You can think of vowels and consonants as segments. These segments make up syllables. On top of syllables, there are features called suprasegmental segmental features. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary states that supra is a prefix from Latin meaning “above, beyond, or earlier.” That means we can remember that suprasegmental features are features that are on top of smaller segments such as syllables.
Suprasegmental features in English include the following:
Suprasegmental features must also be analyzed in relation to other parts of an utterance.
Loudness can also be referred to as intensity. It is measured in decibels (dB). There are a few ways to stress part of an utterance, one of which is making the segment that you want to stress louder.
There are some words in English that change their meaning by which syllable is stressed. Look at this word and say it out loud: contest.
Did you put the stress on the first syllable or the second? In a sentence like “He won the contest,” the stress is placed on the first syllable. In a sentence such as “Don’t contest the results,” the stress is placed on the second syllable.
Notice I’m using the word stress here. You could stress a syllable by another suprasegmental feature such as pitch, but it is often done by loudness.
You can even try saying this sentence:
“Don’t contest the results of the contest!”
Also, note that I said that suprasegmental features need to be analyzed while considering other parts of the utterance. You can scream or whisper the word contest and will be able to tell if it is referring to a noun or verb by each syllable’s loudness compared to the other.
Pitch is another suprasegmental feature that can change the meaning of an utterance. When talking about acoustics or talking about an actual sound wave, the term frequency is used to refer to pitch. It is measured in hertz (Hz).
Let’s take a sentence like the following: “That is his sister.”
If we say this sentence without changing pitch throughout the sentence, the sentence will remain a declarative sentence; however, if we produce the word sister with a rising tone we can make the sentence an interrogative sentence as in “That’s his sister?”
We can also change the meaning of the sentence by speaking the word that with a falling tone as in “That is his sister.” This may occur in an instance where someone is looking around a room asking “Is that his sister,” over and over again. Finally, someone comes up and says “No, that is his sister.”
Instead of producing that with a falling tone, you could just say that louder. In reality, you may do both at the same time.
Length’s physical measurement is called duration and is measured in seconds or milliseconds. There are three types of length alterations.
In some languages, vowel length can change depending on what syllable the vowel is in. You may see the same vowel written as [oː] for long and [o] as short for the same vowel. In English, however, it’s a little bit different as vowel length and vowel quality change to change the meaning of words such as the vowel in bet [ɛ] and the vowel in beet [i].
Syllable length is another suprasegmental feature. If someone says “That’s his girlfriend,” someone could respond with “right” as a confirmation. However, the same person could also reply with “riiiiiight,” to show doubt as in “yeah right!”
The speed at which you are speaking can also affect meaning. You may slow down certain parts of an utterance to add emphasis, for example.