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Intonation (linguistics)

Global rise
Global fall
IPA number 510, 511
Entity (decimal) ↗​↘
Unicode (hex) U+2197 U+2198

In linguistics, intonation is variation of pitch while speaking which is not used to distinguish words. It contrasts with tone, in which pitch variation does distinguish words. Intonation, rhythm, and stress are the three main elements of linguistic prosody. Intonation patterns in some languages, such as Swedish and Swiss German, can lead to conspicuous fluctuations in pitch, giving speech a sing-song quality.[1] Fluctuations in pitch either involve a rising pitch or a falling pitch. Intonation is found in every language and even in tonal languages, but the realisation and function are seemingly different. It is used in non-tonal languages to add attitudes to words (attitudinal function) and to differentiate between wh-questions, yes-no questions, declarative statements, commands, requests, etc. Intonation can also be used for discourse analysis where new information is realised by means of intonation. It can also be used for emphatic/contrastive purposes.

All languages use pitch pragmatically as intonation — for instance for emphasis, to convey surprise or irony, or to pose a question. Tonal languages such as Chinese and Hausa use pitch for distinguishing words in addition to providing intonation.

Generally speaking, the following intonations are distinguished:

  • Rising Intonation means the pitch of the voice rises over time [↗];
  • Falling Intonation means that the pitch falls with time [↘];
  • Dipping Intonation falls and then rises [↘↗];
  • Peaking Intonation rises and then falls [↗↘].

Those with congenital amusia show impaired ability to discriminate, identify and imitate the intonation of the final words in sentences.[2]



In the International Phonetic Alphabet, global rising and falling intonation are marked with a diagonal arrow rising left-to-right [↗] and falling left-to-right [↘], respectively. These may be written as part of a syllable, or separated with a space when they have a broader scope:

He found it on the street?
[ hiː ˈfaʊnd ɪt | ɒn ðə ↗ˈˈstɹiːt ‖ ]

Here the rising pitch on street indicates that the question hinges on that word, on where he found it, not whether he found it.

Yes, he found it on the street.
[↘ˈjɛs ‖ hi ˈfaʊnd ɪt | ɒn ðə ↘ˈstɹiːt ‖ ]
How did you ever escape?
[↗ˈˈhaʊ dɪdjuː | ˈɛvɚ | ə↘ˈˈskeɪp ‖ ]

Here, as is common with wh- questions, there is a rising intonation on the question word, and a falling intonation at the end of the question.

More detailed transcription systems for intonation have also been developed, such as ToBI (Tones and Break Indices), RaP (Rhythm and Pitch), and INTSINT [3].

  Uses of intonation

The uses of intonation can be divided into six categories:[4]:ch.6

  • informational: for example, in English I saw a ↘man in the garden answers "Whom did you see?" or "What happened?", while I ↘saw a man in the garden answers "Did you hear a man in the garden?"
  • grammatical: for example, in English a rising pitch turns a statement into a yes-no question, as in He's going ↗home? This use of intonation to express grammatical mood is its primary grammatical use (though whether this grammatical function actually exists is controversial).[4]:pp.140, 151 Some languages, like Chickasaw and Kalaallisut, have the opposite pattern from English: rising for statements and falling with questions.
  • illocution: the intentional force is signaled in, for example, English Why ↘don't you move to California? (a question) versus Why don't you ↗move to California? (a suggestion).
  • attitudinal: high declining pitch signals more excitement than does low declining pitch, as in English Good ↗morn↘ing versus Good morn↘ing.
  • textual: linguistic organization beyond the sentence is signaled by the absence of a statement-ending decline in pitch, as in English The lecture was canceled [high pitch on both syllables of "cancelled", indicating continuation]; the speaker was ill. versus The lecture was can↘celed. [high pitch on first syllable of "canceled", but declining pitch on the second syllable, indicating the end of the first thought] The speaker was ill.
  • indexical: group membership can be indicated by the use of intonation patterns adopted specifically by that group, such as street vendors, preachers, and possibly women in some cases (see high rising terminal.)

