Intonation in the melody of speech, the rise and fall of pitch. Having a feel for the intonation of American English is important. It is a concept that affects and is affected by rhythm, and makes up the defining character of American English.
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Today I’m going to talk about intonation. I’ve touched on this subject in various other videos without ever explicitly defining it. And today, that’s what we’re going to do. But I’m also going to reference these other videos, and I really encourage you to go watch those as well.
If you’ve seen my videos on word stress, then you’ve already heard me talk a little about pitch. Stressed syllables will be higher in pitch, and often a little longer and a little louder than unstressed syllables. And there are certain words that will have a stress within a sentence, content words. And certain words that will generally be unstressed, and those are function words. For information on that, I invite you to watch those videos.
Intonation is the idea that these different pitches across a phrase form a pattern, and that those patterns characterize speech. In American English, statements tend to start higher in pitch and end lower in pitch. You know this if you’ve seen my video questions vs. statements. In that video, we learned that statements, me, go down in pitch. And questions, me?, go up in pitch at the end. So these pitch patterns across a phrase that characterize a language are little melodies. that characterize a language are little melodies. for example, the melodies of Chinese. If you haven’t already seen the blog I did on the podcast Musical Language, I encourage you to take a look at that. It talks about the melody of speech.
Understanding and using correct intonation is a very important part to sounding natural. Even if you’re making the correct sounds of American English, but you’re speaking in the speech patterns, or intonation of another language, it will still sound very foreign.
Intonation can also convey meaning or an opinion, an attitude. Let’s take for example the statement ‘I’m dropping out of school and the response ‘Are you serious?’ Are you serious? A question going up in pitch conveys, perhaps, an open attitude, concern for the person. Are you serious? But, are you serious? Down in pitch, more what you would expect of a statement, are you serious? The same words, but when it is intoned this way, it is conveying a judgement. Are you serious, a negative one. I don’t agree that you should be dropping out of school. I’m dropping out of school. Are you serious? I’m dropping out of school. Are you serious? With the same words, very different meanings can be conveyed. So intonation is the stress pattern, the pitch pattern, of speech. The melody of speech. If you’ve read my bio on my website, you know melody is something I’m especially keen on, as I studied music through the master’s level. Yes, that was yours truly, thinking a lot about melody. Now, you know that in American English, statements will tend to go down in pitch.
Let’s look at some examples. Here we see two short sentences. Today it’s sunny. I wish I’d been there. And you can see for both of them, that the pitch goes down throughout the sentence. Here we have two longer sentences, and though there is some up and down throughout the sentences, for both sentences, the lowest point is at the end. I’m going to France next month to visit a friend who’s studying there. It’s finally starting to feel like spring in New York.
The software I used to look at the pitch of those sentences is called Pratt, and there’s a link in the footer of my website. So it’s at the very bottom of every page. I hope you’re getting a feel for how important intonation is to sounding natural and native in American English. I hope you’ll listen for this as you listen to native speakers, and that if you haven’t already done so, that you’ll go to my website and do that you’ll go to my website and do So you hear them several times to get the melody That’s it, and thanks so much for using Rachel’s English.