What is Intonation?
It is generally believed that spoken sounds occur strung together, one after the other. More
precisely, speech is a continuum; a continuous flux of initiatory, phonatory, and articulatory states and
movements, constantly changing, often overlapping and interpenetrating and influencing each other.
According to Catford (1992), when people look at isolated sounds, they are artificially cutting up that
flowing chain of events into a series of segments or segmental sounds. In reality, these segments are
the speech-sounds that are isolated out of the continuum. Although the segmentation of speech is an
artificial procedure, linguists are obliged to do it to arrest the flow, as it were, in order to pin down
individual sounds for detailed study.
However, one must also give attention to those phonetic phenomena that are characteristic not
so much of individual segments as of their relations to each other, or of stretches of the speechcontinuum
that are greater than one segment in length. Since such phenomena take account of more
than just segments, they are sometimes called suprasegmental or prosodic features. According to
Kreidler (1989), it is well known that English utterances are seldom spoken in monotones. For one,
native English speakers produce melodies of varying kinds, with the voice rising and falling. Such
melodies are technically called intonation.
Opinions do differ when defining intonation. Ladd (1980), an eminent Canadian scholar of
phonology, defines it as “The use of suprasegmental phonetic features (pitch) to convey postlexical or
sentence-level pragmatic meanings in a linguistically structured way” . On the other hand, in
Ranalli (2002), Cruttenden, equates it specifically with pitch movements, while Coulthard identifies it
with prosody which would include not only pitch movements but also loudness, length, speed, and
even voice quality. Pitch, however, seems to be the common thread running through most definitions or
descriptions of intonation. Cruttenden describes pitch as the “perceptual correlate of fundamental
frequency” (p. 1), which, in essence, is the continuous variation in the sounds we perceive as a result of
the vibration of the vocal cords. As such, intonation can be described as the movements or variations in
pitch to which we attach familiar labels describing levels (e.g. high / low) and tones (e.g. falling /
rising), etc. (Ranalli, 2002).
To be sure, the falling and rising of tones can be sudden or gradual and, thus, may be grouped
together in various combinations (rise-fall-rise, fall-rise-fall, etc.). It is common knowledge that
speakers use pitch to send various messages. Wahba (1998) provides the following example which
illustrates the significance of pitch in everyday communication. If Ali says: "There isn’t any salt on the
table," Layla might repeat the same words but with gradually rising pitch. This would have the effect of
sending a message such as: "Are you sure? I am amazed. I am sure I put it there." Alternatively, Layla
might want to send the message: "There is salt somewhere, but not on the table," in which case she
could do this by using a falling then rising pitch on the word "table”.
Many phonologists believe that another important component of intonation is the phenomenon
called prominence. This is the tendency for speakers to makes some syllables more noticeable than
others. Such action is usually accomplished by pronouncing syllables louder and longer, assigning
them a different pitch, or articulating their phonemes - especially the vowels - more distinctly.
Prominence is also referred to as emphasis, focus, main stress, nucleus, or tonic accent. Equally
important is to stress that pitch level, pitch movement, and prominence are all relative values. For
example, “one speaker’s ‘mid’ pitch would be another speaker’s ‘low’ pitch”. Values do vary from
speaker to speaker and in accordance to the context of the situation (Ranalli, 2002).
Researching this topic, Kumaki (2003) cites Brazil who believes that the tone unit is a stretch of
speech which carries the intonational features of certain binary choices; a choice of one meaning rather
than another. The beginnings and ends of tone units are marked by the symbol //. This should
demonstrate that if either one or two syllables in a tone unit is made more emphatic or noticeable than
the others, the syllables are then believed to have prominence. Such a feature should distinguish them
from all other syllables and, thus, draw the listener’s attention to the particular word or message being
conveyed. Producing prominence also involves complex changes in loudness, pitch, and length in such
a way that syllables with such features are described as prominent syllables, where a meaningful
either/or choice has been made by the speaker.
Brazil goes on to explain that prominent syllables are indicated by the use of capitalized letters.
If the speaker makes one syllable of a word prominent, he or she is effectively telling their listener that
this word occupies a selection slot. In turn, this selection is affected by the particular circumstances of
the moment and is called “context of interaction” (Kumaki, 2003). According to this distinct view,
intonation is a means for organizing our language into patterns that fit the present communicative need.
“The communicative value of intonation is related to the purpose that a particular piece of language is
serving in some ongoing, interactive event”.