  Intonation in English

Halliday and Greaves[5] have made a detailed case that three types of meanings—textual, interpersonal, and logical—are all in part achieved through intonation. This is done, they have argued, through the choices we make in terms of (i) rising and falling pitch contour, (ii) where we locate that contour as part of a clause, throughout a whole clause, or over more than a single clause; and (iii) the shape of the contour.

According to some accounts, American English pitch has four levels: low (1), middle (2), high (3), and very high (4). Normal conversation is usually at middle or high pitch; low pitch occurs at the end of utterances other than yes-no questions, while high pitch occurs at the end of yes-no questions. Very high pitch is for strong emotion or emphasis.[1]:p.184 Pitch can indicate attitude: for example, Great uttered in isolation can indicate weak emotion (with pitch starting medium and dropping to low), enthusiasm (with pitch starting very high and ending low), or sarcasm (with pitch starting and remaining low).

Declarative sentences show a 2-3-1 pitch pattern. If the last syllable is prominent the final decline in pitch is a glide. For example, in This is fun, this is is at pitch 2, and fun starts at level 3 and glides down to level 1. But if the last prominent syllable is not the last syllable of the utterance, the pitch fall-off is a step. For example, in That can be frustrating, That can be has pitch 2, frus- has level 3, and both syllables of -trating have pitch 1.[1]:p.185 Wh-questions work the same way, as in Who (2) will (2) help (3↘1)? and Who (2) did (3) it (1)?

But if something is left unsaid, the final pitch level 1 is replaced by pitch 2. Thus in John's (2) sick (3↘2) ..., with the speaker indicating more to come, John's has pitch 2 while sick starts at pitch 3 and drops only to pitch 2.

Yes-no questions with a 2↗3 intonation pattern[3] usually have subject-verb inversion, as in Have (2) you (2) got (2) a (2) minute (3, 3)? (Here a 2↗4 contour would show more emotion, while a 1↗2 contour would show uncertainly.) Another example is Has (2) the (2) plane (3) left (3) already (3, 3, 3)?, which, depending on the word to be emphasized, could move the location of the rise, as in Has (2) the (2) plane (2) left (3) already (3, 3, 3)? or Has (2) the (2) plane (2) left (2) already (2, 3, 3)? And for example the latter question could also be framed without subject-verb inversion but with the same pitch contour: The (2) plane (2) has (2) left (2) already (2, 3, 3)?

Tag questions with declarative intent at the end of a declarative statement follow a 3↘1 contour rather than a rising contour, since they are not actually intended as yes-no questions, as in We (2) should (2) visit (3, 1) him (1), shouldn't (3, 1) we (1)? But tag questions exhibiting uncertainty, which are interrogatory in nature, have the usual 2↗3 contour, as in We (2) should (2) visit (3, 1) him (1), shouldn't (3, 3) we (3)?

Questions with or can be ambiguous in English writing with regard to whether they are either-or questions or yes-no questions. But intonation in speech eliminates the ambiguity. For example, Would (2) you (2) like (2) juice (3) or (2) soda (3, 1)? emphasizes juice and soda separately and equally and ends with a decline in pitch, thus indicating that this is not a yes-no question but rather a choice question equivalent to Which would you like: juice or soda? In contrast, Would (2) you (2) like (2) juice (3) or (3) soda (3, 3)? has yes-no intonation and thus is equivalent to Would you like something to drink (such as juice or soda)?

Thus the two basic sentence pitch contours are rising-falling and rising. However, other within-sentence rises and falls result from the placement of prominence on the stressed syllables of certain words.

Note that for declaratives or wh-questions with a final decline, the decline is located as a step-down to the syllable after the last prominently stressed syllable, or as a down-glide on the last syllable itself if it is prominently stressed. But for final rising pitch on yes-no questions, the rise always occurs as an upward step to the last stressed syllable, and the high (3) pitch is retained through the rest of the sentence.

