5 weeks ago
Sunday, October 10, 2010
Cultural Exploration 51: The Question Melody
When RPCV Dylan returned earlier this year, he told a story about having a phone conversation with RPCVs Cale and Sara when they were fresh off the plane in Los Angeles last December. According to him, Sara couldn’t shake the question melody, and understandably so: the question melody permeates a volunteer’s English very early in the Peace Corps experience, and I can only assume it will be a difficult habit to break once I leave.
I’ve written out the question melody above in its most simplistic form. This 4-note string captures short questions like “Where are you going?” or the Samoan “Te alu i fea?” Each word is assigned to one note; syllables don’t matter. “What are you reading?” “O ai lou igoa?” “How is the morning?” All of these follow the most basic pattern.
Things get trickier as the question gets longer. The jump from the G down to the C seems to be present in every question, but the number of syllables attributed to any one of the tones in the pattern changes depending on the question. For example, in the question “What are we doing for dinner?”, the first two words “What are” are intonated on the F, the “we doing” on the F#, the “for” on the G, and the “dinner?” on the C (“we” could also be said on the F leaving only the “doing” for the F#).
There are also exceptions, of course. When asking “What time is it?”, “What” starts on the G, and then “time is it?” would all be intonated on the C. The Samoan version of the same question, “Ta se fia?” would also skip the F. The “Ta” would start on the F#, “se” on the G, “fia?” on the C.
It’s unclear where the question melody comes from. I hear it’s the result of New Zealand influence, but while I recognize British, Australian, and New Zealand English speakers all have distinct question lilts, none seems to be the direct predecessor to Samoa’s.
The question melody is so far off from the American English question melody—we intone up at the end of our questions rather than down—volunteers can often be heard making declaratory statements in the question tone. Around the Peace Corps office, this practice works out fine, but on occasion I’ve made statements to my classes using the question melody. This usually results in students looking at me quizzically, confused about whether I’ve actually asked a question.
Tomorrow’s Cultural Exploration: Ska Kupe.
I hope you’re well. Pictures will be posted later this afternoon.