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Definition of intonation

What is intonation? I couldn’t find a satisfactory definition anywhere; however, one thing is certain: the pitch of the voice plays the most important part because the pitch of our voice is constantly changing when we speak normally. If you want to analyze intonation, then you have to analyze the pitch and see what it is doing. It can be described as high and low, but remember that these are arbitrary choices for end-points of the pitch scale.

Form and function of intonation

There are many things to be analyzed in one’s pitch but we will take a look at those that carry linguistic information. So, we want to know what is the form and function of intonation.

We start by analyzing the intonation of the shortest piece of speech, the syllable, which begins and ends with a clear pause. This is called an utterance, so we are going to look at the intonation of one-syllable utterance.

The best examples of one-syllable utterances are “yes” and “no”. We can say these two one-syllable words with a constant pitch or with a pitch that goes from one level to another. If the pitch is constant we call it level tone and if the pitch is changing we call it moving tone. Level tone is not very common for one-syllable utterances. When we say “yes?” or “no?” in a questioning manner the pitch is rising so we can call it a rising tone. In other situations, “yes” and “no” are spoken with a falling tone.

So, speakers have two choices and they can select one according to how they want the utterance to be heard. Of course, the listener will hear one-syllable utterances said with different tones as sounding different, at least in theory.

I strongly belief that foreign learners of English at advanced level should be given training to make them able to recognize and copy English intonation. The best way to learn to use the intonation of English language is the way a child acquires the intonation of its first language, through listening and talking to English speakers. Every learner who wants to learn proper intonation should speak regularly to native speakers of English or at least listen regularly to colloquial English.

Functions of intonations

Have you ever tried to speak without intonation? I have tried and it sounds terrible. There is little to no difference between one speaking without intonation (every syllable at the same level pitch, no pauses in speech, no change in loudness and speed) and the mechanical machine that puts pre-recorded isolated words together to make sentences.

Soon after you try that you realize how important intonation is. Intonation makes it easier for listener to understand what a speaker is trying to convey. The ways in which intonation does this is very complex and isolating different functions of intonation is a very difficult task. Here are the most important functions of intonation:

Attitudinal function of intonation

It refers to the fact that intonation enables us to express emotions and attitudes while speaking which makes spoken language meaningful.

Accentual function of intonation

It helps us to produce the effect of prominence on syllables that need to be perceived at stressed and in particular the place of tonic stress on a particular syllable marks the word to which it belongs as the most important in the tone-unit.

Grammatical function of intonation

It allows the listener to better recognize the grammar and syntactic structure of what is being said. For example, one can recognize the placement of boundaries between phrases, clauses or sentences, the difference between questions and statements, the use of grammatical subordination etc.

Discourse function of intonation

It can signal to the listener what is to be taken as new information and what is already given. In conversation, it can convey to the listener what kind of response is expected.

By far, attitudinal function of intonation is the most analyzed and considered of a greater importance. The other three functions overlap each other to a large degree (see the note below) therefore they are called syntagmatic functions of intonation.

The question/statement distinction and the indication of contrast seem to be equally important in grammatical and discourse functions. The relationship between some linguistic elements and the context in which they occur, seem to be common to accentual, grammatical, and discourse functions.

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