Prosody and intonation in German

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Prosody and intonation in German

Postby tungemål » Mon May 25, 2020 12:52 pm

Inspired by the discussion on the importance of practicing intonation (here), I start this thread where we can discuss intonation in German.

So according to wikipedia prosody is "properties of syllables and larger units of speech, including linguistic functions such as intonation, tone, stress, and rhythm." Intonation is only the "melody": how the pitch varies up and down in a sentence

These two resources were posted in the other thread:

jeff_lindqvist wrote:Does this help?

Towards a Model for German Prosody
https://journals.lub.lu.se/LWPL/article ... 6917/15296

slowmoon wrote:Thank you! I just skimmed through it. It confirms what I've noticed, but most of it is a bit too academic for me.

If the visual models on pages 28 and 32 (or even the High-Low notation used on page 18) were used to model 100 or 1000 different sentences (with accompanying audio), it would be a fantastic resource for learners.

I found this video pretty useful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95vfpXaZbC0
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Re: Prosody and intonation in German

Postby Haselnuss » Tue May 26, 2020 2:24 am

Thanks for starting this thread on German prosody. I have several comments.

First of all, the link to the youtube video by Michaela Fröhlich is top notch. She has an entire set of pronunciation videos, all of which are worth watching, including some directly related to prosody (Satzakzent, Wortakzent, Intonation). IMHO a teacher like her is the gold standard. She has a university degree in the theory and practice of teaching German as a foreign language. Also, she's experienced; she started her language school going on 10 years ago, and by the looks of things she must be doing well because her hourly rates have gone up. I'm not a student of hers, but if I wanted to spend the money for a German teacher, she has the kind of qualifications I would seek.

Secondly, there are a couple of books on German pronunciation that are worth investigating for those learners who want to work on their accent. And since prosody is an important part of accent, prosody is treated.

The first book, as the name suggests, is specifically targeted toward native anglophones: Modern German Pronunciation, An introduction for speakers of English, second edition by Christopher Hall. Chapter 5 of this book covers "Stress and Intonation". The book has a bunch of spoken exercises, the mp3 files for which can be downloaded for free from the publisher's website. This book is well suited for self-learners. (I own this book myself and find it excellent.) However, if you're not an anglophone, then don't bother with this book. As is probably already clear, each L1 learner is going to have their own problems with L2 pronunciation. So, for example, a native Spanish speaker will have different problems with German pronunciation than a native English speaker will. A book like this won't meet the needs of the native Spanish speaker.

A second book on German pronunciation, geared toward a more general audience, is Aussprachekurs Deutsch: Übungsprogramm zur Verbesserung der Aussprache für Unterricht und Selbststudium by Ulrike A. Kaunzner. Here you have to buy both the book itself as well as a standalone set of audio files (available in either audio-CD or MP3-CD format). According to an online review of this book, there is indeed a specific section which treats prosody. I don't own this book myself, so I can't offer a personal opinion. But it's worth noting that several years ago while googling for German-pronunciation resources, I came across a German pronunciation course taught at an American college, which used the first edition of this book as its text. Sadly, the first edition went out of print. I'm happy to see that this book is now updated and presumably improved. At any rate, the new edition should now conform to the German spelling reform. If I were focused on improving my German pronunciation, I would buy a copy of this book as well as the accompanying audio files.
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Re: Prosody and intonation in German

Postby tungemål » Tue May 26, 2020 9:18 pm

This is what I have managed to gather about intonation in German after trying to analyse it myself. Would be interesting to hear whether or not you agree.

To describe intonation in German I think we need these categories:
H - High tone
L - Low tone
r - rising tone

Intonation in German varies according to stress. All words have stress, but in a sentence not all words will be stressed since they are not equally important. A sentence can have one or more syllables that are stressed.

  • A stressed syllable is marked by a high tone, BUT often just as well a rising tone.
  • An initial unstressed syllable has a low tone.
  • An unstressed end-syllable has a low tone, unless the speaker indicates continuation, then it is high.
  • Also, an unstressed word has a low tone.
Lets use two example words:
- sprechen, which has 2 syllables: stressed and unstressed
- verbessern, which has 3 syllables: initial unstressed, stressed, unstressed

So I hear this pattern a lot:
sprechen: HH or rH
verbessern: LHH or LrH

Continuation is indicated with this pattern (last tone is high) untill the sentence ends with a full stop.

At the end of the sentence the last syllable gets a low tone:
sprechen: HL
verbessern: LHL

So I found maybe the most characteristic parts of the German intonation is this rising tone that is often used to indicate the stressed syllable.
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Re: Prosody and intonation in German

Postby Ser » Tue May 26, 2020 11:13 pm

You seem to be analyzing German a bit too much like Japanese there. Analyses like LHL, LHH and so on per word make sense in Japanese because that language is lightly tonal and those sound height patterns are supposed to be memorized along the words, but this is not the case in German.

