The different kinds of pitches are shown here. (Image courtesy of learnesl.net)
La Cañada High School

English phonetics: Intonation

Tonal languages are different from non-tonal languages because tonal languages are dependent on the emphasis and pronunciation, because how a word is said will affect its meaning.

It is quite understandable why some people would consider English to be a tonal language. In fact, I used to ponder this particular question many times myself.

English may seem tonal because if you say one word a certain way, it has the potential to change the meaning of the sentence it is in, or at the very least, change its entire sound.

But English is not tonal, it simply uses intonation. Intonation is the changes in your pitch of voice that convey different meanings by showing the individual’s different feelings.

Take the question “Do you like the Anglo-Saxons?” as an example. If you ask the question in different ways, the sentence will sound different. All five examples will sound different because emphasis is placed on different parts of the question. This in turn, will make each example have a slightly different meaning or sound.

Why is this? This is due to intonation.

The first way places emphasis on the word “do,” which emphasizes the question. The second example places emphasis on the word “you,” which makes it clear that you are the subject in question. The third example emphasizes liking the Anglo-Saxons, and the fourth and fifth emphasize the specific group of people in the question.

While intonation in English definitely affects how its words sound, it is not as extreme as tones in Mandarin, for example. In Mandarin, there are four tones that are used, which means if you mess up a tone, it will change the meaning of the word you said.

If you would like to watch a video about this specific topic, I highly recommend Xidnaf’s video titled “Is English a Tonal Language?”

Even though English isn’t tonal, it is definitely interesting to see how intonation works in the language to provide a variety of contexts and possibilities in meanings.

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