Intonation is a fundamental property of spoken language. Because of its complexity, however, our discussion can only be considered a basic introduction to this field, which necessarily omits or abbreviates some aspects that a more comprehensive book would discuss at greater length.


Linguists have found many different ways to characterise intonation, which is also called pitch contour or pitch movement. In general, however, they agree on the following basic principles:

– All languages have intonation.

– Intonation is principally the variation of pitch, but also prominence, over a stretch of speech.

– Intonation has four functions. The structural function signals the grammatical or structural role of an utterance, determining, for example, whether it is a question, a request, or an instruction. The accentual function affects the prominence of a syllable, and thus plays a role in focusing stress on particular words in connected speech.

The attitudinal function conveys the speakers’ personal orientations towards what they say, or gives us clues about how the speakers feel – whether they are uninterested, excited, or ironic, for example. And the discourse function marks the turn-taking processes in an exchange between speakers.

– The set of intonation patterns, or contours, is limited and can be fully determined, but linguists are not in full agreement about the actual number of different contours.

– In order to analyse intonation, continuous speech can be broken down into smaller units, but there are different conventions about how to determine these units.


Intonation, as was indicated above, is mainly shaped by the variation, or modulation, of the pitch of the voice. Prominence also plays a role, especially in marking the word that carries the main sentence stress. Our discussion, however, will be focused on pitch, rather than prominence. We already know from Lesson Two that pitch is related to the frequency of the vibration of the vocal folds: The faster the vocal folds vibrate, the higher the pitch. Thus pitch is another way of referring to the fundamental frequency (F0) of the voice. This frequency is also determined by the physical size, and consequently by the sex, of a speaker: In general, a male speaker usually has a lower pitch, at around 120 hertz, than a female speaker, who has an average pitch at around 210 hertz. We also know that pitch is not a distinctive feature in English, so the absolute difference between the fundamental frequencies of individual speakers, or of men and women, is not significant in terms of segmental phonology. Nonetheless, all speakers can use intonation to achieve the functions mentioned in the previous section, regardless of the absolute value of their own fundamental frequency. Thus an individual speaker can control the pitch of his or her voice, and in so doing may transmit information of one sort or another. Although no two speakers have the same fundamental frequency, it is the distinctive contrasts in a speaker’s pitch level and the relative movements that are important to consider, rather than the absolute pitch frequency. In other words, the important question to ask when analyzing intonation is whether a change in pitch carries linguistic, or communicative, significance.


We can normally break connected speech down into utterances, i.e. units that begin and end with a clear pause. While utterances may consist of only one syllable, such as yes or no, they are normally much longer, as in The other day, while was in town, met Chris, who hadn’t seen for a couple of weeks. Within an utterance, we can sometimes also identify smaller units, over which a single intonation contour extends. Such a stretch of speech we call a tone unit, or tone group. For example, the simple question (1) below, the longer question (2), and the statement (3) are all utterances.

(1) When?

(2) When did you say you would arrive?

(3) When he finally arrived, he discovered his friends had already left.

(1) and (2) each consist of a single tone unit whereas (3) is made up of two tone units. A tone unit, then, can extend over a stretch of speech as short as a single syllable, as in (1), or over a much longer stretch of speech, as in (2).

As we know from Lesson One, intonation cannot be indicated by 1PA symbols, and there is no other generally agreed system for writing intonation down. In this manual, therefore, we use conventional orthography, but without any punctuation, and we mark off tone units with double slashes, as in the following example:

/ / When he finally arrived // he discovered his friends had already left //

With the notions of utterance and tone unit, we have now introduced the last of the units of speech we consider in this manual: We can say that connected speech consists of utterances; an utterance is made up of one or more tone units; a tone unit is made up of one or more feet; a foot comprises one or more syllables; and a syllable consists of one or more phonemes.


Within a tone unit, one or more syllables are usually more prominent than others. The last prominent syllable in a tone unit is called the tonic syllable, or nucleus. The tonic syllable is the syllable on which the main pitch movement begins. The pitch movement may be restricted to the tonic syllable, but often it continues from the tonic syllable to the end of the tone unit. The tonic syllable, as well as being prominent, is said to carry tonic stress, or nuclear stress, and it is this tonic stress which determines the particular intonation pattern, or tone. The convention we adopt in this manual is that syllables which carry stress are written in capital letters, and tonic syllables are written in capital letters and are underlined.

We shall consider five different intonation patterns, or tones, in RP: fall, rise, fall-rise, rise-fall, and high key (where the whole intonation contour is at a raised pitch). These tones can be indicated by the symbols ^ (for fall), * (for rise), (for fall-rise), (for rise-fall), and 0 (for high key). The symbols are placed before the tone unit, as in the following examples:

// WHERE do you LIVE // (neutral question)

// WHERE have you BEEN / / (angry parent to a child)

// I’ll BE there SOON // (reassurance)

// The FILM was WONderful / / (emphatic statement)

// HOW much did you PAY// (question signalling surprise at the price)


As was mentioned earlier in this lesson, intonation has four functions. A full description of all the different ways in which intonation works within each of these broad functional categories is beyond the scope of this manual. However, it is well worth knowing a few general points about what the different contours signal. Fall. Apart from being the most neutral tone in RP, the fall can signal finality and definiteness. It is surprising that many textbooks describe the rise as the standard tone for questions. In fact, it is the fall that is quite normal for neutral questions beginning with a question word. Examples:

There were three people there.

That’s all I have to say.

How are you? Where are you going? What time is it?

Rise. The rise is used for yes/no questions, for questions which are requests for a repetition of an answer, and for listing items (except the last item in a list, which is normally given a fall). When the speaker takes an authoritative or dominant role in the discourse, the rise is also commonly used, for example in questions in an aggressive interview, in instructions, or in commands. Examples:

Do you live near here? Can I help you?

Apples, oranges, bananas, and pears.

When did your fever start?

First turn left, then turn right.

Fall-rise. The fall-rise is generally used to confirm an equal participation in the discourse. Thus it is used to refer to shared information, to confirm information, to ask for permission, and to reassure. Examples:

We’re leaving at seven, aren’t we?

We can’t afford it, it’s too expensive.

May I open the window?

It’ll be alright.

Rise-fall. The rise-fall is used to express strong personal impression. It can be used to convey a strong positive attitude, or to express surprise. Examples:

That’s a lovely view!

What a goal!

High key. The high key is normally used to express surprise, strong disagreement, and sometimes strong agreement. Examples:

Only 28? I thought you were at least 35!

Actually, I think you’re wrong!

I quite agree!

The analysis has been limited to marking the overall tone contour, without breaking the tone unit down into pre-head, head, tonic syllable, and tail. As the number of theoretically possible combinations of intonation contours that may be applied to any exchange is relatively high, we have transcribed only the spoken text.