Non-tonal languages like English and German are better analyzed with whole sentences, paying attention to the intonation groups (like pauses in the middle of longer sentences), what words are being emphasized, the emotion conveyed in the context, and some similar things. Not single words.

Here's an example from a book on English phonetics, describing untransformed yes/no questions in (Southern Standard British) English and (Amsterdam?) Dutch:

Image

Notice that although all three of "Paul's", "going" and "tomorrow" are shown as stressed (hence the long lines), the focus of the intonation is on "Paul" and "tomorrow".

Source: Collins, Beverley; Mees, Inger M. 2003. The Phonetics of English and Dutch. 5th ed. Leiden: Brill.
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Re: Prosody and intonation in German

Postby Haselnuss » Wed May 27, 2020 3:48 am

Yes, Ser has hit the nail on the head here. In German phonetics it doesn't really make sense to talk about intonation within a word.

An additional point worth making is that the fall in pitch that is characteristic at the end of the sentence of some German intonation patterns is more abrupt than the fall that occurs in the corresponding English sentence. In Ser's example "Paul's going tomorrow", the fall at the end of the sentence is depicted on the pitch graph as a gradually downward-sloping inverted letter "U". In German, the corresponding sentence intonation has a fall that is usually depicted as more of an inverted letter "V". In German the fall is simply steeper and more abrupt.

The German and English intonation patterns are similar in their basic features, so for any anglophone that can sing at least a little bit, it shouldn't be super complicated to develop a decent approximation of German intonation. After all they're both Germanic languages. I suspect that the same is true between Norwegian and German, and perhaps tungemål can comment on the degree of similarity regarding intonation. I'd also be interested to hear whether German intonation is a much trickier matter for native speakers of tonal languages like Japanese or Mandarin

One further point of potential interest. There are several intonation patterns in English that simply don't exist in German. If you try to use those patterns in German it's the clear mark of an anglophone accent.
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Re: Prosody and intonation in German

Postby kjohnsto » Wed May 27, 2020 12:22 pm

Haselnuss wrote:One further point of potential interest. There are several intonation patterns in English that simply don't exist in German. If you try to use those patterns in German it's the clear mark of an anglophone accent.


Definitely this! My native language is American English, and I was once told by my German teachers that my intonation was "sing-songy" and that I needed to speak with more consistent emphases on each syllable. On the one hand, I would like to improve my accent to be better understood; on the other, my accent is my accent and I talk how I talk, and in the reverse, I could hear a bit of their German accent when they spoke English. And that's fine! We could talk with each other in both languages :D

I have a loose theory about this that I'd appreciate your thoughts on: you place whatever you want to emphasize before the position II verb in German, where in English you would use your intonation and not change the word order.

Example:
Without emphasis: Ich bin die ganze Woche zuhause geblieben.
With emphasis: Die ganze Woche bin ich zuhause geblieben.

Without emphasis: I spent the whole week at home.
With emphasis: I spent the whole week at home.

So when I say, "Ich bin die ganze Woche zuhause gelieben", that is a flag to a native speaker that I am not one too.
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Re: Prosody and intonation in German

Postby slowmoon » Wed May 27, 2020 4:11 pm

Haselnuss wrote: There are several intonation patterns in English that simply don't exist in German.


Are there intonation patterns in German that don't exist in other languages?
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Re: Prosody and intonation in German

Postby tungemål » Wed May 27, 2020 4:46 pm

Ser wrote:You seem to be analyzing German a bit too much like Japanese there. Analyses like LHL, LHH and so on per word make sense in Japanese because that language is lightly tonal and those sound height patterns are supposed to be memorized along the words, but this is not the case in German.

Non-tonal languages like English and German are better analyzed with whole sentences, paying attention to the intonation groups (like pauses in the middle of longer sentences), what words are being emphasized, the emotion conveyed in the context, and some similar things. Not single words.


Thanks for the input. It was interesting and I may have been too focused on the microlevel of intonation. Emotion, whether the sentence is a question and so on will also influence intonation but I didn't include that in my intonation model above.

However I am not yet convinced that what I wrote is wrong. Maybe I was not clear, because I didn't mean to imply tones like in Japanese where the high-low-pattern is intrinsic to the meaning of the word.

I did mean stress patterns inside a sentence, not just a single word. So I should have included examples with full sentences. Like I said, not all words are stressed or emphasised in a sentence, so only a few words will contribute to the stresses within a sentence. And this pattern of stress or accents undoubtedly determine the intonation, in addition to emotion and so on. Possibly is it wrong to use the term "tone" here but there is a pattern of high and low pitch, in addition to a rising pitch.

