How do English speakers use intonation

The pitch course in English and its meanings


1. Introduction

2 What is intonation?

3 The falling pitch course
3.1 The statement
3.2 The exclamation
3.3 The yes-no questions
3.4 The contradiction
3.5 The question words with wh
3.6 The command
3.7 The confirmation question

4 The falling-rising pitch course
4.1 The contrast
4.2 The restriction
4.3 The courtesy
4.4 The uncertainty
4.5 The rectification
4.6 The negation
4.7 Pro-rata consent

5 Summary and Conclusion

6 List of sources

1. Introduction

For some utterances, a reader cannot say anything unequivocally about the meaning unless he knows the context and has neither heard the utterance spoken. An example right at the beginning:

(1) She didn't do it because she was tired.[1]

This sentence can have several meanings. Because depending on where an emphasis takes place and how the pitch progresses, the meaning of the utterance changes. If the word tired is spoken with a falling-rising voice (vtired), the speaker means that the female person did it, but not because she was tired, but for another reason. If, on the other hand, the word do is spoken with a falling-rising voice (vdo) and tired with a falling pitch (\ tired), then the speaker says that she did not do it, because she was tired. In this case, the pitch course determines the complete meaning of the utterance.[2]

This example shows that the pitch course, the intonation, can be not only very important, but also crucial for understanding. Whether the pitch falls, rises or falls first and then rises again immediately, it is an integral part of an utterance. Many people are not even aware of this, because the speaker usually intuitively uses the appropriate pitch for the situation in his mother tongue.

This housework should now investigate the question of which pitch courses are known at all, focusing on the falling as well as the falling-rising pitch course and their meanings. It is based on the English language and therefore also works with English-language examples.

The main part of this thesis will begin with the clarification of the question of what is meant by intonation and the explanation of the necessary technical terms. This is followed by the investigation of the falling pitch course, whereby its possible meanings should also be clarified immediately. Then the falling-rising course (English: fall-rise) is analyzed with the associated functions. The other pitch courses should not be explained in more detail in this work. The conclusion of the work is the conclusion, in which, among other things, the answers to the initial questions are summarized again.

2 What is intonation?

In short, intonation is the change in pitch within an utterance.[3] With this change in pitch it is possible for the speaker in his statement to clarify his personal inner attitude to the topic or his feelings.[4] It should be noted that intonation is part of every language[5], but the way of intonation can vary from language to language. Accordingly, the interlocutors must know each other's intonation patterns so that there are no misunderstandings during communication.[6]

A sentence can often be broken down into even smaller units called tone units. A sound unit is, for example, the following utterance:

(2a) The film was wonderful[7]

The most important part of this pitch unit is the syllable won-, because it is the most stressed and this is where the greatest pitch change takes place. This part is called the syllable core[8] (English: nucleus). It is also the last stressed syllable in a tone unit. The first syllable stress, called onset in English, is part of the so-called syllable head. This extends from the first stressed syllable to the core of the syllable. An utterance can also begin with unstressed or little stressed syllables, which are referred to as pre-head in English. Finally there is the syllable coda (English: tail), which includes all syllables after the syllable core up to the end of the tone unit.[9]

So the above example would be divided as follows:

(2b) The | film what | won- | derful

The word wonderful is spoken here with a rising-falling pitch course (English: rise-fall), which is now the fourth course mentioned in English. With the help of this basic knowledge, the falling-rising as well as the falling pitch course can now be examined and explained.

3 The falling pitch course

The falling pitch, which is usually the standard pitch in English, has a very neutral and calm effect.[10] The speaker starts with a relatively central pitch and lets the voice fall fluently. Any syllables that follow the syllable core remain at this low level or even fall further. In general, this pitch curve signals to the listener that the speaker is sure of his statement and that he will not revise it. It conveys a finality and a definiteness.[11]

The following is to investigate in which situations the falling pitch curve is used and what the speaker can signal with it. The descending course is marked with the sign "\", the ascending one with a "/". The first syllable stress is also displayed with a "’ "and the syllable core with an underline.

3.1 The statement

Unless there is a special reason for the speaker to choose a different tone course, he will use the falling course in an ordinary statement. He thus shows that the content of his utterance is completely and definitely truthful.[12]

(3) She ‘lives in \ Kettering, you know.[13]

The speaker has the knowledge that the person being spoken about lives in Kettering. He is certain of this and can therefore adopt a decisive tone.

3.2 The exclamation

Whether the speaker wants to express his anger or surprise, in the English language he will usually pronounce his exclamation with a falling voice.[14] In the following example, the speaker suggests his surprise that two children have grown significantly since the last time he saw them.

(4) A: These are my two sons.

B: ’Haven’t they \ grown![15]

Even with short exclamations (Thank you, Right, Okay) or greetings, a descending tone sequence is the norm. He makes the exclamations appear more formal than when they are spoken in a rising voice.[16]

(5a) A: Good \ morning![17]

(5b) A: Good / morning.[18]

The pitch gradient in (5a) is appropriate, for example, when a student greets his professor, a customer greets the receptionist or a patient greets the doctor. As a rule, they are strangers or people who are not close to one another. The rising voice in a greeting as in (5b), on the other hand, signals a more familiar relationship; the person who greets and the person who is greeted know each other or are even friends. Such greetings can or should even be an incentive for a personal conversation.[19]

3.3 The yes-no questions

It is common to answer a question that only allows a yes or no with a falling pitch. Even if it is followed by an elliptical utterance, consequently a sentence fragment, it is descending in its course. It is the same when the speaker answers with full agreement.[20]

(6) A: Have you ever been to Minsk?

B: \ No, I \ haven’t.[21]

The person asked has never been to Minsk and can therefore answer the question with a confident and determined voice.


[1] Wells, John C. (2006), p. 32

[2] See Wells, John C. (2006), p. 32

[3] See Skandera, Paul / Burleigh, Peter (2005), p. 119

[4] See Digeser, Andreas (1978), p. 204

[5] See Skandera, Paul / Burleigh, Peter (2005), p. 119

[6] See Digeser, Andreas (1978), p. 205

[7]. Skandera, Paul / Burleigh, Peter (2005), p. 123

[8] All translations on p. 4 after Pompino-Marschall, Bernd (1995), p. 229

[9] See Skandera, Paul / Burleigh, Peter (2005), p. 123

[10] See Wells, John C. (2006), p. 25

[11] See Digeser, Andreas (1978), pp. 211 ff

[12] See Wells, John C. (2006), p. 25

[13] Wells, John C. (2006), p. 25

[14] See Wells, John C. (2006), p. 59

[15] Wells, John C. (2006), p. 60

[16] See Wells, John C. (2006), p. 65

[17] Wells, John C. (2006), p. 66

[18] Ibid.

[19] See Wells, John C. (2006), p. 66

[20] See Wells, John C. (2006), p. 38

[21] Wells, John C. (2006), p. 38

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