Operated by John-Riley Harper. Dedicated to archiving photography from Utah's underground scenes, as well as other personal projects.

Melodic, Sonic Punctuation
In speech, to signify that a sentence is actually a question, we give the very last sound an upward vocal lift. Isn’t that right? But we don’t often think of commas or periods as having similar properties. The sonic difference between the “pre-comma” words in a spoken list is different if it’s “pre-period”. Listen to how the word apple sounds in the following sentence: “I went to the store to buy an apple, a peach, and a deep fried Twinkie.” Compare how the same word sounds in, “I went to the store to buy an apple.” The difference is hard to articulate. This might help: how would you vocalize the sentence, “I went to the store to buy an apple,”? Try it out loud. There’s hardly a discernable tonal shift. Now replace the comma with a period. Hear it? It sounds like the period is distinguished from the comma by actually falling in key at the last moment.

When language is looked at in this way, it brings us outside our habit of automatic association and into the raw meaning of sounds themselves. It allows us that interesting state of confusion that emerges when we repeat a word until it loses its meaning. We can then appreciate the sound in itself. (Any way to do it with vision?) But in reality, an encompassing awareness of the intrinsic meaning of sound can only be found by listening to foreign speech.

Cantonese is a language known for having “nine tongues.” That is, speakers are sensitized to distinguish nine separate meanings from the same basic sound depending on the envelope of rising and falling intonations or lack thereof. Likewise, Chinese and Japanese words change meaning depending on the key. A sound in B flat can mean something altogether different than the same in C. I’ve been kind of sad at the English language because it often sounds monotonous to me. In English, the way inflection changes meaning is emotional and helps to conveys mood. But most of the variation is so unconscious that most don’t realize how lively it is. I’ve heard that foreign speakers are attracted to English because it sounds like a joyful, musical language. They say it sounds like we are laughing. It’s a nice perspective.

If anyone is interested in learning more about the subleties of vocal inflections, I have a piece from NPR that I've saved for years. Streaming m3u here or mp3 heeyah.


  • Archives: