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The role of intonation.


Having seen that utterances differing only in tune may produce quite different reactions in the listener we can fairly conclude that the tune contributes considerably to the total meaning of an utterance. Yet pitch patterns do not, in English, change the basic meanings of words, the meanings we find defined in a dictionary. Whatever tune is used with the word Yes it remains the same affirmative. The contribution that intonation makes is to express, in addition to and beyond the bare words and grammatical constructions used, the speaker’s attitude to the situation in which he is placed. Clearly this is what the words and the constructions are also trying to express; but without intonation, as for instance in writing, they cannot do the whole job on their own; that is why different actors can give such widely varying interpretations of the same role in a play. We may regard the words as a rough guide to the meaning, and the intonation as giving greater precision and point, but this is not to say that intonation makes greater contribution to the whole than does the verbal structure; indeed the intonation without words would give a very vague impression of the total meaning. Nevertheless, it does provide important information which is not contained in any of the other features of utterances, and without this additional information there would be many more imprecisions and ambiguities in English speech than in fact there are.

To describe exactly the attitude which a given pitch pattern expresses is not always easy, for the very good reason that such attitudes are more often conveyed in tunes than in words, so that the words are not readily available. It is this difficulty that writers are constantly facing, and one measure of a writer’s success is his ability to solve the problem of suggesting the exact meaning he has in mind even though he has no direct method of conveying intonation. The English speaker learns by experience from earliest childhood what attitudes are linked with the various tunes he hears and uses, but he would be hard put to it to explain them. Our attempt to explain the attitudes, the meanings which the English tunes convey will be found in chapter II, but first we must show how the tunes of English are constructed and a method of symbolising the pitch treatment of English utterances.


Sense groups.

We neither think nor speak in single words; we express our thoughts in closely-knit groups of words which contribute to the situation in which we are placed at a given moment. Such groups of words are called sense groups. They are usually separated from each other by pauses, though on occasion these pauses may be suppressed; however, it will be simpler if we assume that the pauses are always present – as in most cases they are – and we shall mark them by means of a vertical bar.

E.g. - Good morning.| How are you|

- I’m very well,| thank you.| And you?|

- Fine.| The last time I saw you | you were just going to take your exam.|

- Yes.| I failed, unfortunately.|

- Oh,| bad luck.|


Sense groups may consist of a single word or a number of words. Their length may vary according to the situation and the kind of speech being used; for example, in reading aloud a piece of descriptive prose the sense groups will tend to be longer than those found in impromptu conversation. Also a slow rate of delivery will favour more and shorter sense groups as compared with a fast rate. Compare the following:


In April, | June, | September | and November | there are only thirty days.|

In April, June, September and November, | there are only thirty days.|


On the whole, however, there is very little choice of grouping in conversational speech, and students will have no difficulty in identifying sense groups and the possible variations relating to them. This is important because we shall be describing the tunes of English in relation, not to single words or sentences or paragraphs, but to sense groups.


Date: 2016-01-05; view: 2043

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General characteristics of intonation. | The tunes of longer sense groups containing only one important word.
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