Just as individual utterances can be divided into words and these words into syllables, so too larger stream of speech can be broken down into smaller units.
The term thought group refers to a discrete stretch of speech that forms a semantically and grammatically coherent segment of discourse.
So when we think about where a speaker can logically pause in the stream of speech, we can separate an utterance into thought groups.
Although written discourse provides some markers for these division or pauses (i.e., commas, semicolons, full stops, dashes), in spoken discourse a speaker may pause at points where such punctuation does not always occur in a written transcription of the utterance.
Similarly, the term intonation unit describes the same segment of speech but refers also to the fact that this unit of speech has its own intonation contour or pitch pattern and typically contains one prominent element.
A single utterance or sentence may include several intonation units, each with its own prominent element and contour.
There is no foolproof way to divide an utterance into intonation units. In rapid speech, intonation units may be fairly long; in slower speech, they may be shorter, and breaks between units will therefore be more frequent.
Where the utterance divisions fall will also depend on the individual speaker, with some speakers producing fewer breaks than others.
Finally, such divisions are dependent on the performance context. Public speakers, for example, tend to pause frequently to make their message clearer or more emphatic, as in a political statement.
Example: John F. Kennedy – Inaugural Speech Address
// we dare not forget today // that we // are the heirs // of that first // revolution // let the word go forth // from this time and place // to friend // and foe alike // that the torch has been passed // to a new generation of Americans // born // in this century // tempered by war // disciplined by a hard // and bitter peace // proud // of our ancient heritage // and unwilling // to witness // or permit // the slow undoing // of those human rights // to which this nation // has always been committed // and to which we are committed today // at home // and around the world // let // every nation know // whether it wishes us // well or ill // that we shall pay // any price // bear any burden // meet any hardship // support any friend // oppose any foe // to assure the survival // and the success of liberty //
By contrast, if in another context the speaker is communicating urgency, the intonation units may be longer and the speech may contain fewer breaks.
What we should take into account as well is that too many pauses (and therefore intonation units) can slow speech down and create too many prominent elements, causing the listener difficulty in processing and comprehending the overall message.
The discourse context generally influences which stressed word in a given utterance
receives prominence – that is, which word the speaker wishes to highlight.
There are three circumstances governing the placement of prominence.
When the speaker places prominence on new information : within an intonation unit, words expressing old or given information (i.e., semantically predictable information) are unstressed and spoken with lower pitch, whereas words expressing new information are spoken with strong stress and higher pitch. In unmarked utterances, it is the stressed syllable in the last content word that tends to exhibit prominence.
X: I’ve lost an umBRELla.
Y: A LAdy’s umbrella?
X: Yes. A lady’s umbrella with STARS on it. GREEN stars.
The movement of pitch within an intonation unit is referred
to as the intonation contour of that unit. Such contours
span the range of extra high pitch to low pitch. These levels
are highly dependent on discourse meaning and
prominence, with rises in intonation co-occurring with the
highlighted or more important words that receive
prominence within the sentence.
Thus pitch and prominence can be said to have a symbiotic relationship
with each other in English, and the interrelationship of
these phenomena determines the intonation contour of a
Prominence and Intonation in Discourse Pitch variation has an important role to play in communication, adding meaning additional to that conveyed by the segmental phonemes. We can distinguish two significant ways in which pitch functions, namely (1) ( lexical ) tone and (2) intonation . In many languages, it is possible to use pitch differences to distinguish the dictionary meaning of words. This function of pitch is known as tone and such languages are termed tone languages . In tonal languages such as Chinese, Navajo, or Yoruba, differences in pitch can signify differences of meaning within a word. The classic example from Mandarin Chinese is the word ma, which can mean either "mother," "scold,“ "hemp," or "horse," depending on its pitch pattern (high level vs. high falling, etc.).