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Different approaches to the definition of Intonation

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Intonation as a complex semantic unity. Different approaches to the definition of Intonation. Functions of intonation.

Phonemes, syllables and words as lower-level linguistic units, are grouped by various prosodic means into a higher unit – utterance, having a certain prosodic structure, or intonation. Most phoneticians in this country and abroad define intonation as a complex unity of several components: speech melody, utterance/sentence stress, rhythm, tempo, loudness and voice timber, which allow the speaker to express his/her thoughts, emotions and attitudes towards the listener, the content of the utterance and towards the reality. Speech melody, utterance/sentence stress, rhythm, tempo, loudness and voice timbre are the perceptible qualities of intonation.

On the acoustic level intonation is regarded as a complex combination of fundamental frequency, intensity and duration. Thus, if we compare the levels of analyses we may say that perceptible and acoustic parameters are related with each other in the following way:

a) speech melody is primarily related with fundamental frequency;

b) loudness is related with intensity.

c) tempo is related with duration.

At the same time there is no one-to-one relation between any of the acoustic parameters and such components of intonation as stress and rhythm.

The definition of intonation given above is known as a broad definition since it reflects the linkage and interaction of speech melody, utterance/sentence stress, rhythm, tempo, loudness and voice timber in speech (see, for instance, L.Hultzen, F.Danes, D.Crystal, V.A.Vassilyev, A.M.Antipova, and many others).

Many phoneticians such as D.Jones, L.Armstrong, I.Ward, K,Pike, R.Kingdon, A.Gimson, J.O’Connor, G.Arnold and others define intonation as the variations of the pitch of the voice, reducing it to only one component – speech melody. Such a definition of intonation is called narrow. However, all the authors point out the importance of a number of other factors, such as sentence stress, rhythm, pausation, etc., which they do not include in the notion of “intonation”.


Functions of intonation. The two main functions of intonation are communicative and expressive (giving prominence to words and phrases, expresses semantic contrasts). Besides intonation performs: (1) constitutive function, i.e. it organizes an utterance as a communicative unit; divides sentences into intonation groups performing delimitative function; (2) distinctive function since it determines the communicative types of sentences and clauses, differentiates modal meanings and attitudes; it also differentiates pronunciation styles; (3) identificatory function as it provides a basis for the hearer’s identification of the communicative and modal type of an utterance, its semantic and syntactical structure with the situation of the discourse. All these functions of intonation are fulfilled simultaneously and cannot be separated one from another.


3. System of English intonation. Structure of intonation on the acoustic and perceptual levels. Components of intonation (speech melody, utterance stress, rhythm, tempo and pausation, loudness, timbre), their interplay within the discourse structure.


Speech melody is the changes in the pitch of the voice in connected speech. It makes the pitch component of intonation.

Utterance stress is the greater prominence of one or more words among other words in the sentence. It makes the force component of intonation.

Speech tempo is the relative speed of utterance which is measured by the rate of syllable successions and the number and duration of pauses in a sentence. Variations in tempoprovide the temporal component of intonation.

Rhythm is a regular recurrence of stressed syllables.

The pitchparameters consist of the distinct variations in thedirection of the pitch, i.e. where the pitch goes distinctly up or down,the pitch level and the pitch range.

The pitch direction. Not all stressed syllables are of equal importance. One of the syllables has a greater prominence than the others and forms the nucleus of an intonation pattern. Formally the nucleus may be described as a strongly stressed syllable which is generally the last stressed syllable of an intonation pattern which marks a significant change of the pitch direction. The nuclear tone is the most important part of the intonation pattern. The inventory of nuclear tones given by different scholars is different. Phoneticians single out from 4 to12 nuclear tones. The majority of them agree that the following nuclear tones are most frequent: the Low Fall, the Low Rise, the High Fall, the High Rise, the Fall-Rise, the Rise-Fall, the Mid-Level.

