Posted by: janecronin | August 21, 2016

The Music of Language


There are a lot of things in common between music and language.  For music to make any sense it has to obey rules of rhythm and expression and exactly the same is true of language.  Words and sentences have patterns and shapes which make them meaningful.  If we distort the rhythm of a word it becomes completely incomprehensible, and it is very difficult to follow the speech of someone who alters the natural cadence of a sentence.  Likewise, if music loses its rhythm it turns into a cacophony and is unpleasant to listen to.

As we learn the music of our native language unconsciously we are usually unaware that any particular pattern is being followed.  If we alter the rhythm of a sentence in English, we can significantly change its meaning.  For example: “You have painted the door red” changes completely in meaning depending on which word we emphasise.  “YOU have painted the door red” (I thought it was someone else).  “You HAVE painted the door red” (I thought you hadn´t).  “You have PAINTED the door red” (I thought you’d sprayed it) “You have painted the DOOR red” (I thought you’d painted the table) “You have painted the door RED” (I thought you’d painted it blue).  You can have endless hours of fun experimenting with changes of rhythm and emphasis in sentences.

Another interesting thing about English you may never have thought about is that the same word can mean two completely different things depending on which part you emphasise.  Just think of “refuse” “contract” “record” and imagine the chaos if you put the accent on the wrong part of the word.  “I REfuse to sign that conTRACT”. “He took the reFUSE to the bin.”  “She beat the word reCORD.”  “I want to REcord that song” and so on. There are many other words like this, for example “content”, “object”, “present”.   I think at this point we should spare a thought for people who have to learn English in later life.  How would they ever know which emphasis is correct?

There is a major difference between English and Spanish in this respect.  Whereas in English it is basically pot-luck which part of a word should be emphasised, in Spanish there are specific rules which are completely regular and never vary.  This means that if we learn a few simple principles we will always know how to give a word its correct emphasis and therefore make it comprehensible to others.  Unfortunately though, I have run out of space in this article and will have to give you the magic formula next week.

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