English Intonation: A Concise Course

English Intonation: A Concise Course 
by Mohamed Zayed

1. What is Intonation? 

Intonation is related to rhythm. It means the rise and fall of voice or the melody of speech. When we speak, our voice goes up and down in a high and low pitch. Pitch is associated with the vibration frequency of the vocal folds. 

Intonation is the punctuation of our speech as it helps listeners to navigate where we—speakers—stop, where we ask for information, etc. Intonation helps words to communicate messages and emotions such as anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness, etc. 

Pitch is the main carrier of intonation. An angry voice usually has a high pitch while a polite voice is usually low in pitch. Pitch also indicates several things such as social class, geographical origin, personality type and overall experience in life.
In tone languages, the meaning of a word changes according to the tone used.  English intonation is not operating on word level, but on word group or utterance level. The meaning of an utterance changes according to the tone used. There are three tone types that are identified in most languages: high tone, low tone, and level tone. 

2. What are the functions of intonation? 

1. First of all, intonation is a meaning-carrier means, through which we can identify the grammatical form of the utterance. For example, if we are asking a question, making an order, statement or an exclamation, then our intonation is different in each case. If we are asking a question like You are home? Then rising intonation is used but if we are making a statement then falling intonation is used. Also, tag questions are said in a rising intonation to make us sound genuine. 

2. Secondly, intonation expresses the speaker’s emotions (anger, surprise, interest, etc.), relationship to the listener (equal, superior, inferior, polite, etc.) and attitude to message (JOKING, SERIOUS, INTERESTED, etc.). Also, intonation shows intention. Hence, a native listener is highly offended when inappropriate intonation is used. For example, Thank you when said causally in formal situations could indicate that the speaker is not grateful. 

3. Thirdly, intonation helps the speaker to place the tonic stress on the most important word by exerting greater effort while pronouncing that tonic syllable. 

4. Fourthly, intonation helps both the speaker and the listener in assigning and identifying the information structure of the utterance: the given-new information structure. For example, old information (given information) has less emphasis in accentuation than new information. 

5. Fifthly, intonation has an indexical function. Each group, social class, or even nation has its unique, idiosyncratic tones or intonation patterns that act as an in-group/identity marker. For example, the high rise intonation is widely used for statements in Irish and Australian Englishes. It is also used by ethnic minorities, working class, teenagers and women. That indexical function of intonation can be found in the use of tones in some occupations (e.g. army personnel, lawyers, etc.)

6. The six function of intonation is textual which means that intonation helps speakers to organize and chunk their spoken texts into meaningful sections.

7. Seventhly, intonation also has a psychological function. It helps listeners perceive the message in accordance with some mental models of tones and their functions. That is to say, listeners have an intonation schema or background that helps them decode (=understand) the audible text. 

3. What is a tone group or chunking?

The utterance may include more than one tone group in case it is made up of a number of phrases and clauses, or if the speaker’s speech rate is low. A tone group is a chunk of speech that carries one and only one tone. Each tone group must include at least one stressed syllable and corresponds to a unit of information. A tone group is marked by a slash (/) at its end. 

If the thought is not complete, then rising intonation is used. We chunk our speech by pausing if the message is relatively short and has one thought or change the pitch. We change the pitch by getting voice higher or lower than normal if we have more than one thought. Chunking helps us mange our speech into meaningful units and put our thoughts in a convenient way. It is difficult to go on talking with chunking (pausing). Chunking helps us take time to create our thoughts and put them in the most communicative way. 

Every tone group (or speech chunk) must have a focus word (the most important word) which includes a tonic syllable (the syllable that carries the most important information). Each tonic syllable has a peak or a vowel which is the most heard sound which is said with extra length. The focus word and its tonic syllable is usually the last content word.

4. What are the components of a tone group? 
(1) Tonic syllable (the focus information)
(2) The head (other important words before the tonic syllable
(3) The tail (the information that comes after the tonic syllable).

Tonic syllable may be carry one of the following pitches (tones): 
Fall   \         
Rise   /
Fall-rise  v
Rise-fall   ^

Head exists in there is only one or more stressed syllables before the tonic syllable. (stressed syllable = content words: verbs, nouns, adjectives)

If there is no stressed syllable before the tonic syllable, there it is called zero-head tone group. 


He is `working.  (zero-head = no stressed syllables before the tonic “work”).
He is 'working 'hard to`day.  (tonic syllable: “`day”, head: “work” in working and “hard”. 

It is noticed that there are no left syllables after the tonic syllable. Hence, it is a zero-tail tone group. 

The following extract has 6 tone groups: With each pause, we insert a single slash or bar (/).

Yesterday/, I went to the university/. It was a good day/ and I felt very happy/. I went back home by bus/ not car. 
John is brilliant/.

This is a falling intonation because it is a statement. The focus word containing the tonic syllable is “brilliant” wherein “bri-“ is the tonic or stressed syllable in which the /i/ is the peak or the most heard sound. The peak is said with extra length and change in pitch.

5. What is a tonic syllable? 

The tonic syllable is the peak of the stressed syllable of the most important word or the focus word in the tone group or the speech chunk.  That is to say, the tonic syllable is the most important information in a tone group.

  • “Which syllable is the tonic syllable?” 

Generally speaking, a tonic syllable is the stressed syllable of the last important word. The tonic syllable is also the longest in duration in the tone group. Hence, pitch change and length give extra prominence to the tonic syllable and help listeners recognize it and deduce the intended meaning. 

There are four factors that would make a certain syllable the tonic syllable: 
(1) The new information
A: Who is this man?
B: He is my `father.  

Both “who” and “fa-“ are tonic syllables because they introduce new information. 
If the feet and hands are warm/, the whole body will be warm/.

6. Intonation Tones: (The Intonation of the utterance is put on  its tonic syllable)

There are four basic types of intonation tones: falling (\), rising(/) falling-rising (v) and rising falling (^). 

1. Falling intonation is used to express certainty, finality, warmth and completeness. It is used at the end of statements. 

John visited London.

2. Rising Intonation is used to express interest, politeness, doubt, surprise, and asking for repetition or confirmation. It is usually used with yes/no questions.
Are you happy?
3. Falling-rising intonation is used to express incompleteness, reservation, uncertainty and doubt (=the message is not completed). It is commonly used before commas, and conjunctions. Also, it is used on adverbs and transitions (however, therefore, moreover, consequently, etc.) 
Honestly, he is a good guy.

4. Rising-falling intonation is used to express strong feelings of approval, disapproval, surprise, sarcasm and delight. 

You like it?   Yes.             Wow!       Don’t do it!       It’s impossible! 

7. How can you change your message? 

There are two ways you could change your message without changing words or grammar: (1) changing the tonic syllable position and (2) changing the tone. 

  • Changing the tonic syllable:

The tonic syllable could be any syllable in the sentence to which the speaker wants to attract the listener’s attention for a reason.

I saw John in London last week.

  • Changing the tones: 

Speakers may change the tones from falling to rising in order to modify the meaning of an utterance. (statement -->surprise)

M. Zayed

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