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Introduction to Intonation Units

Intonation units are an important component of American English pronunciation and speech. In order to understand American English intonation, it is important to understand intonation units. An intonation unit is a segment of speech. It can be as small as a single word, or as long as a sentence. Two sentences with identical grammatical structure may be comprised of differing numbers of intonation units when spoken, based on the intent or emotional state of the speaker. It is important to learn to distinguish these units because they have important implications for subtextual meanings and for maintaining speaker order correctly in a conversation. There is no single determiner as to where intonation units begin and end or how many a single sentence contains, but there are clues. Generally, intonation units:

begin with faster speech, and end with slower speech include a single pitch word (See Introduction to Pitch Words lesson) conclude with a pitch boundary (See Introduction to Pitch Boundaries lesson)

Intonation units and emotion Individual speakers alter the number of intonation units they use. Some of this is based on individual patterns and habits, but speakers also alter intonation units based on emotion. A faster speaker will generally use fewer intonation units and may be seen as being more urgent, frantic, excited, and anxious. A slower speaker may have more intonation units and may be perceived as being more emphatic, determined, and insistent. Of course, these are the extremes, and most people normally speak somewhere in the middle range. Elements of intonation units Sentences can often be broken up into multiple intonation units. Each intonation unit usually has a single pitch word and ends in a pitch boundary (See Introduction to Pitch Boundaries lesson). Each pitch word conveys information to the listener, and each pitch boundary helps organize how speakers take turns speaking.

The following examples show that similar sentences can have a different number of intonation units. The end of each intonation unit is marked with a hash ( / ) and the pitch words are bolded.

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listen now Play Notice that the speaker with fewer intonation units spoke faster, with fewer pauses, and with fewer changes in pitch during the statement. The sentence with more intonation units sounds more emphatic and deliberate about what is being said. More intonation units can cause the entire conversation to occur more slowly. Speakers tend to match each other's English rhythm, so if one speaker has a more emphatic rhythm, it is likely that other speakers will mirror it.

Introduction to pitch words


Purpose of pitch words American English intonation uses pitch words for a wide range of purposes. Every pitch word is used to give that word more specific meaning in the context of a dialog. Information conveyed by pitch words Each of the five categories of pitch words has expressive purposes, all of which are meant to help the listener understand specific details of the dialog. pitch word type high pitch words general meaning example audio listen nowPlay

information is new

extra high pitch word rising pitch word scoop pitch word low pitch word

emphasis is necessary for comprehension previous information was incorrect uncertainty is being expressed information is not new, but repetition is important

listen nowPlay listen nowPlay listen nowPlay listen nowPlay

How to create a pitch word Pitch words are created similarly to stressed words. Both kinds of words have some or all of the following characteristics in their stressed syllable:

altered pitch lengthening increase in loudness

However, there are differences between stressed words and pitch words, both in their creation and their use. In short, the stressed syllables of pitch words are louder, longer, and have a greater change in pitch than the stressed syllables of stress words. Pitch words also convey more information than stressed words. In the following sentences, the words like and where's are stressed words. The words water and baby are stressed wordsand pitch words.
Compare Stress Words to Pitch Words I'd like some water. Play

Where's the baby. Play

Differences between stressed words and pitch words Stressed words are:

the important words of the sentence, the words that comprise the contents of the dialog and help the listener and speaker focus on the same information said with a slight pitch change, a little louder, or for more time than surrounding words used to create the underlying rhythm of English.

Pitch words are:


the most valuable and relevant words, the words that allow the interpretation of the dialog said with a greater change in pitch, loudness, or length of time than stressed words

Extra-High Pitch words


Purpose of extra-high pitch words In American English intonation, the purpose of an extra-high pitch word can tell the listener that the speaker is attempting to convey a few different things:

to magnify or dramatize a situation to correct a speaker's assumption to verbally defend themself

In all cases, an extra-high pitch word is the most emphatic pitch word available in English. Extra-high pitch words make a very strong statement and tend to reveal emotion. When used to correct or defend, they should be used carefully so an argument isn't started. How to create extra-high pitch words

