Segmental vs. Suprasegmental

What's the Difference?

Segmental features refer to individual speech sounds, such as consonants and vowels, while suprasegmental features refer to aspects of speech that extend beyond individual sounds, such as stress, intonation, and rhythm. Segmental features are essential for distinguishing between different words in a language, while suprasegmental features play a crucial role in conveying meaning, emotion, and emphasis in speech. Both segmental and suprasegmental features are important components of phonetics and phonology, working together to create clear and effective communication.


DefinitionRefers to individual speech sounds or phonemesRefers to features that extend over multiple phonemes or syllables
ExamplesVowels, consonantsStress, intonation, pitch
DurationShorter in lengthLonger in length
ImportanceCrucial for distinguishing meaning in wordsConveys emotions, attitudes, and sentence types

Further Detail

Segmental Attributes

Segmental attributes refer to the individual sounds or phonemes that make up a language. These include consonants and vowels, which are the building blocks of speech. Consonants are sounds produced by obstructing the airflow in some way, while vowels are produced with a relatively open vocal tract. In English, for example, there are 24 consonant sounds and 20 vowel sounds. These sounds are combined to form words, which are then strung together to create sentences.

Segmental attributes are crucial for intelligibility in speech. If a speaker mispronounces a consonant or vowel sound, it can change the meaning of a word entirely. For example, the difference between "pat" and "bat" lies in the initial consonant sound. Therefore, mastering segmental attributes is essential for clear communication in any language.

Segmental attributes are typically taught in language courses through drills and exercises that focus on individual sounds. Students practice pronouncing consonants and vowels correctly, often with the help of a native speaker or language teacher. By mastering segmental attributes, learners can improve their pronunciation and overall fluency in a language.

Suprasegmental Attributes

Suprasegmental attributes, on the other hand, refer to the features of speech that extend beyond individual sounds. These include aspects such as stress, intonation, rhythm, and pitch. While segmental attributes focus on the sounds themselves, suprasegmental attributes deal with how those sounds are organized and delivered in speech.

Stress, for example, refers to the emphasis placed on certain syllables within a word or on certain words within a sentence. In English, stress can change the meaning of a word. For instance, "record" can be a noun or a verb depending on where the stress falls. Intonation, on the other hand, refers to the rise and fall of pitch in speech, which can convey emotions or attitudes.

Rhythm is another important suprasegmental attribute that influences the flow and pace of speech. Languages vary in their rhythmic patterns, with some being more syllable-timed (each syllable takes roughly the same amount of time) and others being more stress-timed (stressed syllables occur at regular intervals). Understanding and mastering these suprasegmental attributes can greatly enhance a speaker's communication skills.


While segmental attributes focus on individual sounds, suprasegmental attributes deal with the broader aspects of speech organization and delivery. Both are essential for effective communication, but they serve different purposes. Segmental attributes ensure the correct pronunciation of words, while suprasegmental attributes help convey meaning, emotions, and attitudes through intonation, stress, and rhythm.

  • Segmental attributes are more concrete and tangible, as they involve specific sounds that can be practiced and mastered through repetition.
  • Suprasegmental attributes, on the other hand, are more abstract and nuanced, as they involve the overall structure and melody of speech.
  • Segmental attributes are crucial for word recognition and comprehension, while suprasegmental attributes play a key role in conveying the speaker's intentions and emotions.

Overall, both segmental and suprasegmental attributes are important components of language learning and communication. By understanding and mastering these attributes, learners can improve their pronunciation, fluency, and overall effectiveness as speakers.

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