In Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Susan Salter Reynolds discusses the pleasures readers can find when they dip into a book on a topic that they are unfamiliar with. For Reyonlds, Mladen Dolar’s A Voice and Nothing More is such a book. She found it “a deeply academic, yet readable inquiry into the nature of voice and its role as a bridge between nature and culture, subject and other, body and language, the personal and the political." Here is a little about what she learned about intonation.
Intonation is another way in which we can be aware of the voice, for the particular tone of the voice, its particular melody and modulation, its cadence and inflection, can decide the meaning. Intonation can turn the meaning of a sentence upside down; it can transform it into its opposite. A slight note of irony, and a serious meaning comes tumbling down; a note of distress, and the joke will backfire. Linguistic competence crucially includes not only phonology, but also the ability to cope with intonation and its multiple uses. Still, intonation is not as elusive as it may seem; it can be linguistically described and empirically verified.
So, how does intonation relate to our everyday lives? Dolar tells us about the influential Russian Linguist, Roman Jakobson’s intonation story:
A former actor of Stanislavskij’s Moscow Theatre told me how at his audition he was asked by the famous director to make forty different messages from the phrase Segodnja Vecerom, “This Evening,” by diversifying it expressive tint. He made a list of some forty emotional situations, them emitted the given phrase in accordance with each of these situations, which his audience had to recognize only from the changes in the sound shape of the same two words. For our research work in the description and analysis of contemporary Standard Russian *under the Auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation) this actor as asked to repeat Stanislavskij’s test. He wrote down some fifty situations framing the same elliptic sentence and made of it fifty corresponding messages for a tape recorder. Most of the messages were correctly and circumstantially decoded by Moscovite listeners. May I add that all such emotive cues easily undergo linguistic analysis.
So all the shades of intonation which critically contribute to meaning, far from being an ineffable abyss, present no great problem to linguistic analysis; intonation can be submitted to the same treatment as all other linguistic phenomena. It requires some additional notation, but this is just the mark of a more complex and ramified code, an extension of phonological analysis. It can be empirically tested—with the help of Rockefeller (I love this detail)—that is to say, objectively and impartially. It is no coincidence that the “subject” of this experiment was an actor, since theater is the ultimate practical laboratory of endowing the same text with the shades of intonation and thereby, bringing it to life, empirically testing this every evening with the audience.