Intonation is a powerful means of human intercommunication. One of the aims of communication is the exchange of information between people. The meaning of an English utterance, i.e. the information it conveys to a listener, derives not only from the grammatical structure, the lexical composition and the sound pattern. It also derives from variations of intonation, i.e. of its prosodic parameters.
The functions of intonation can be summarized as follows:
to express a wide range of attitudinal meanings – excitement, boredom, surprise, friendliness, reserve, etc. Here, intonation works along with other prosodic and paralinguistic features to provide the basis of all kinds of vocal emotional expression.
to mark grammatical contrasts. The identification of such major
units as clause and sentence often way pitch contours break up
an utterance; and several specific contrasts depends on the, such as question and statement, or positive and negative, may rely on intonation. Many languages make the important conversational distinction between ‘asking’ and ‘telling’ in this way, e.g. She’s here, isn’t she! (where a rising pitch is the spoken equivalent of the question mark) vs She’s here, isn’t she! (where a falling pitch expresses the exclamation mark).
To convey what is new and what is already known in the meaning of an utterance – what is referred to as the ‘information structure’ of the utterance. If someone says I saw a BLUE car, with maximum intonation prominence on blue, this presupposes that someone has previously asked about the colour; whereas if the emphasis is on I, it presupposes a previous question about which person is involved. It would be very odd for someone to ask Who saw a blue car!, and for the reply to be: I saw a BLUE car!
to construct larger than an utterance stretches of discourse. Prosodic coherence is well illustrated in the way paragraphs of information are given a distinctive melodic shape, e.g. in radio news-reading. As the news-reader moves from one item of news to the next, the pitch level jumps up, then gradually descends, until by the end of the item the voice reaches a relatively low level.
to organize language into units that are more easily perceived and memorized. Learning a long sequence of numbers, for example, proves easier if the sequence is divided into rhythmical ‘chunks’.
to serve as markers of personal identity – an ‘indexical’ function. In particular, they help to identify people as belonging to different social groups and occupations (such as preachers, street vendors, army sergeants).
The communicative function of intonation is realized in various ways which can be grouped under five general headings. Intonation serves:
1. To structure the information content of a textual unit so as to show which information is new or cannot be taken for granted, as against information which the listener is assumed to possess or to be able to acquire from the context, that is given information.
2. To determine the speech function of a phrase, i.e. to indicate whether it is intended as a statement, question, command, etc.
3. To convey connotational meanings of "attitude" such as surprise, annoyance, enthusiasm, involvement, etc. This can include whether meaning are intended, over and above the meanings conveyed by the lexical items and the grammatical structure.
4. To structure a text. Intonation is an organizing mechanism. On the one hand, it delimitates texts into smaller units, i.e. phonetic passages, phrases and intonation groups, on the other hand, it integrates these smaller constituents forming a complete text.
5. To differentiate the meaning of textual units (i.e. intonation groups, phrases and sometimes phonetic passages) of the same grammatical structure and the same lexical composition, that is the distinctive or phonological function of intonation.
6. To characterize a particular style or variety of oral speech which may be called the stylistic function.
On the phonological level intonation is viewed as a complex structure of all its prosodic parameters. The description of intonation structure is one aspect of the description of interaction and intonation choices carry information about the structure of the interaction, the relationship between and the discourse function of individual utterances, the international "given-ness" and "newness" of information and the state of convergence and divergence of the participants.
In oral English the smallest piece of information is associated with an intonation group, which is a unit of intonation containing the nucleus. There is no exact match between punctuation in writing and intonation groups in speech. Speech is more variable in its structuring of information than writing. Cutting up speech into intonation groups depends on such things as the speed at which you are speaking, what emphasis you want to give to the parts of the message, and the length of grammatical units. A single phrase may have just one intonation group; but when the length of phrase goes beyond a certain point (say roughly ten words), it is difficult not to split it into two or more separate pieces of information, e.g.
The man told us we could park it here.
The man told us | we could park it at the railway station.
The man told us | we could park it | in the street over there.
Accentual systems involve more than singling out important words by accenting them. Intonation group or phrase accentuation focuses on the nucleus of these intonation units. The nucleus marks the focus of information or the part of the pattern to which the speaker especially draws the hearer's attention. The focus of information may be concentrated on a single word or spread over a group of words.
