In linguistics, intonation is the
variation of pitch when speaking. Intonation and stress are
two main elements of linguistic prosody. Intonation is the
"music" of a language, and is perhaps the most important
element of a good accent. Often we hear someone
speaking with perfect grammar, and perfect formation of
the sounds of English but with a little something that gives
Intonation – the rise and fall of pitch in our voices – plays
a crucial role in how we express meaning.
Intonation contours in English
Not all rises and falls in pitch that occur in the course of
an English phrase can be attributed to stress. The same set
of segments and word stresses can occur with a number of
pitch patterns. Consider the difference between:
You're going. (statement)
You're going? (question)
The rise and fall of pitch throughout is called its
English has a number of intonation patterns which add
conventionalized meanings to the utterance: question,
statement, surprise, disbelief, sarcasm, teasing.
An important feature of English intonation is the use of an
intonational accent (and extra stress) to mark the focus of a
sentence. Normally this focus accent goes on the last major
word of the sentence, but it can come earlier in order to
emphasize one of the earlier words or to contrast it with
For example, consider the statement “Nancy bought a new house on
Thursday”. The figures shows different Intonation counters for this
statement with stress on each word present in it.
A unit of speech bounded by pauses has
movement, of music and rhythm, associated with
the pitch of voice. This certain pattern of voice
movement is called 'tone'. A tone is a certain
pattern, not an arbitrary one, because it is
meaningful in discourse. By means of tones,
speakers signal whether to refer, proclaim, agree,
disagree, question or hesitate, or indicate
completion and continuation of turn-taking, in
Fall (A Falling Tone)
A falling tone is by far the most common
used tone of all. It signals a sense of
finality, completion, belief in the content of
the utterance, and so on.
A speaker, by choosing a falling tone, also
indicates to the addressee that that is all he
has to say, and offers a chance (turntaking) to the addressee to comment on,
agree or disagree with, or add to his
Consequences of his unacceptable behavior.
I'll report you to the HEADmaster
A falling tone may be used in referring expressions as well.
I've spoken with the CLEAner.
Questions that begin with wh-questions are generally pronounced with
a falling tone:
Where is the PENcil?
Imperative statements have a falling tone.
i) Go and see a DOCtor.
Requests or orders have a falling tone too.
i) Please sit DOWN
Yes/No questions and tag questions seeking or expecting confirmation
a) You like it, DON'T you?
Here it is used when it is sure that the answer is yes.
Have you MET him?
Low Rise (A Rising Tone)
This tone is used in genuine 'Yes/No' questions where the
speaker is sure that he does not know the answer, and that
the addressee knows the answer. Such Yes/No questions
are uttered with a rising tone. For instance, consider the
following question uttered with a rising tone, the answer of
which could be either of the three options:
A) Isn't he NICE
B) i) Yes.
iii) I don't know.
Compare the above example with the following example,
which is uttered with a falling tone, and which can only have
one appropriate answer in the context:
a) Isn't he NICE
Other examples which are uttered with a rising tone are:
Do you want some COFfee?
Do you take CREAM in your coffee?
High Rise (A Rising Tone)
If the tonic stress is uttered with extra pitch height,
as in the following intonation units, we may think
that the speaker is asking for a repetition or
clarification, or indicating disbelief.
a) I'm taking up TAxidermy this autumn.
b) Taking up WHAT? (clarification)
a) She passed her DRIving test.
b) She PASSED? (disbelief)
Fall-rise signals dependency, continuity,
and non-finality. It generally occurs in
sentence non-final intonation units.
Consider the following in which the former
of the intonation units are uttered with a
fall-rise tone (the slash indicates a pause):
Private enterPRISE / is always EFficient.
A quick tour of the CIty / would be NICE.
PreSUmably / he thinks he CAN.
Usually / he comes on SUNday.
People have a tendency to think of intonation as
being directly linked to the speaker's emotions. In fact, the
meaning of intonation contours is as conventionalized as
any other aspect of language. Different languages can use
different conventions, giving rise to the potential for crosscultural misunderstandings. Two examples of cross-linguistic
differences in intonation patterns:
Many languages mark contrastive emphasis like English, using an
intonational accent and additional stress. Many other languages use only
syntactic devices for contrastive emphasis, for example, moving the
emphasized phrase to the beginning of the sentence.
I want a car for my birthday. (as opposed to a bike)
you would have to say something like:
A car I want for my birthday.
It's a car that I want for my birthday.
Listeners who speak the second type of language will not necessarily
interpret extra pitch and volume as marking emphasis. Listeners who don't
speak the second type of language will not necessarily interpret a different
word order as marking emphasis (as opposed to assuming that the speaker
doesn't know basic grammar). Questions
The normal intonation contours for questions in English use:
final rising pitch for a Yes/No question
Are you coming today?
final falling pitch for a Wh-question
When are you coming? Where are you going?
Using a different pattern typically adds something extra to the
question. E.g., falling intonation on a Yes/No question can be
interpreted as abruptness. Rising intonation on a Wh-question can
imply surprise or that you didn't hear the answer the first time and
are asking to have it repeated.