Intonation, stress, and my Godiva chocolates

Posted on May 10, 2009. Filed under: American culture, celebrations, language, nonverbal communication | Tags: , , , , , |

I was woken up this morning with a lovely breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day. Actually, I had been up for about 10 minutes, and really wanted to pee and brush my teeth, but I thought it best to fake sleeping until I heard the rattle of the breakfast tray being carried down the hall by my beloved children, so as not to ruin their “surprise”.

One of my presents was a box of Godiva truffles,  which, by the way, I plan to finish before the end of the day. As I opened them, I saw Carlita looking longingly at the box.

“Would you like one?” I asked, with rising intonation, typical of a question asked in English. She smiled and took the coconut cream.

I looked at my husband. “Would YOU like one?” I asked, stressing the word you, because he doesn’t really eat sweets, and I wasn’t expecting that he would take it. ” Maybe later” he said.

Finally, I looked at Calvin, my teenage son who is capable of  inhaling the entire refrigerator at one sitting. “Would you like ONE?” I asked, stressing the word one, to let him know this was my candy, and I wasn’t giving it all away.

I had asked 3 people the same question, but each time it carried a very different meaning. Stress and intonation in English carry the bulk of the message, which is why English language learners often miss the subtle nuances in conversation. They tend to focus on the vocabulary and grammar. As native speakers, we all understood the differences in meaning  without an overt explanation. They also understood, without overt explanation, that they’d better not touch the raspberry dark chocolate one.

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