Intonation Contour in English Speech

Businesswoman signing documents with her secretary
Suppose a secretary would like to know if his or her boss has completed drafting up an important report. He or she might ask, 'Finish that report?'. ONOKY - Eric Audras / Getty Images

In speech, intonation contour is a distinctive pattern of pitches, tones, or stresses in an utterance.

Intonation contours are directly related to meaning. For instance, as Dr. Kathleen Ferrara has demonstrated (in Wennerstrom's Music of Everyday Speech), the discourse marker anyway can be analyzed as having "three different meanings, each with its own distinctive intonation contour." (See Examples and Observations, below.)

See also:

Examples of Intonation Contours

  • "Suppose a secretary would like to know if his or her boss has completed drafting up an important report. He or she might ask, 'Finish that report?' or perhaps the same secretary is telling the boss the list of things he or she planned to do next. He or she might say, 'Call Frankfurt. Write the memo to Purchasing. Finish that report.' Now, perhaps, the secretary is talking to his or her assistant who is word processing this same report. He or she might say, 'Finish that report.'
    "In all three cases, this same string of words, Finish that report, would be said with quite different overall tone contours. In the first case, it would be given a questioning intonation; in the second case, it would be said with a non-emphatic final intonation contour; and in the third case, it would be said with an emphatic intonation contour indicating an imperative. Any native speaker of English would recognize the difference in meaning among these three intonation patterns, though the exact description of such contours is far from being a simple matter. . . .
    "The reason intonation contour is so important to spoken discourse cohesion is that participants use their reading of intonation contours in deciding whether or not it is their turn to take over the floor."
    (Ron Scollon, Suzanne Wong Scollon, and Rodney H. Jones, Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach, 3rd ed. Wiley, 2012)

The Problem of Terminology

  • "One immediate difficulty in consolidating the literature on intonation is the lack of agreement on terminology. If I wish to talk about syntax, I can feel confident that most audiences will understand words such as 'noun' and 'verb.' However, with intonation, terms such as 'stress,' 'accent,' 'tone,' and 'emphasis' may mean different things to different people. Not only are the lay terms different from the linguists' terms, but linguists themselves disagree on terminology. To make matters worse, there are even different schools of thought on what counts as a unit in an intonation analysis. Should the intonation contour of an entire phrase be interpreted as a single, meaning-bearing unit? Is it possible to identify smaller units as meaningful? Where exactly does a unit start and stop?"
    (Ann K. Wennerstrom, The Music of Everyday Speech: Prosody and Discourse Analysis. Oxford University Press, 2001)
    "A well-canvassed discrepancy between an American predilection for 'levels' and a British preference for 'tunes' is only one aspect of the differences that exist concerning how the utterance should be segmented for the purpose of describing its intonation. There is a rough similarity between the categories referred to in the literature as sense units, breath groups, tone groups, and contours, but the similarities are deceptive; and the various ways of further segmenting into nucleus, head, tail, tonic, pre-tonic, etc., compound the differences. The important point is that, whether this is explicit or not, each formulation amounts to a starting assumption about how the underlying meaning system is organized."
    (David C. Brazil, "Intonation." The Linguistics Encyclopedia, ed. by Kirsten Malnkjaer. Routledge, 1995)

Intonation Contours in Text-to-Speech Systems

  • "In text-to-speech systems, the goal of the intonation component is to generate an appropriate intonation contour for each spoken phrase. An intonation contour is the underlying fundamental frequency (F0) pattern that occurs over time in speech phrases. Physiologically, F0 corresponds to the frequency at which the vocal folds are vibrating. Acoustically, this vocal fold vibration provides the energy source that excites the vocal tract resonances during voiced portions of speech . . .. Listeners perceive an intonation contour as a pitch pattern that rises and falls at different points in a phrase. The intonation contour emphasizes certain words more than others, and distinguishes statements (with falling intonation contours) from yes/no questions (with rising intonation contours). It also conveys information about syntactic structure, discourse structure, and the speaker's attitude. Behavioral scientists have been instrumental in basic research demonstrating the importance of intonation in the perception and production of speech, and in developing and evaluating intonation algorithms."
    (Ann K. Syrdal, "Text-to-Speech Systems." Applied Speech Technology, ed. by A. Syrdal, R. Bennett, and S. Greenspan. CRC Press, 1995)

Intonation Contours and the Brain

  • "There is evidence that intonational contour and patterns are stored in a distinct part of the brain from the rest of language. When someone experiences brain damage to the left side of the brain that seriously affects their linguistic abilities, making them unable to produce fluent or grammatical speech, they often maintain the appropriate intonation patterns of their language. Also, when right-hemisphere damage takes place, the result may be that the patient speaks with a monotone. And when babies who have not yet acquired any words begin to babble at around 6 months of age, they often utter nonsense syllables using the appropriate intonation pattern of the language they are acquiring."
    (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone. Wadsworth, 2010)

Also Known As: intonational contour

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Nordquist, Richard. "Intonation Contour in English Speech." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Intonation Contour in English Speech. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Intonation Contour in English Speech." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).