Is it common to use the minor third for calling someone?



In German, calling someone's two-syllable name is tied very strongly to the minor third.

In languages that like to have a stressed last syllable, I would expect the last syllable to be higher than the first.


Posted 2011-10-16T08:43:31.983

Reputation: 672

In Dutch, it is probably the same as in English. The last syllable that is normally stressed in the word is raised in pitch (stress remains unchanged); however, if this is the final syllable of the word, it is split into two syllables (reduplicated) of which the first one gets stress and is raised. So ma-RIE-ie (/ma-'riː-iː/) from ma-RIE normally (spelled Marie), a-ne-MIE-(h)iek from a-ne-'miek normally (spelled Annemiek); but the name a-ne-MIE-ke (spelled Annemieke) doesn't get the split syllable, because -ke comes after.Cerberus 2012-01-26T16:08:41.703



Yes! What you are describing is often referred to as the calling contour or the vocative chant, and it is very common, especially among European languages. Bob Ladd talks about it in his book, Intonational Phonology (first edition 1996, second edition 2008). The tune is characterized by a sequence of one or more syllables on a relatively high level pitch followed by one or more syllables on a somewhat lower medium level pitch. Ladd notes that the interval between the two notes is often, but not necessarily, three semitones, i.e. a minor third (p.117 in the first edition, p.136 in the second edition). Some other languages that have been noted to make use of this tune are (not an exhaustive list): English (North America and UK), French, and Hungarian. French is a language that is analyzed as having final stress; nevertheless, the tune goes down at the end, not up. Stress does play a role in some languages in determining when the note changes. In German and English, the higher pitch starts on the stressed syllable of the name (examples adapted from Ladd 2008):

 H      M    L  H     M      L  H M
Jo-na-than!  E-li-za-beth!  Lou-i-ise!

But in French the high note is placed on the penultimate syllable, no matter what:

 H  M      L     H  M     H  M
Mo-nique!  Anne-Ma-rie!  Lou-ise!

Here I am using Ls, Hs, and Ms to signify what phonologists think of as the phonologically important pitch events in these tunes (the symbols used in Ladd 2008 are couched within a more technical kind of notation used in autosegmental-metrical theory). As such, they should be thought of as residing in some level of phonological abstraction, and their acoustic realization may vary depending on the context. It is well established, for example, that the overall "tonal space" shifts downward over time during the course of an utterance, and so even if two syllables are specified for the same "tone" the later one will be realized as a slightly lower pitch*. In the above examples from English, some syllables are unmarked for tone, and the idea is that the tone level from the most recently specified syllable carries over (though the actual acoustic output may decline a bit in pitch). The approximate pitch level indicated by M above is very often about a minor third below that indicated by H.

Indeed, the behavior of this contour (specifically, where the higher part of the tune and the later slightly lower part of the tune anchor themselves segmentally) in different languages has given us some insights into the typological differences among those languages when it comes to stress and intonation. If you Google Ladd's book, you can read some of his discussion on the calling contour via Google Books; just search the book for the term "calling contour".

On a lighter note, if you listen to "Voicemail #4" from the Broadway musical RENT, you can hear the calling contour/vocative chant in action in English! Unfortunately the lyrics don't contain any words/phrases with antepenultimate (i.e. third-to-last) stress like the name Jonathan, but there are words/phrases with penultimate stress (like Anna) and those with final stress (like Louise), and you can hear that when the descending minor third happens indeed depends on the location of the lexical stress!

*This also happens with lexical tones in tone languages. I have recordings of Cantonese speakers producing utterances composed solely of syllables with Tone 6 (the low level tone) on them, and the actual pitch gradually descends over the duration of the utterance in all cases.

UPDATE: I stumbled upon this great website, the Interactive Atlas of Romance Intonation, that includes clickable maps with audio and video data collected from an intonational survey. The vocative tune was included among the elicited utterance types. The survey made a distinction between "vocative" and "insistent vocative", and these category names were functional rather than descriptive. That is, the survey provided a scenario for the speaker to imagine while calling out a person's name. As a result, not all speakers chose to utilize the descending third tune that is the subject of this post. But many did!


Posted 2011-10-16T08:43:31.983

Reputation: 5 272

I agree with the general idea, but that notation implies that the tones on "LI" and "ZA" in "elizabeth" are equal, both being denoted H and capitalized. I'd say the highest tone is on "LI", falling through the rest of the word. If we instead use the numbers 1-4, in ascending order of pitch, with capitalization to denote lexical stress, I would describe the English names as JO(3)-na(2)-than(1) and e(1)-LI(4)-za(3)-beth(2).Alek Storm 2011-10-16T19:48:50.347

@Alek, two things: 1) It's not really a matter for agreeing or disagreeing; the example patterns I gave have been attested in dialects of English. You yourself may have produced/heard variations on this general theme.musicallinguist 2011-10-17T03:04:45.013

1@Alek, I changed my notation to be tiered, which I should have done in the first place to be clearer (I was trying to simplify the traditional autosegmental-metrical notation and clearly flattening it to one line was not the way to go), and I added an explanation about the level of representation intended there.musicallinguist 2011-10-17T03:39:56.500

