Intonation Definition and Examples in Speech

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In speechintonation is the use of changing (rising and falling) vocal pitch to convey grammatical information or personal attitude. Intonation is particularly important in expressing questions in spoken English. For example, take the sentence, "When does the meeting start?" The word "start"—including the question mark—rises up or comes up in your voice when you utter the word, notes the website English Pronunciation Roadmap.

The Musicality of Language

Intonation is the melody or music of a language, says David Crystal, author of "A Little Book of Language." Intonation refers to the way your voice rises and falls as you speak, as in,

"It's raining, isn't it? (or 'innit,' perhaps)"

In this sentence, you're not really asking a question: You're telling the listener that it's raining, so you give your speech a "telling" melody. The pitch-level of your voice falls and you sound as if you know what you're talking about, and of course, you do, so you're making a statement. But now imagine that you don't know if it's raining, says Crystal. You think there might be a shower outside, but you're unsure, so you ask someone to check. You use the same words, but the musicality of your voice makes a different point, as in,

"It's raining, isn't it?"

Now you're asking the person, so you give your speech an "asking" melody, says Crystal. The pitch-level of your voice rises, and you sound as if you're asking a question.

Pitch and Chunking

To understand intonation, it's important to comprehend two of its key terms: pitch and chunking. Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that pitch is,

"the relative highness or lowness of a tone as perceived by the ear, which depends on the number of vibrations per second produced by the vocal cords."

Everyone has different levels of the pitch in their voice, notes

"Though some are more prone to a higher pitch and some to a lower pitch, we can all change our timbre depending on who we are talking to and why."

Timbre refers to the quality of sound that distinguishes one voice or musical instrument from another or one vowel sound from another: It is determined by the harmonics of the sound. Pitch, then, refers to the musicality of your voice and how you use that musicality or timbre to convey meaning.

Chunking—and pausing—meanwhile packages information for the listener, says the University of Technology (UTS) in Sydney, adding that speakers divide speech into chunks, which may be single words or groups of words to communicate a thought or idea, or to focus on information the speaker thinks is important. UTS gives the following example of chunking:

"Does it really matter whether people speak with an accent as long as they can be easily understood?"

This sentence breaks into the following "chunks":

"Does it really matter /
whether people speak with an accent /
as long as they can be easily understood?" //

In this example, in each chunk, your pitch would be slightly different to better convey your meaning to the listener. Your voice, essentially, rises and falls in each "chunk."

Types of Intonation

Another key point about intonation involves the rising and falling of your voice. Just as a musical instrument rises and falls in its tone as an accomplished player creates a melody to convey a sense of mood, your voice rises and falls in a similar melodic way to create a sense of meaning. Take this example from an article by Russell Banks, in an article called "Adultery," which was published in the April/May 1986 issue of Mother Jones.

"I mean, what the hell? Right?"

The speaker's voice rises and falls in the separate chunks in these two brief sentences, as follows;

"I mean /
What the hell? /
Right?" //

As the speaker says the first chunk—"I mean"—the voice falls. Then, during the second phrase—"What the heck?"—the voice rises, almost like climbing a melodic ladder with each word. The speaker does this to express outrage. Then, with one the last word—"Right?"—the speaker's voice climbs even higher, similar to hitting the elusive high C in music. This is almost like pushing the sentence to the listener—handing it off if you will—so that the listener will agree with the speaker. (If the listener does not agree, an argument is likely to follow.)

And, in the article, the listener does indeed agree with the speaker, by responding with,

"Yes, right."

The response is spoken with falling intonation, almost as if the listener is giving in and accepting the dictate of the speaker. By the end of the word "right," the responder's voice has dropped so much it's almost as if the person is giving in.

Put another way, intonation is the process of chunking statements (and responses), to deliver packages of meaning. Generally, the initial statement (often a question), may rise and fall in tone, but it generally rises at the end, as the speaker passes off the sentence or question to the listener. And, just as with a musical piece that starts quietly, and crescendos in sound and timber, the tone or sound of the response falls as if the responder is bringing the discussion to a quiet ending, just as a melody quietly comes to a soft finish at the end.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Intonation Definition and Examples in Speech." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Intonation Definition and Examples in Speech. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Intonation Definition and Examples in Speech." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).