These tones are called kinetic or moving because the pitch of the voice moves upwards or downwards, during the whole duration of the tone.

R. Kingdon also distinguishes static tones in which the voice remains steady on a given pitch throughout the duration of the tone: the high level tone, the low level tone.

Moreover the pitch can change either in one direction only ( a simple tone) and in more than one direction (a complex tone).

Tempo is the speed with which sentences are pronounced in connected speech. Sentences are usually separated from each other by pauses in connected speech.

It is possible to speed up or slow down the rate with which syllables, words, and sentences are produced, to convey several kinds of meaning. In many languages, a sentence spoken with extra speed conveys urgency; while slower speed, deliberation or emphasis. A rapid, clipped single syllable may convey irritation; a slowly drawled syllable, greater personal involvement etc. Compare:

'Shall I leave now?' asked Janet. 'Yes,' snapped John rudely. 'Shall I leave now?' asked Janet. 'Ye-e-s,' replied John, thoughtfully stroking his beard.

Pausesare closely connected with other components of intonation. The number and the length of pauses affect the general tempo of speech. A slower tempo makes the utterance more prominent and more important. Pauses may be silent (temporal), pauses of perception (non-temporal) and voiced (filled). They play both delimitative and constitutive functions, showing relations between utterances and intonation groups. Attitudinal function of pausation can be affected through voiced pauses, which are used to signal hesitation, doubt, suspence. Such pauses have the quality of the central vowels / / or /m/ and are used for emphasis.

Rhythm is the regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables.

There are two kinds of speech rhythm: syllable-timed rhythm and stress-timed rhythm. In syllable-timed languages such as French and Japanese, for example, the syllables follow each other with fairly equal length and force, the flow of syllables is smooth without a strong contrast of stress.

Rhythm in English is stress-timed, i.e. it is based on the alteration of strongly and weakly stressed syllables.

Rhythm in English is isochronous, i.e. being composed of equal intervals of time. Even though these sentences differ in the number of syllables, they are equivalent in their number of stressed syllables. Therefore the time needed to say each sentence is roughly equivalent. The unstressed syllables, whether many or few, occupy approximately the same time between the stresses. The greater number of unstressed syllables there is between the stressed ones the more weakly and rapidly they are pronounced.

Each rhythmic group within an intonation group is given the same amount of time. If there are many unstressed syllables in a rhythmic group they must be pronounced more quickly.

To acquire a good English speech rhythm the learner should: 1) arrange sentences into intonation groups and 2) then into rhythmic groups 3) link every word beginning with a vowel to the preceding word 4) weaken unstressed words and syllables and reduce vowels in them 5) make the stressed syllables occur regularly at equal periods of time.

Maintaining a regular beat from stressed syllable to stressed syllable and reducing the intervening unstressed syllables can be very difficult for Ukrainian learners of English. Their typical mistake is not giving sufficient stress to the content words and not sufficiently reducing unstressed syllables. Giving all syllables equal stress and the lack of selective stress on key/content words actually hinders native speakers’ comprehension.

Timbre. Asis knownspeakers differ from each other in terms of the timbre or the voice quality (and this is the main reason for our being able to recognize individuals' voices even over the telephone). It is a special colouring of the speaker’s voice. J. Laver considers that voice quality derives from two sources, the anatomical foundation and the extrinsic settings.

Usually they distinguish whispery, soft, breathy, creaky, harsh, neutral (or modal, or normal), falsetto, resonant voices. It is used to express various emotions and moods, such as joy, anger, sadness, indignation, etc.


Pitch (high, mid, low)

1) speech melody range (wide, mid, narrow)

interval (positive, zero, negative)



nuclear stress (æææ \m,™m, <m, ém)

non-nuclear full stress ("m, %m, %m)

2) utterance stresspartial stress (.m, %m)

weak (unstressed)

3) rhythmsimple


4) tempo rapid







5) pausespauses of perception

voiced or filled pauses


6) loudnessincreased




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