Out of the possible positions of the nucleus in an intonation group, there is one position which is normal or unmarked, while the other positions give a special or marked effect. In the example: "He's gone to the office" the nucleus in an unmarked position would occur on "office". The general rule is that, in the unmarked case, the nucleus falls on the last lexical item of the intonation group and is called the end-focus. In this case sentence stress is normal.
But there are cases when you may shift the nucleus to an earlier part of the intonation group. It happens when you want to draw attention to an earlier part of the intonation group, usually to contrast it with something already mentioned, or understood in the context. In the marked position we call the nucleus contrastive focus or logical sentence stress. Here are some examples:
"Did your brother study in Kyiv?" "̖No, ⌇he was ↘ born in Kyiv."
In this example contrastive meaning is signalled by the falling tone and the increase of loudness on the word born.
Sometimes there may be a double contrast in the phrase, each contrast indicated by its own nucleus:
Her ̖mother | is ̖Uk↘ rainian | but her ̖father | is ↘ German.
In a marked position, the nuclei may be on any word in an intonation group or a phrase. Even words like personal pronouns, prepositions and auxiliaries, which are not normally stressed at all, can receive nuclear stress for special contrastive purposes:
It’s not ↘ her book, / it’s ↘ ours.
The widening of the range of pitch of the nucleus, the increase of the degree of loudness of the syllable, the slowing down of the tempo make sentence accent emphatic:
A. →Tom has ↘ passed his exam.
B. Well ↘ fancy ↘ that!
We can roughly divide the information in a message into given, or retrievable information (or the theme) and new information (or the theme). Given information is something which the speaker assumes the hearer knows about already. New information can be regarded as something which the speaker does not assume the hearer knows about already.
A. What did John say to you?
B. He was →talking to ↘ Mary ׀ not to ↘ me.
Another use of intonation in English is that of transmitting feelings or emotions and modality and this forces it to harness emotion in the service of meaning. As with words which may have two or more related lexical meanings so with intonation patterns one must indicate a central meaning with marginal variations from it. Most phrases and parts of them may be pronounced with several different intonation patterns according to the situation, according to the speaker's momentary feeling or attitude to the subject matter. These modifications can vary from surprise to deliberation, to sharp isolation of some part of a sentence for attention, to mild intellectual detachment. It would not be wise to associate a particular intonation pattern with a particular grammatical construction. Any sentence in various contexts may receive any of a dozen other patterns, cf.:
When can you do it? – ↘ Now. (involved)
When can you do it? – Now. (detached, reserved)
When can you do it? – Now. (encouraging further conversation)
The distinctive function of intonation is realized in the opposition of the same word sequences which differ in certain parameters of the intonation pattern. Intonation patterns make their distinctive contribution at intonation group, phrase and text levels. Thus in the phrases:
If ↘ Mary comes ׀ let me know at once.
(a few people are expected to come)
If Mary ↘comes ׀ let me know at once. (no one else but Mary is expected to come)
the intonation patterns of the first intonation groups are opposed.
Function words usually have strong forms when they are:
1. At the end of the sentence, e.g. What are you looking at? Where are you from ? I’d love to.
2. Used for emphasis, e.g. Do you want this one? No. Well, which one do you want? That one.
3. used for contrast, He is working so hard. She is but not he.
In ordinary, rapid speech such words can occur much more frequently in their weak form than in their strong form. Because they are unstressed in the stream of speech, function words exhibit various forms of reduction, including the following:
1. The weakening or centralizing of the internal vowel to [ə], e.g must [məst]. In certain phonetic environments, e.g. where syllabic consonants are possible, the reduction of a short vowel + consonant sequence to a syllabic consonant [ænd] → [n], as in the example of bread and butter, fish and chips, etc. Sometimes the unstressed internal vowel can fall out completely, e.g. from [frəm] → [frm], [fm]
2. loss of an initial consonant sound, e.g. them [ðəm] → [əm], his [hiz] → [iz];
3. loss of a final consonant, e.g. and [ənd] → [ən], of [ɔv] → [ə].
In fact, function words cause problems for the nonnative listeners since in their most highly reduced form, the pronunciation forms for many common function words are virtually identical, e.g. a, have, of → [ə].
The main function of sentence stress is to single out the focus/the communicative center of the sentence which introduces new information.
Sentence Focus. Within a sentence/an intonation unit, there may be several words receiving sentence stress but only one main idea or prominent element. Speakers choose what information they want to highlight in an utterance/sentence.
