American Accent Intonation RRS feed

  • Question

  • New Information

    This is the starting point of standard intonation. When we say that we need to stress the new information, it's logical to think, "Hmmm, this is the first time I'm saying this sentence, so it's all new information. I'd better stress every word." Well, not quite. In standard English, we consider that the nouns carry the weight of a sentence, when all else is equal. Although the verb carries important information, it does not receive the primary stress of a first-time noun.

    Dogs eat bones.

    After the information has been introduced, or is being repeated through the use of pronouns, the intonation shifts over to the verb. Notice how the intonation changes when a sentence changes from nouns to pronouns:

    Dogs eat bones.

    They eat them.

    In addition to the intonation of a statement, there is another aspect of speech that indicates meaning -- phrasing. Have you ever caught just a snippet of a conversation in your own language, and somehow known how to piece together what came before or after the part you heard? This has to do with your natural understanding of phrasing. In a sentence, phrasing tells you where the speaker is at the moment, where he is going, and if he is finished or not. Notice that the intonation stays on the nouns.

    Stress the nouns and let the tone fall at the end of the sentence.
    Dogs eat bones.

    First half, second half
    The first half of a sentence usually sets up the second half.
    Dogs eat bones, but cats eat fish.

    Intro Phrase
    When you want to preface your statement, use a rising tone.
    As we all know, dogs eat bones.

    With more than one item in a list, all but the last one have a rising tone.
    Dogs eat bones, kibbles and meat.

    A regular question goes up (compared with a statement), but drops back down at the end.
    Do dogs eat bones?

    Repeated Question
    A repeated, rhetorical or emotional question goes up, and then up again at the end.
    Do dogs eat bones?!

    You'll notice, of course, that the dogs-eat-bones sentence uses simple nouns and simple verbs. An extremely important part of intonation is compound nouns and complex verb tenses.

    Once the intonation of new information is established, you'll soon notice that there is a pattern that breaks that flow. When you want to emphasize one thing over another, you reflect this contrast with pitch change. Notice how the intonation indicates contrast:

    Bob studies English.
    Bob studies English, but he doesn't use it.

    If a person consistently stresses "contrast words" as opposed to "new information words", he can end up sounding permanently argumentative:

    I said it is good.

    He doesn't like it. Where are you going?

    Additionally, mixed messages occur when modals or verbs of perception are stressed -- you end up with the opposite meaning!

    People should exercise more, but . . .

    They would help us, if . . .

    It looks like Chanel, but at that price, it's a knock-off.

    He seems like a nice guy, but once you get to know him. . .

    A good exercise to demonstrate the variety of meaning through intonation changes is to take a single sentence, try stressing each word in turn, and see the totally different meanings that come out.

    1. I didn't say he stole the money.
    2. I didn't say he stole the money.
    3. I didn't say he stole the money.
    4. I didn't say he stole the money.
    5. I didn't say he stole the money.
    6. I didn't say he stole the money.
    7. I didn't say he stole the money.

    Once you are clear on the intonation changes in the seven sentences, you can add context words to clarify the meaning:

    1. I didn't say he stole the money, someone else said it.
    2. I didn't say he stole the money, that's not true at all.
    3. I didn't say he stole the money, I only suggested the possibility.
    4. I didn't say he stole the money, I think someone else took it.
    5. I didn't say he stole the money, maybe he just borrowed it.
    6. I didn't say he stole the money, but rather some other money.
    7. I didn't say he stole the money, he may have taken some jewelry.

    In any language, there are areas of overlap, where one category has a great deal in common with a different category. In this case, intonation and pronunciation have two areas of overlap. First is the pronunciation of the letter T. When a T is at the beginning of a word (such as table, ten, take), it is a clear sharp sound. It is also clear in combination with certain other letters, (contract, contain, etc.) When T is in the middle of a word (or in an unstressed position), it turns into a softer D sound. (This is covered in more detail in pronunciation.)

    Betty bought a bit of better butter.
    Beddy bada bida bedder budder.

    It is this intonation/pronunciation shift that accounts for the difference between photography (phoTAgraphy) and photograph (PHOdagraph).

    Mood & Personality
    This is an extremely important aspect of intonation, as it goes beyond what you are trying to say--it dictates how your listener will relate to you as an individual--if you will be considered charming or rude, confident or nervous, informed or unfamiliar.
    An extremely important part of intonation is inside a one-syllable word. Intonation in a one-syllable word? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? No, we put in little sounds that are not in the written language, but that convey a great deal of information in terms of who we are. (These extra sounds are explained in liaisons.)

    When we contrast two similar words, one ending with a voiced consonant (d, z, g, v, and the other with an unvoiced consonant (t, s, k, f, p), you will hear the difference in the preceding vowel, specifically in the length or duration of that vowel.
    Simply put, words that end in a voiced consonant have a doubled vowel sound. For example, if you say bit, it is a quick, sharp sound--a single musical note. If you say bid, however, the word is stretched out, it has two musical notes, the first one higher than the second, bi-id. pronunciation.

    single double
    tense beat bead
    lax bit bid
    One of the first things you learn about intonation is that nouns carry the new information, and consequently, they carry the stress in a sentence.

    Dogs eat bones.
    But what if you have an adjective with the noun, or two nouns together -- which word do you stress?

    In this case, you have to make a simple decision: Either stress the first word or the second word (rarely both). How do you know which one to stress? Well, if it is a description (with no contrast), skim over the adjective and stress the noun:

    a nice guy
    a big house
    a good idea

    If you have a two nouns that form a compound noun, stress the first word:
    a hot dog
    a notebook
    a picture frame

    This will explain why we say:

    He lives in a white house.
    He lives in the White House.

    After you have mastered first-word or second-word stress, you can go on the more complex intonation:

    It's a pot.
    It's new.
    It's a new pot.
    It's brand new.
    It's a brand new pot.
    It's a tea pot.
    It's a new tea pot.
    It's a brand new tea pot.
    It's a tea pot lid.
    It's a new tea pot lid.
    It's a brand new tea pot lid.

    One of the most interesting thing about English is that you can have a simple sentence such as...

    Dogs eat bones.

    ... and the same sentence with a much more complex verb tense, but you will keep the same intonation pattern:

    The dogs will have eaten the bones.

    Because they are both Noun-Verb-Noun sentences with no contrast, you automatically stress the noun each time. The verb is said very quickly and without much stress at all. Furthermore, the natural liaisons make the sound very different from the spelling:

    Dogs eat bones.
    [däg zeet bounz]

    The dogs will have eaten the bones.
    [the däg z'l'veetn the bounz]

    When you switch to a Pronoun-Verb-Pronoun sentence, the liaisons are the same, but the main verb is stressed.

    They eat them.
    [they ee d'm.]

    They will have eaten them.
    [they l'v ee(t)n'm.]

    Listen carefully to a radio broadcast and notice how complex verb tenses are used and pronounced.

    Saturday, September 29, 2007 7:58 AM