Green New Singsong

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Ever since Donald Trump sang his Emergency Song ("Emergency in B Flat", 2/17/2019), I've been hearing similar intonation patterns all over the place — in a line at the market where one shopper was telling another about someone's many excuses for not meeting her; on a sports talk radio program where the host was enumerating the many inconclusive reports about Bryce Harper's destination; and this morning on Radio Times, where Robinson Meyer was telling Marty Moss-Coane about climate change politics. In that last case, I made a note of the program and the time and found the podcast — so here's the passage:

This is a common speech pattern in American English, so most likely President Trump has primed my salience detector rather than the general public's prosodic choices. But still…

Anyhow, Trump's version involved unusually high-pitched and chant-like final level stretches, as you can hear by comparing Robinson Meyer's performance to the president's:



  1. Victor Mair said,

    February 20, 2019 @ 5:23 pm

    I too have been noticing a lot more of this repeated high level (sometimes slightly rising) singsong pitch pattern, certainly far more than when I was young. I think it's partly a rhetorical play to keep the patter going and partly incantatory to mesmerize one's listener.

    As to how it got started, that's a complete mystery to me.

  2. Chris Button said,

    February 20, 2019 @ 5:33 pm

    Quoting Michael Watts from the earlier thread:

    I didn't find the prosody to be strange — it felt natural to me…

    I experienced it as normal, fluent English spoken with contextually appropriate prosody….

    If Donald Trump were to use intonation that conflicted with normal English usage, it wouldn't sound insulting. It would sound foreign.

    I couldn't agree more. Sure, Trump is overdoing it for effect which then has other connotations of its own (as observed in some of the other comments). It's generally either a fall-rise or a rise beginning on the last stressed syllable of each utterance and continuing to the end. It's not just a feature of American English either. I have a feeling Brits might actually use it even more (J.C. Wells has a good discussion of it in his intonation book)

  3. Matt Gardner said,

    February 20, 2019 @ 6:22 pm

    An example from a popular movie:

  4. Ariel said,

    February 20, 2019 @ 6:30 pm

    For a good while I've always had the notion that this sing-song intonation is more widespread and important than it is usually conceptualised in the theory that I've come across. (I say 'usually' because I think more than 40 years ago the OP included an analysis of the children's taunting playground tune in his PhD thesis!)

    I once lived in Santiago, Chile for 6 months and, while I was highly familiar with the local variant of Spanish, I was nevertheless daily surprised by the prevalance of what I would term 'intonational set-plays': idiom-prosody pairings where the intonation added an intensifying and/or additional layer of meaning to the words alone. People didn't so much talk as instead SING to each other; and I felt this had pragmatic and socio- (even ethno-) linguistic ramifications.

    Is there any theory, perhaps in the sociolinguistic literature, that attends to this phenomenon? Is it a phenomenon at all (and if so does it also occur in tonal languages)? If the latter but not the former, I'd label it 'phonohexis' (after Aristotle's classical ancestor of Bourdieu's 'habitus').

  5. Trogluddite said,

    February 20, 2019 @ 6:50 pm

    People skilled in the art will be sure to combine this with repetition and phrase final positioning of the most salient word (there also seem to be bonus points for pacing, poetic metre, alliteration, rhyming scheme, flow from minimal to maximal salience, contrasting adjacent pairs, parodying of the target's own language, etc…)

    You can't spot an ^adverb^.
    You can't spot an ^adjective^.
    You can't spot a ^verb^.
    You can't spot a ^noun^.
    And you call yourself a linguist!

    Maybe Britain's history of rigid class hierarchies and snobbery means that we are somewhat more advanced in the fine arts of sneering and withering contempt? ;-)
    That's only half joking; I agree with Michael Watts' other suggestion from the previous thread that there may be some differences in connotation between BrE and USE (I do hope that we're not being a bad influence!)

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 5:16 am

    This intonation pattern on lists (or sequences of phrases intended as parallel) has definitely been around for at least half a century with approximately the same meaning (which might be paraphrased as 'this is all pretty predictable'). I wrote about it briefly in my 1978 paper 'Stylized intonation' (Language 54: 517-540), which among other things provided some of the basis for Rachel Steindel Burdin's experiments that MYL mentioned in the 'B-flat' post the other day. When I wrote that paper I certainly didn't have any sense that the usage was new or unusual, and the point of the paper was that there is a whole set of intonation patterns in English that involve steady level pitches and convey some sort of notion of predictability or familiarity.

    That said, I also have the impression that I am hearing this pattern more often now.

  7. Chris Button said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 7:08 am

    In my haste, I had clearly not read / listened to the original post clearly enough (which given its title is not really excusable!) So the point is the distinct level step-up style of what is more standardly a continuity rise. In that regard, contrary to my above post, perhaps this is a more "American" style of speech

    In comparison to British English, I wonder if a possible explanation for this is in the fact that with a standard rise (in a yes-no question for example), American English generally remains on the low default pitch throughout until the rise, whereas British English has the standard higher head (on the first stressed syllable) that continues throughout. In this regard, perhaps is is easier for an American simply to step up to a high level on that nuclear stressed syllable than for a Brit who is already at a higher level anyway and so for whom such a contrast would be much harder to make?

  8. Chris Button said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 7:47 am

    In this regard, perhaps is is easier for an American simply to step up to a high level on that nuclear stressed syllable than for a Brit who is already at a higher level anyway and so for whom such a contrast would be much harder to make?

    Separately, and going out on a limb here, given that this "dependent fall-rise" / "continuity rise" is a feature of English that seems not to be used in many other languages where continuity may be shown by a leveling out rather than rising or falling, I wonder if part of the increasing use of this level tone could come from the increasing internationalization of English?

  9. Chris Button said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 1:57 pm

    From Wells (2006):

    p. 224 (in comparison with the dependent fall-rise):

    "Both the low rise and high rise can be used as leading dependent tones. This is also the main use of the mid-level… Except for some interjections the mid-level is not used as an independent nuclear marker… The difference in tone meaning between these four tone varieties is not great. sometimes speakers just seem to ring the changes between them to avoid repetition. The low rise is perhaps more formal, more oratorical; the high rise is more casual; and the mid-level has no special meaning except non-finality. The fall-rise may factor in its usual tone meaning of implication or contrast… American English differs from British in making little or no use of the low rise as a leading dependent tone – one of the reasons, perhaps, that British English may strike Americans as stuffy and formal"


    "With yes-no questions, a high head plus low rise is the usual one in RP and similar kinds of British English (BrE). To Americans it sounds formal. A low pre-nuclear pattern plus high rise suggests informality"

  10. David Marjanović said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 10:04 am

    It's the ideophone for eye-rolling (as you roll your eyes up, your pitch follows), and it's not at all limited to English.

    However, evidently, Trump deliberately aims for it while not actually feeling it. That makes it sound so artificial. For example, the emphasis/pitch rise on ruling twice in a row is just not spontaneous English (or Germanic in general); I'd expect contrastive stress on another (so that -nother bad ruling would have the high pitch, not just ruling). Also, Trump's high pitch is a tad higher than sounds natural; Meyer's sounds natural.

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