The stressed word in a given sentence which the speaker wishes to highlight receives prominence and is referred to as the (information) focus/the semantic center. In unmarked utterances, it is the stressed syllable in the last content word that tends to exhibit prominence and is the focus.
When a conversation begins, the focus /the semantic center is usually on the last content word, e.g. Give me a HELP. What's the MATTER? What are you DOING?
Words in a sentence can express new information (i.e. something mentioned for the first time/theme/comment) or old information (i.e. something mentioned or referred to before/theme/topic).
Within an intonation unit/sentence, words expressing old or given information (i.e. semantically predictable information) are unstressed and are spoken with lower pitch, whereas words expressing new information are spoken with strong stress and higher pitch.
Here is an example of how prominence marks new versus old information. Capital letters signal new information (strong stress and high pitch):
A I've lost my HAT. (basic stress pattern: the last content word receives prominence)
Â What KIND of hat1? ('hat' is now old information; 'kind' is new information)
A It was a SUN hat.
Â What COLOR sun hat?
A It was YELlow. Yellow with STRIPES.
Â There was a yellow hat with stripes in the CAR.
A WHICH car?
The speaker can give focus/prominence (strong stress and high pitch) to words to contrast information, i.e. to correct or check it. Words which are given prominence to contrast information have contrastive stress, e.g.
1 A Have they ever visited LONdon ?
Â No, THEY haven't, but their SON has. (correcting information)
2 A I didn't LIKE the movie.
Â You didn't LIKE? (checking information)
The speaker can wish to place special emphasis on a particular element – emphatic stress. The element receiving emphatic stress usually communicates new information within sentence. It is differentiated from normal focus/prominence by the greater degree of emphasis placed on it by the speaker, e.g.
A How do you like the new courses you've taken this semester?
Â I'm REALLY enjoying them! (emphatic stress on really indicates a strong degree of enjoyment)
A I'm NEVER eating oysters again! (emphatic stress placed on never signals a particularly bad reaction the speaker once had when eating oysters)
English has certain anaphoric words whose function is to refer to what has previously and recently) been communicated in a different way.
Since anaphoric words contain no new information – in fact, are intended to repeat old information – they typically not accented.
A summarized list of anaphoric words can be given as follows:
1. The pronouns he, she, it, and they, which replace definite nouns and noun phrases, e.g.
Everybody likes Archibald. – Everybody likes him.
I was sitting behind Lisa. – 1 was sitting behind her.
We waited for our friends. – We waited for them.
2. The pronouns one and some, which replace indefinite noun phrases, e.g.
I'll lend you some money. – I'll lend you some.
She ordered a cake. – She ordered one.
3. The pronoun one, ones, which replaces nouns after certain modifiers, e.g.
Are you wearing your brown suit /or the blue one?
Is she wearing her brown shoes /or the black ones?
4. The words so and not, which replace clauses after certain verbs and adjectives, e.g.
Has she failed to do it? – I hope not, but I'm afraid so.
5. The adverbs there and then, which replace place phrases and time phrases, respectively, e.g.
Have you ever been to Maplewood? I used to live there.
Next Monday's a holiday. I think I'll rest then.
6. The auxiliary do, which replaces a whole verb phrase, e.g.
Who made all this mess. – I did.
When an anaphoric word is accented, the accent signals contrast or something special, e.g.
Do you know Mary and John? I know her.
In addition to the cases listed above, we can recall old information by using words, which in a different context, would present new information. Such lexical items are deaccented, and the de-accenting tells us that the lexical items are being used anaphorically. There are several kinds of lexical anaphora:
1. Repetition, e.g. I've got a job, / but I don't like the job.
2. How many times ? Three times.
3. Synonyms, e.g. Maybe this man can give us directions. I'll ask the fellow. (the fellow= the man)
4. Superordinate terms, e.g. Did you enjoy Blue Highways ? I haven't read the book (Blue Highways = the book).
The purpose of de-accenting in this case is to relate the more general term, to the more specific term of the preceding sentence. But the de-accented word or term does not necessarily refer directly to a previous term, e.g.
That's a nice looking cake. Have a piece.
De-accenting also occurs when a word is repeated, even though it has a different referent the second time, e.g. a room with a view and without a view, deeds and misdeeds, written and unwritten.