But there's the problem - you ascribed to a particular theoretical approach in answering Phira's question, when none was really required. For example, why is it assumed that there are three underlying tones: H, M, and L, rather than, say, eight? Or two? Does this hold cross-linguistically?Alek Storm 2011-10-17T03:47:01.247

1At some level a theoretical approach was required to be able to notate the examples I wanted to give (unless I were to provide actual pitch tracks). Whenever we transcribe any aspect of speech, we are in a sense taking a theoretical stance. Note, though, that I didn't say these were underlying phonological representations; actually the theory I referred to assumes only two underlying levels for all languages (I am not endorsing that assumption here; I refer you to Ladd for an extended justification for this assumption in the AM framework).musicallinguist 2011-10-17T04:08:35.403

In the specific examples here, three surface-phonological tones are assumed because that's how people perceive them in practice. Listeners perceive the first two syllables in "Jonathan!" to be at the same pitch even though they may not be realized acoustically that way (just as Cantonese listeners hear a string of "low level tones" as being all at the same pitch even though the actual pitch on each successive syllable gets lower and lower.musicallinguist 2011-10-17T04:11:06.990

1@Alek, thanks for keeping me honest. I realized that the use of the term "phonemes" was misleading so I've tried to reword my explanation in a more neutral way. In fact, it's true that we (phonologists) don't have a completely flawless theory when it comes to levels of representation in intonation, and it's something I'm struggling with now in my own work.musicallinguist 2011-10-17T04:20:20.210

@musicallinguist Is the book of Ladd easily readable with little linguistic background?Phira 2011-10-17T12:28:27.280

The book as a whole is aimed at linguists, so it might be pretty heavy reading, especially in its discussion of theory. But I would say that it's one of the more accessible of the books in this class, and if you skip around you should find interesting pockets of discussions with examples that are easily grasped. Try looking at the Google book preview for the first edition (the second edition preview deceptively takes you to that of the first edition) and search for "calling contour". Start reading from the beginning of the first section containing that phrase ( and see what you think!musicallinguist 2011-10-17T13:41:14.470

@Phira, P.S. if you do decide to take on reading some of the book and come across concepts you don't understand, feel free to post questions about them here. That's what the site is here for!musicallinguist 2011-10-17T13:42:58.553

French is a lot closer to what you describe for English and German than what you describe for French. The stress (which in French isn't part of the word's pronunciation) goes on the highest pitch. But independently of the name the pitch can go up (I think LM, lending the call an interrogative tone — “are you there?”, “do I have your attention?”, “is that you?”) or down (HM, lending the call an exclamative tone — “come here this instant!”, “listen to me!”, “there you are!”). If you make repeated calls, it would be pretty common to alternate between patterns.Gilles 2011-11-05T13:56:38.310

@Gilles thanks for your comment. The interrogative tune is not relevant for this question, which is about a specific type of (non-interrogative) calling tune that occurs across many languages, sometimes in different situations depending on the language. As for the HM tune in French being "closer to English and German than what I've described for French", I'm not sure what you mean. In the English/German analysis, the placement of the H depends on location of the lexical (i.e. inherent) stress of the word and (as you've noted) stress is not lexical in French.musicallinguist 2011-11-05T16:27:56.030

@Gilles So if you call out for Monique across the parking lot to attract her attention, will "ique" be low pitch or will it take both pitches in succession?Phira 2011-11-16T15:57:34.833

@Phira Raising (LM, I think) the first time. Then often (but not always) alternating (or at least varying, it's not always a strict rise/fall/rise/fall).Gilles 2011-11-16T19:38:39.300

It's crucial to bear in mind that different cultures and even different people within a given culture use the vocative chant in slightly different situations (e.g. I might use this tune to call out a name in English, but never to yell across a parking lot at a woman; I'd use it in other situations). Phonologists separate "form" from "function"--i.e. the claim is not that the meaning or pragmatics of the chant are universal; just that the tune itself crops up in several languages. @Gilles is describing a different tune (or different tunes) altogether, not the one that I was describing.musicallinguist 2011-11-17T05:50:46.723


I think you can call this the "air ball" phenomenon. Dave Barry (an American writer of a humor column for the Miami Herald) wrote an article entitled Message from the Stars, in which he cited the research of Dr. Cherrill P. Heaton, entitled "Air Ball: Spontaneous Large Group Precision Chanting." (Although the journal may be searched here, I did not find the original article in Popular Music and Society; however, this LA Times article attests to the article writer interacting with Barry.)

Heaton's article says that an audience will mock a basketball player who completely misses the basket, rim, and backboard by chanting "air ball," centering on an "F" for air" and a "D" for "ball." This is the minor third interval with which you hear German mothers calling their children.

Mothers in the US will call for their children with the air ball interval, but I have only heard it when they are calling outdoors. Sometimes, if there is some anger or impatience on the part of the parent, I have heard the interval go up, but not always a minor third.

People will call their pet dogs with this interval. Children will mock each other in games where their opponent has failed in a game (to tag someone, to hit them with a dodge ball) with a "nyaa, nyaa" in the same falling minor third (air ball) pattern.


Posted 2011-10-16T08:43:31.983

Reputation: 501