The fact that a statement will have a drop in pitch at the end, and a question a rising pitch, is not very interesting to me since this happens in English, German, Dutch, and probably most European languages. (For a Chinese speaker, on the other hand, this might not be intuitive knowledge so has to be learned.) What distinguishes German from English from Dutch are more subtle differences, that (among other things) has to do with how the speaker shows stresses and emphasis through intonation.

Here's an example from a book on English phonetics, describing untransformed yes/no questions in (Southern Standard British) English and (Amsterdam?) Dutch:

Image

Notice that although all three of "Paul's", "going" and "tomorrow" are shown as stressed (hence the long lines), the focus of the intonation is on "Paul" and "tomorrow".


"Paul's going tomorrow"
Yes exactly, "going" on itself has a stressed syllable and an unstressed one, but in the sentence that word is unstressed, only Paul and tomorrow contribute to sentence stress.

By the way, here one can see one thing that is very typical for British English intonation: the intonation of the last stressed word falls from the highest register (often higher than any preceding syllables) to the lowest. This happens also if the last word has only one syllable (high-low within one syllable). While the Dutch intonation doesn't get that high on the last stressed syllable.
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Re: Prosody and intonation in German

Postby tungemål » Wed May 27, 2020 6:05 pm

I just watched the Michaela Fröhlich videos on intonation and accent, and they were excellent. She cleared up a couple of things for me and I will probably watch the intonation video again.
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Re: Prosody and intonation in German

Postby Haselnuss » Wed May 27, 2020 8:49 pm

kjohnsto wrote:
Haselnuss wrote:One further point of potential interest. There are several intonation patterns in English that simply don't exist in German. If you try to use those patterns in German it's the clear mark of an anglophone accent.


Definitely this! My native language is American English, and I was once told by my German teachers that my intonation was "sing-songy" and that I needed to speak with more consistent emphases on each syllable. On the one hand, I would like to improve my accent to be better understood; on the other, my accent is my accent and I talk how I talk, and in the reverse, I could hear a bit of their German accent when they spoke English. And that's fine! We could talk with each other in both languages :D

I have a loose theory about this that I'd appreciate your thoughts on: you place whatever you want to emphasize before the position II verb in German, where in English you would use your intonation and not change the word order.

Example:
Without emphasis: Ich bin die ganze Woche zuhause geblieben.
With emphasis: Die ganze Woche bin ich zuhause geblieben.

Without emphasis: I spent the whole week at home.
With emphasis: I spent the whole week at home.

So when I say, "Ich bin die ganze Woche zuhause gelieben", that is a flag to a native speaker that I am not one too.


I understand exactly what you're asking here, but I think the answer is simply above my pay grade. We need a native German speaker to weigh in here.

For those who are playing along at home, the premise of the question is essentially: German has a more flexible word order than English, and as a result one can move words around in the sentence structure in order to emphasize information value rather than having to rely on prosody, as English often does, to convey newsworthiness of individual items. Specifically, German often places the most newsworthy item at the initial position of the sentence that comes just before position-2, which is reserved for the finite verb.

So in German if you want to emphasize the news value of the phrase "die ganze Woche", the text-book way to do that is simply to move it to the beginning of the sentence. In English on the other hand, the most natural way to emphasize the news value of "the whole week" is to leave it in the middle of the sentence but to give it stress (rather than intonation) emphasis. So the question is whether it would sound unnatural in German to do what you'd do in English, namely to leave the phrase "die ganze Woche" in the inner field (middle) of the sentence and lend it stress (Betoning) emphasis.

Let me go off on a related tangent here. It is possible in English to move the most newsworthy item to the beginning of the sentence, but this is normally done in standard English only when you want to really emphasize it; this doesn't happen that often.
(standard) I really like that dress. (... and there may be other things I like as well)
(extra emphasis) That dress I really like. (... it's really all about the dress for me)

To get this back on a German-related track, there are some German-influenced dialects of English where the most newsworthy item is routinely moved to the initial position of the sentence, accompanied by the German intonation pattern of level pitch until an abrupt fall in pitch at the end of the sentence. What comes to mind for me is the kind of Yiddish-influenced New York accent you hear on a TV show like Seinfeld. (Yiddish is very closely related to German, so some descendants of Yiddish speakers have carried over German/Yiddish syntax and prosody into their dialect of English.)
(standard) I don't like this babka very much.
(Seinfeld) This babka I don't like so much. (... the other varieties of babka are ok.)

So a take-away point for anglophones learning German seeking a more natural sounding accent and syntax, is to think of the voice of the actor Jerry Stiller (who played the role of father of the character of George Constanza on Seinfeld) and go from there. My experience has been that a bunch of the typical German intonation patterns often sound like the punch lines of Catskill comedians.
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