Pitch also plays a role in distinguishing acronyms that might otherwise be mistaken for common words. For example, in the phrase "Nike asks that you play—Participate in the Lives of America's Youth",[6] the acronym play may be pronounced with a high tone to distinguish it from the verb 'play', which would also make sense in this context. Alternatively, each letter could be said individually, so play might become "P-L-A-Y" or "P.L.A.Y.". However, the high tone is only employed for disambiguation and is therefore contrastive intonation rather than true lexical tone.

Dialects of British and Irish English vary substantially,[7] with rises on many statements in urban Belfast, and falls on most questions in urban Leeds. [3]

  Intonation in French


French intonation differs substantially from that of English.[8] There are four primary patterns.

  • The continuation pattern is a rise in pitch occurring in the last syllable of a rhythm group (typically a phrase).
  • The finality pattern is a sharp fall in pitch occurring in the last syllable of a declarative statement.
  • The yes/no intonation is a sharp rise in pitch occurring in the last syllable of a yes/no question.
  • The information question intonation is a rapid fall-off from high pitch on the first word of a non-yes/no question, often followed by a small rise in pitch on the last syllable of the question.


  Continuation pattern

The most distinctive feature of French intonation is the continuation pattern. While many languages, such as English and Spanish, place stress on a particular syllable of each word, and while many speakers of languages such as English may accompany this stress with a rising intonation, French has neither stress nor distinctive intonation on a given syllable. Instead, on the final syllable of every "rhythm group" except the last one in a sentence, there is placed a rising pitch. For example[8]:p.35 (note that as before the pitch change arrows ↘ and ↗ apply to the syllable immediately following the arrow):

  • Hier ↗soir, il m'a off↗ert une ciga↘rette. (The English equivalent would be "Last eve↗ning, he offered ↗me a cigar↘ette.")
  • Le lendemain ma↗tin, après avoir changé le pansement du ma↗lade, l'infir↗mier est ren↗tré chez ↘lui.

Adjectives are in the same rhythm group as their noun. Each item in a list forms its own rhythm group:

  • Chez le frui↗tier on trouve des ↗pommes, des o↗ranges, des ba↗nanes, des ↗fraises et des abri↘cots.

Side comments inserted into the middle of a sentence form their own rhythm group:

  • La grande ↗guerre, si j'ai bonne mé↗moire, a duré quatre ↘ans.

  Finality pattern

As can be seen in the example sentences above, a sharp fall in pitch is placed on the last syllable of a declarative statement. The preceding syllables of the final rhythm group are at a relatively high pitch.

  Yes/no pattern

It is most common in informal speech to indicate a yes/no question with a sharply rising pitch alone, without any change or rearrangement of words. For example[8]:p.65

  • Il est ↗riche?

A form found in both spoken and written French is the Est-ce que ... ("Is it that ...") construction, in which the spoken question can end in either a rising or a falling pitch:

  • Est-ce qu'il est ↗riche? OR Est-ce qu'il est ↘riche?

The most formal form for a yes/no question, which is also found in both spoken and written French, inverts the order of the subject and verb. In this case too the spoken question can end in either a rising or a falling pitch:

  • Est-il ↗riche? OR Est-il ↘riche?

Sometimes yes/no questions begin with a topic phrase, specifying the focus of the utterance. In this case the initial topic phrase follows the intonation pattern of a declarative sentence, and the rest of the question follows the usual yes/no question pattern:[8]:p.78

  • Et cette pho↘to, tu l'as ↗prise?

  Information question pattern

Information questions begin with a question word such as qui, pourquoi, combien,, etc., often referred to in linguistics as wh-words because most of them start with those letters in English. The question word is followed in French by est-ce que (as in English "(where) is it that ...") or est-ce qui, or by inversion of the subject-verb order (as in "(where) goes he?"). The sentence starts at a relatively high pitch which falls away rapidly on the last syllable of the question word, and there may be a small increase in pitch on the final syllable of the question. For example:[8]:p.88

  • ↘Où part-il? OR ↘Où part-↗il?
  • ↘Où est-ce qu'il part? OR ↘Où est-ce qu'il ↗part?

