last content word to whatever the speaker chooses to make prominent for communicative purposes. Using the same sentence given for the end focus, if a question seeks to know who works in Lagos, then the focus can shift to Dr Bamgbose, as in:

DR BAMGBOSE works in Lagos.

Moreover, if a person enquires, “Did you say Dr Bamgbose worships in Lagos?”, the emphasis at this point can shift to the verb “works”, as in:

I didn’t say Dr Bamgbose worships in Lagos; I said Dr Bamgbose WORKS in Lagos.

Contrastive focus can also be achieved through the placement of prominence on grammatical words such as prepositions and conjunctions which usually do not take end focus:

Mother: Who are you GOING with?

Daughter: The place is not far, mum.

Mother: Who are you going WITH (not to)?

In the short exchange, the focus in the mother’s first expression is on the last content word “going”, as expected. However, the daughter’s avoidance strategy made for contrastive focus on the preposition “with” which ordinarily should not be prominent as a grammatical word.

Read also: The grammar of “names” in English

Note, too, that focus could be placed on just a word within a phrase, rather than the complete phrase, in order to foreground a piece of information:

Speaker 1: I am Dr Ganiu Bamgbose.

Speaker 2: Oh, the one who edited the book on New Englishes?

Speaker: I am GANIU Bamgbose, not Ayo Bamgbose.

In the short interaction above, the focus on Ganiu is to differentiate the Bamgbose that edited the book from the one involved in the interaction.

Within a word, focus could also be shifted from the syllable that ought to be stressed to another, for the sake of emphasis. For instance, the stressed syllable in “important” is “POR”, but this focus can be negotiated in an interaction, as the exchange below shows:

Speaker 1: It’s imPORtant for now.

Speaker 2: It’s what?

Speaker 1: It’s imporTANT!

Such a shift in focus helps to achieve clarity in communication.

This contrastive focus also works with compound words and phrases. For instance, in the noun phrase “school teacher”, the prominence should be on the second constituent “teacher”. However, if someone asks if I had just said a “lesson teacher”, I could repeat myself by saying, “I said a SCHOOL teacher”, thereby changing the focus of the phrase by moving prominence.

Having clearly explained focus as one of the ways of achieving prominence, in this piece, my next treatise will discuss the two other ways of achieving prominence.