Extra-high pitch words are the most noticeable pitch words. The pitch of the stressed syllable of extra-high pitch words is even higher, louder, and longer than the stressed syllable of high pitch words. The added force of an extra-high pitch word also tells the listener that any emotion behind that word is stronger. Examples of extra-high pitch words The extra-high pitch words of the following dialog are bolded, and their change in pitch is shown. A line-by-line analysis follows. To magnify or dramatize listen now Play Analysis: By making Sarah a high pitch word, the speaker answers the question, then adds another sentence with the word best as an extra-high pitch word to emphatically show that the speaker feels strongly that nobody makes better cakes than she does. Another example of dramatization:

listen now Play Analysis: The speaker first answers the question, but then draws attention to the flight back home, signaling that the flight was a more dramatic aspect of the trip. To correct a speaker's assumptions:

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Analysis: It can be assumed that the two speakers already discussed the fact that the second couldn't come to tomorrow's event due to a meeting. The word can is stressed to make certain that the change in plans (now the second speaker is available to attend the meeting) is understood. To verbally defend oneself:

listen now Play Analysis: The second speaker's response puts the emphasis on the word did instead of the content word homework. His purpose is to get the first speaker to stop bothering him about getting his homework done. The emphatic, extra-high pitch is meant to tell the first speaker that the topic of homework is now finished. Function words as extra-high pitch words In most situations, content words become the pitch words of a sentence. Extra-high pitch words don't follow that guideline as closely, and often fall on a word generally regarded as a function word. The following is an example of an extra-high pitch on the word "is" in line 6. The second speaker was initially trying to more gently guide the listener to agree with him by using high pitch words. However, after two rounds of dialog, the second speaker becomes more forceful and emphatic, and switches to an extra-high pitch. This is meant to signal to the first speaker that she is quite certain that Jack will come, and intends to stop talking about it. An analysis follows the conversation.

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Analysis: Line 1: Jack's late is said as a general comment. Jack is the word that the speaker is signaling to be the most important in the sentence, and so that word is given a high stress. Line 2: The word He'll is a high pitch word, since the speaker wishes to keep the topic on Jack, and not change it to anybody else that might be expected to arrive. Don't is also given a high stress, as the speaker wants it to be a stronger word than worry. Line 3: The speaker highlights probably to repeat his uncertainty of seeing Jack. Line 4: The speaker moves from highlighting Jack, who is now obviously the center of the conversation, tocoming, the action word of the sentence. Line 5: The speaker continues voicing the opinion that Jack is not going to come. Line 6: The speaker is emphatic that Jack will indeed come. She gives the emphatic pitch to the word is to attempt to get the other speaker to stop displaying such low confidence in Jack. The speaker wishes to express her faith in Jack, and end this topic of discussion. Extra-high pitch on an unstressed syllable Emphatic pitch words can also have their pitch change on a normally unstressed syllable. One example of this is when a prefix enhances the intended meaning of the word.

listen now Play

listen now Play

Extra-High Pitch words


Purpose of extra-high pitch words In American English intonation, the purpose of an extra-high pitch word can tell the listener that the speaker is attempting to convey a few different things:

to magnify or dramatize a situation to correct a speaker's assumption to verbally defend themself

In all cases, an extra-high pitch word is the most emphatic pitch word available in English. Extra-high pitch words make a very strong statement and tend to reveal emotion. When used to correct or defend, they should be used carefully so an argument isn't started. How to create extra-high pitch words Extra-high pitch words are the most noticeable pitch words. The pitch of the stressed syllable of extra-high pitch words is even higher, louder, and longer than the stressed syllable of high pitch words. The added force of an extra-high pitch word also tells the listener that any emotion behind that word is stronger. Examples of extra-high pitch words