In both cases, the question both begins and ends at higher pitches than does a declarative sentence.

In informal speech, the question word is sometimes put at the end of the sentence, in which case the question starts and ends at a high pitch, often with a slight rise on the high final syllable:[8]:p.90

  • Il part ↗où?

  Intonation in Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, meaning that pitch contours within a word distinguish the word from other words with the same vowels and consonants. Nevertheless, Mandarin also has intonation patterns—patterns of pitch throughout the phrase or sentence—that indicate the nature of the sentence as a whole.

There are four basic sentence types having distinctive intonation: declarative sentences, unmarked interrogative questions, yes-no questions marked as such with the sentence-final particle ma, and A-not-A questions of the form "He go not go" (meaning "Does he go or not?"). In the prestigious Beijing dialect these are intonationally distinguished for the average speaker as follows, using a pitch scale from 1 (lowest) to 9 (highest):[9][10]

  • Declarative sentences go from pitch level 3 to 5 and then down to 2 and 1.
  • A-not-A questions go from 6 to 9 to 2 to 1.
  • Yes-no ma questions go from 6 to 9 to 4 to 5.
  • Unmarked questions go from 6 to 9 to 4 to 6.

Thus questions are begun with a higher pitch than are declarative sentences; pitch rises and then falls in all sentences; and in yes-no questions and unmarked questions pitch rises at the end of the sentence, while for declarative sentences and A-not-A questions the sentence ends at very low pitch.

Because Mandarin distinguishes words on the basis of within-syllable tones, these tones create fluctuations of pitch around the sentence patterns indicated above. Thus the sentence patterns can be thought of as bands whose pitch varies over the course of the sentence, while changes of syllable pitch cause fluctuations within the band.

Furthermore, the details of Mandarin intonation are affected by various factors, including[9] the tone of the final syllable, the presence or absence of focus (centering of attention) on the final word, and the dialect of the speaker.

  Languages with falling intonation in questions

Falling intonation is used at the end of questions in some languages, including Hawaiian, Fijian, and Samoan and in Greenlandic. It is also used in Hawaiian Creole English, presumably derived from Hawaiian.

  See also


  1. ^ a b c Celce-Murcia, Marianne; Brinton, Donna M., and Goodwin, Janet M., Teaching Pronunciation: A Reference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996: ch. 6.
  2. ^ Liu F, Patel AD, Fourcin A, Stewart L. (2010). Intonation processing in congenital amusia: discrimination, identification and imitation. Brain. 133(Pt 6):1682-93. doi:10.1093/brain/awq089 PMID 20418275
  3. ^ a b c *Hirst, D.J. & Di Cristo, A. (eds) 1998. Intonation Systems. A survey of Twenty Languages. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press). [ISBN 0521395135 (Hardback); ISBN 0-521-39550-X (Paperback)].
  4. ^ a b Cooper-Kuhlen, Elizabeth, Introduction to English Prosody, 1986.
  5. ^ Halliday, M.A.K., and Greaves, W.S., Intonation in the Grammar of English, London, Equinox, 2008.
  6. ^ Advertisement read on NPR
  7. ^ Grabe, E. (2004). Intonational variation in urban dialects of English spoken in the British Isles In Gilles, P. and Peters, J. (eds.) Regional Variation in Intonation. Linguistische Arbeiten, Tuebingen, Niemeyer, pp. 9-31.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Lian, A-P. Intonation Patterns of French, River Seine Publications, Melbourne, 1980. http://www.andrewlian.com/andrewlian/prowww/ipf_teacher/ipf_teacher.pdf
  9. ^ a b Schack, Katrina. "Comparison of intonation patterns in Mandarin and English for a particular speaker", University of Rochester Working Papers in the Language Sciences, Spring 2000, no. 1: p. 29. http://www.bcs.rochester.edu/cls/s2000n1/schack.pdf
  10. ^ Shen, Xiao-nan Susan. The Prosody of Mandarin Chinese. Vol. 118 of University of California Publications in Linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. p. 95.


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