Friday, April 10, 2015

Intonation: Music in Language

After looking at speech tempo on Wednesday, I got distracted reading about intonation, and thought I'd share a bit of information on this wonderful linguistic phenomenon that occurs in spoken language.

Pitch varies with frequency, much like these waves that represent
visible light.
Since spoken language is transmitted by sound, every word you utter has pitch. Intonation is how your speech changes pitch, which is one of the things that makes language so amazingly nuanced. Intonation serves a number of functions in speech, all by doing little more than increasing or decreasing its pitch.

Intonation helps us to determine whether a statement is interrogative or affirmative (a question or an answer) by noting if intonation rises in pitch or falls. In English, a rising pitch indicates a question and a falling pitch indicates an answer. However, you may notice that if you doubt your own answer to a question, your speech tends to rise regardless.

San Fernando Valley, California
A number of English dialects around the world have a feature known as the high rising terminal (HRT) in which pitch rises at the end of the sentence. This is common mainly in a number of Australian and American dialects. This feature of speech has been popularised thanks to the valleyspeak sociolect spoken in southern California's San Fernando Valley, where everyone sounds like they're asking questions constantly.

It can also be used to place emphasis on certain words or clauses in a sentence. In written language, this is often indicated by the use of italics (in the case of words) and parentheses in the case of clauses.

Intonation also helps you to remember things. Next time you find yourself repeating your shopping list back to yourself in the aisles, listen to your rising intonation as you name each item. Apparently this is because the items are easier to remember that way. It's also a useful thing to know if you're studying for an exam!

My favourite function of intonation is undoubtedly the way that it can give your speech emotion. Those listening to you talk can often guess how you're feeling due to the variations in your pitch.

It is worth noting that intonation does not refer to tone, which is the change in pitch utilised in tonal languages to distinguish between words. I'll have to have a look at that one another day!