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Encyclopedia > Intonation (linguistics)

Intonation, in linguistics, is the variation of pitch when speaking. Intonation and stress are two main elements of linguistic prosody. Linguistics is the scientific study of human language, and someone who engages in this study is called a linguist. ... In music, pitch is the perception of the frequency of a note. ... In linguistics, stress is the relative emphasis given to certain syllables in a word. ... In linguistics, prosody refers to intonation, rhythm, and vocal stress in speech. ...

Many languages use pitch syntactically, for instance to convey surprise and irony or to change a statement to a question. Such languages are called intonation languages. English and French are well-known examples. Some languages use pitch to distinguish words; these are known as tonal languages. Thai and Hausa are examples. An intermediate position is occupied by languages with tonal word accent, for instance Norwegian or Japanese. Syntax, originating from the Greek words συν (syn, meaning co- or together) and τάξις (táxis, meaning sequence, order, arrangement), can in linguistics be described as the study of the rules, or patterned relations that govern the way the words in a sentence come together. ... Irony is best known as a figure of speech (more precisely called verbal irony) in which there is a gap or incongruity between what a speaker or a writer says, and what is understood. ... The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. ... It has been suggested that this article or section be merged into Tone (linguistics). ... Hausa is the Chadic language with the largest number of speakers, spoken as a first language by about 24 million people, and as a second language by about 15 million more. ...

Rising intonation means the pitch of the voice increases over time; falling intonation means that the pitch decreases with time. A dipping intonation falls and then rises, whereas a peaking intonation rises and then falls.

The classic example of intonation is the question-statement distinction. For example, northeastern American English, like very many languages (Hirst & DiCristo, eds. 1998), has a rising intonation for echo or declarative questions (He found it on the street?), and a falling intonation for wh- questions (Where did he find it?) and statements (He found it on the street.). Yes or no questions (Did he find it on the street?) often have a rising end, but not always. The Chickasaw language has the opposite pattern, rising for statements and falling with questions. The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. ... The Chickasaw language is a Native American language of Muskogean stock. ...

Dialects of British and Irish English vary substantially (Grabe 2004,[1]), with rises on many statements in urban Belfast, and falls on most questions in urban Leeds.


In the International Phonetic Alphabet, "global" rising and falling intonation are marked with a diagonal arrow rising left-to-right [↗] and falling left-to-right [↘], respectively. These may be written as part of a syllable, or separated with a space when they have a broader scope: The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a system of phonetic notation devised by linguists to accurately and uniquely represent each of the wide variety of sounds (phones or phonemes) used in spoken human language. ...

He found it on the street?
[hi faʊnd ɪt | ɑn ðə ↗stɹit ‖ ]

In the previous example, the global rise symbol is placed between the transcriptions for the words "the" and "street".

Yes, he found it on the street.
[↘ jɛs ‖ hi faʊnd ɪt | ɑn ðə ↘stɹit ‖ ]

In that example, the symbol for a global fall was placed before the transcription for the word "yes," as well as between the transcriptions for the words "the" and "street".

How did you ever escape?
[↗haʊ dɪdju | ɛvɚ | ɪ↘skeɪp ‖ ]

Here, the global rise symbol is place before the transcription for the word "how" and the global fall symbol is placed between the two syllables in "escape", after the small capital letter "I" which represents the sound [ɪ].

More specific transcription systems for intonation have also been developed, such as ToBI ('To'nes and 'B'reak 'I'ndices) and INTSINT (Hirst & Di Cristo, eds. 1998). INTSINT is an acronym for INternational Transcription System for INTonation. ...

See also

Inflection or inflexion refers to a modification or marking of a word (or more precisely lexeme) so that it reflects grammatical (i. ...


  • Grabe, E. (2004). Intonational variation in urban dialects of English spoken in the British Isles.



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