Our Research

Intonation and diachrony: how language contact shapes intonational patterns

Mary Baltazani (Principal Investigator), Joanna Przedlacka, John Coleman

ESRC grant ES/R006148/1

Studying speech patterns used by a community has the power to uncover past and present ethnic interactions in this population. In the islands (Crete, Corfu and Cyprus) Greeks used to live alongside Venetian Italian speakers. Mainland Greece is home to communities whose ancestors hail from present-day Turkey. The past language contact is still reflected in the intonation patterns of speakers of Greek from those regions.


Project goals

Our ultimate goal is to understand how long-term language contact shapes the intonation of communities through past multilingualism. We aim to learn about the nature of contact between Greek and Turkish and Greek and Italian populations through the differences in the details of the speech melodies they use. Specifically, we intend to:

  • discover to what extent contact effects weaken with time  i.e. changes take place in a language after contact between populations ceases
  • investigate how the contact of Greeks with Turkish and Italian speaking communities affects the intonation of contemporary regional dialects
  • see how fine phonetic differences in intonational melodies of those dialects reflect the different lengths and types of population co-habitations

We focus on three intonational melodies:

  • declarative falls: the falling pitch at the end of declaratives utterances, indicating finality
  • continuation rises: the rising pitch at the phrase end in declarative utterances, indicating non-finality
  • the tune at the end of yes/no questions


Our data

We base our investigations on archival recordings, with the earliest material dating back to 1917 and the most recent gathered in the 2011. As the birth dates of the informants span a century, we are in a unique position to carry out a diachronic study of change in intonation over five generations of speakers. We hold contemporary and archival audio corpora of Greek speech from Asia Minor (Cappadocia, Pontus, Istanbul and Smyrna), Cretan, Cypriot and Corfiot dialects as well as Standard Modern Greek, Turkish and Italian of the Veneto region. We thank The Endangered Languages Archive (SOAS), Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Humboldt Universität Lautarchiv, the Academy of AthensThe British Library and Committee for Pontic Studies. A number of academics have also generously shared their field recordings with us.


Our innovations

We adopt a novel approach to the study of language history and change. To understand diachronic phonetic change, we are developing methodology based on mathematical modelling of intonation curves in sound recordings of speech from recent and more distant past. Our undertaking has two aspects: first, rather than investigate texts, we analyze speech recordings to uncover a hundred years of historical influences on a language. Second, we innovate by comparing intonation instead of the more common investigations of vowels and consonants. The first has not been feasible in such depth of time due to the near-impossibility of collecting corpora which span multiple generations. The second had not been undertaken as there are no written records of intonation.

Our method combines statistical modelling, speech processing and theory of intonation in order to refine general linguistic theory, a combination not applied before. One of the project contributions to linguistic science is phonetic verification of claims about the role of language contact as a major cause of historical change. The insights gained from this project can be applied to other languages, e.g. the influence of French on English in Canada or Spanish on English in Gibraltar, with the ultimate goal of understanding how languages change over time.


Posters and papers