The extra-high pitch words of the following dialog are bolded, and their change in pitch is shown. A line-by-line analysis follows. To magnify or dramatize listen now Play Analysis: By making Sarah a high pitch word, the speaker answers the question, then adds another sentence with the word best as an extra-high pitch word to emphatically show that the speaker feels strongly that nobody makes better cakes than she does. Another example of dramatization:

listen now Play Analysis: The speaker first answers the question, but then draws attention to the flight back home, signaling that the flight was a more dramatic aspect of the trip. To correct a speaker's assumptions:

listen now Play Analysis: It can be assumed that the two speakers already discussed the fact that the second couldn't come to tomorrow's event due to a meeting. The word can is stressed to make certain that the change in plans (now the second speaker is available to attend the meeting) is understood. To verbally defend oneself:

listen now Play Analysis: The second speaker's response puts the emphasis on the word did instead of the content word homework. His purpose is to get the first speaker to stop bothering him about getting his homework done. The emphatic, extra-high pitch is meant to tell the first speaker that the topic of homework is now finished. Function words as extra-high pitch words In most situations, content words become the pitch words of a sentence. Extra-high pitch words don't follow that guideline as closely, and often fall on a word generally regarded as a function word. The following is an example of an extra-high pitch on the word "is" in line 6. The second speaker was initially trying to more gently guide the listener to agree with him by using high pitch words. However, after two rounds of dialog, the second speaker becomes more forceful and emphatic, and switches to an extra-high pitch. This is meant to signal to the first speaker that she is quite certain that Jack will come, and intends to stop talking about it. An analysis follows the conversation.

listen now Play

Analysis: Line 1: Jack's late is said as a general comment. Jack is the word that the speaker is signaling to be the most important in the sentence, and so that

word is given a high stress. Line 2: The word He'll is a high pitch word, since the speaker wishes to keep the topic on Jack, and not change it to anybody else that might be expected to arrive. Don't is also given a high stress, as the speaker wants it to be a stronger word than worry. Line 3: The speaker highlights probably to repeat his uncertainty of seeing Jack. Line 4: The speaker moves from highlighting Jack, who is now obviously the center of the conversation, tocoming, the action word of the sentence. Line 5: The speaker continues voicing the opinion that Jack is not going to come. Line 6: The speaker is emphatic that Jack will indeed come. She gives the emphatic pitch to the word is to attempt to get the other speaker to stop displaying such low confidence in Jack. The speaker wishes to express her faith in Jack, and end this topic of discussion. Extra-high pitch on an unstressed syllable Emphatic pitch words can also have their pitch change on a normally unstressed syllable. One example of this is when a prefix enhances the intended meaning of the word.

listen now Play

Introduction to Pitch Boundaries


The purpose of pitch boundaries

Pitch boundaries use intonation to organize interaction between speakers of English. Pitch boundaries are best known for conveying whether a speaker is asking a question or making a statement by raising or lowering the pitch at the end of a sentence (the higher pitch signifying a question, the lower, a statement). This broad view is over-simplified, and often inaccurate. At a more subtle level, pitch boundaries also signal a listener to take a turn being a speaker or to wait for the speaker to give more information. In addition to signaling turn taking, pitch boundaries also show emotion, such as confidence and assertiveness. How to create a pitch boundary Pitch boundaries are found at the end of intonation units (See Intonation Units lesson), with the more significant pitch boundaries often occurring at the ends of sentences. Pitch boundaries are tied to pitch words (See Introduction to Pitch Words lesson) because they begin at or after the final pitch word of an intonation unit, and continue until the end of the intonation unit. Effect of pitch words on pitch boundaries To demonstrate the relationship between pitch words and pitch boundaries, the following examples contain a single intonation unit and a falling pitch boundary at the end of the sentence. listen now Play The final pitch word is the word London. The falling pitch boundary steps down through the word tomorrow and ends at the lowest pitch of the sentence. In the example listen now Play the final pitch word, London, is also the final word of the intonation unit, so the pitch falls more dramatically after the stressed syllable of the word London. The example

listen now Play shows a single-syllable final pitch word, Nice, which is also the final word of the intonation unit. The pitch must fall from the high pitch word to the low of the pitch boundary within a single syllable. When this happens, it may be difficult for the speaker to reach the same low level of the previous examples, but the interpretation by the listener will be the same as if the speaker did reach the ultimate low final pitch. Statement verses question pitch boundaries A question is any utterance representing a speaker desiring information from the listener. There are six major types of questions: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. Yes/no questions Declarative questions Wh-questions Tag questions Choice questions Echo questions

Statements and questions can both have falling or rising pitch boundaries, depending on the intended meaning. While it is true that statements are more likely to have falling pitch boundaries than questions, there are many instances of the opposite case.