linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. It is called a scientific study because it entails a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise analysis of all aspects of language, particularly its nature and structure. Lingui ...
, a prosodic unit, often called an intonation unit or intonational phrase, is a segment of speech that occurs with a single prosodic contour ( pitch and
rhythm Rhythm (from Greek , ''rhythmos'', "any regular recurring motion, symmetry") generally means a " movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions". This general meaning of regular r ...
contour). The abbreviation IU is used and therefore the full form is often found as ''intonation unit,'' despite the fact that technically it is a unit of prosody rather than intonation, which is only one element of prosody. Prosodic units occur at a hierarchy of levels, from the metrical foot and phonological word to a complete utterance. However, the term is generally restricted to intermediate levels which do not have a dedicated terminology. Prosodic units do not generally correspond to syntactic units, such as phrases and
clause In language, a clause is a constituent that comprises a semantic predicand (expressed or not) and a semantic predicate. A typical clause consists of a subject and a syntactic predicate, the latter typically a verb phrase composed of a verb ...
s; it is thought that they reflect different aspects of how the brain processes speech, with prosodic units being generated through on-line interaction and processing, and with morphosyntactic units being more automated.

Defining characteristics

Prosodic units are characterized by several phonetic cues, such as a coherent pitch contour. Breathing, both inhalation and exhalation, only occurs at the boundaries ( pausa) between higher units. Several short contours may carry an additional overall gradual decline in pitch and slowing of tempo; this larger unit is termed a ''declination unit'' (DU). At the boundaries ( pauses) between declination units, the pitch and tempo reset; for this reason the final one of the shorter internal contours is said to have ''final'' prosody, whereas the others are said to have ''continuing'' prosody. These two levels of the
hierarchy A hierarchy (from Greek: , from , 'president of sacred rites') is an arrangement of items (objects, names, values, categories, etc.) that are represented as being "above", "below", or "at the same level as" one another. Hierarchy is an important ...
may be schematized as follows: ::


In English orthography, a ''continuing'' prosodic boundary may be marked with a comma (assuming the writer is using commas to represent prosody rather than grammatical structure), while ''final'' prosodic boundaries may be marked with a full stop (period). The
International Phonetic Alphabet The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabetic system of phonetic notation based primarily on the Latin script. It was devised by the International Phonetic Association in the late 19th century as a standardized representation ...
has symbols (single and double pipes) for "minor" and "major" prosodic breaks. Since there are more than two levels of prosodic units, the use of these symbols depends on the structure of the language and which information the transcriber is attempting to capture. Very often, each prosodic unit will be placed in a separate line of the transcription. Using the single and double pipes to mark continuing and final prosodic boundaries, we might have American English, :''Jack,'' :''preparing the way,'' :''went on.'' : or French, :''Jacques,'' :''préparant le sol,'' :''tomba.'' : The last syllable with a full vowel in a French prosodic unit is stressed, and that the last stressed syllable in an English prosodic unit has primary stress. This shows that stress is not
phonemic In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West Midlands and the north-west ...
in French, and that the difference between primary and secondary stress is not phonemic in English; they are both elements of prosody rather than inherent in the words. The pipe symbolsthe vertical bars and used above are phonetic, and so will often disagree with English punctuation, which only partially correlates with prosody. However, the pipes may also be used for metrical breaksa single pipe being used to mark metrical feet, and a double pipe to mark both continuing and final prosody, as their alternate IPA descriptions "foot group" and "intonation group" suggest. In such usage, each foot group would include one and only one heavy syllable. In English, this would mean one and only one stressed syllable: :''Jack,'' :''preparing the way,'' :''went on.'' : In many tone languages with downdrift, such as Hausa, the single pipe may be used to represent a minor prosodic break that does not interrupt the overall decline in pitch of the utterance, while marks either continuing or final prosody that creates a pitch reset. In such cases, some linguists use only the single pipe, with continuing and final prosody marked by a comma and period, respectively. In transcriptions of non-tonal languages, the three symbolspipe, comma, and periodmay also be used, with the pipe representing a break more minor than the comma, the so-called ''list prosody'' often used to separate items when reading lists, spelling words, or giving out telephone numbers.

Cognitive implications

While each prosodic unit may carry a large information load in rehearsed speech, in extemporaneous conversation the amount of information is much more limited. There is seldom more than a single lexical noun in any one IU, and it is uncommon to have both a lexical noun and a lexical verb in the same IU. Indeed, many IUs are semantically empty, taken up by filler words such as ''um, well,'' or ''y'know.'' Chafe (1994) believes that this reflects the constraints of information processing by the brain during speech production, with chunks of speech (IUs) corresponding to chunks of cognitive output. It is also a possibility that the distribution of information across IUs is designed to maximize language comprehension by the other party.

See also

* Phonological hierarchy * Tone terracing * Upstep



*Chafe, Wallace. 1994. ''Discourse, Consciousness, and Time: The flow and displacement of conscious experience in speaking and writing.'' University of Chicago Press. *Dubois, John W., Susanna Cumming, Stephan Schuetze-Coburn, Danae Paolino eds. 1992. ''Discourse Transcription.'' Volume 4 of the ''Santa Barbara Papers in Linguistics.'' {{Suprasegmentals Phonology Phonetics Cognitive science Prosody (linguistics)