November 2, 2021

Sofia Vergara Teaches Intonation with Ritz Crackers

I've been harassed by this ad where Sofia Vergara tells me to try "cheesy crispy ritz cheese crispers" for several weeks now. But what catches my attention is not the product, but the way she says the line.

"Try cheesy, crispy, Ritz cheese crispers."

This intonation pattern doesn't sound native to me - and that's not surprising, because Sofia Vergara is not a native English speaker. But I wondered what about it made it sound 'non-native.' Intonation is famously slippery to describe.

Perhaps a comparison will make it clear. Here's another version of the ad, spoken by what sounds like a native English speaker. (I get the impression that the speaker is Black and may also speak AAVE, but that's not relevant for the tagline.)

"Try cheesy, crispy, Ritz cheese crispers."

Listening to the Sofia Vergara clip again, we can notice some differences. The native English speaker (abbreviated NE for short) has a peak on 'crispy' that immediately slides down, then a downstep on 'ritz cheese', and another on 'crispers.'

"Try cheesy, ↑crispy, Ritz cheese ↴crispers."

Meanwhile, Sofia Vergara doesn't do this downstepping. She actually continues increasing in pitch until 'crispers', then drops on the unstressed syllable '-pers'.

"Try ↑cheesy, ↑crispy, Ritz cheese ↗crispers↘."

To my ear, the effect is as if she's emphasizing the 'crispers', whereas the NE speaker gives the impression of emphasizing the 'crispy.'

I don't know enough about intonation to put forward an explanation for why Sofia Vergara's intonation differs in the way that it does. She's Colombian, so it may be interference from Colombian Spanish. It may be some other 'error' in acquiring intonation. Or maybe she thought she should emphasize the 'crispers.'

Intonation is only part of why she doesn't sound 'native-like' in this clip. That's one part of prosody, which is a term for aspects of sound that apply to syllables or phrases instead of individual phones. Her timing is also different from the NE. The 'cheesy crispy' part is slow and emphasized in the NE clip, while she almost sounds like she's rushing through it.

I find intonation interesting because it's so under-studied. Intonation is one of the parts of speech that non-linguists seemed very attuned to, but for a long time it received relatively little scholarly attention. Thankfully there's more and more work being done on intonation, including intonation from a sociolinguistic point of view. Intonation-related stuff seems especially underrepresented in what we may call 'popular linguistics,' and I'd like to take steps to remedy that.

Part of the problem is the system of transcription for intonation. If you think IPA is hard to use for non-linguists, get ready for ToBI, the way to transcribe prosody. If you've ever seen something like this, you've seen ToBI. (Courtesy CMU's ToBI page, an excellent resource on ToBI!)

EXAMPLE <<jam1>>: Will you have marmalade, or jam? L* H- L* H-H% [GIF}

Once you get a hang of the system, you can kind of predict what the intonation will sound like. The stars, dashes, and percentage signs are probably the hardest to explain quickly. Thankfully, it's often standard to include a spectogram of the pitch changing, which adds a useful visual.

If I make more posts on intonation, I may try a hybrid system of using arrows (relatively straightforward for non-linguists even if it's too imprecise for linguistics), ToBI, and the spectograph.


  1. David MarjanovićNovember 2, 2021 at 7:48 PM

    The odd thing about the NE is that, instead of saying "Ritz cheese-crispers", he says "Ritz-cheese crispers" – crispers with Ritz cheese instead of Ritz crispers with cheese.

    1. Yeah, the break between 'Ritz' and 'cheese' is very short for the NE. It's almost rushed, like they needed to make sure the ad was going to be exactly 16 seconds.

      So it sounds like Sofia's "Ritz, cheese-crispers" and NE's "Ritz-cheese crispers."