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Language: Linguistics · Semiotics · Speech

In linguistics, intonation is the variation of pitch when speaking. Intonation and stress are two main elements of linguistic prosody.

Many languages use pitch syntactically, for instance to convey surprise and irony or to change a statement to a question. Such languages are called intonation languages. English and French are well-known examples. Some languages use pitch to distinguish words; these are known as tonal languages. Thai and Hausa are examples. An intermediate position is occupied by languages with tonal word accent, for instance Norwegian or Japanese.

Rising intonation means the pitch of the voice increases over time; falling intonation means that the pitch decreases with time. A dipping intonation falls and then rises, whereas a peaking intonation rises and then falls.

The classic example of intonation is the question-statement distinction. For example, northeastern American English, like very many languages (Hirst & DiCristo, eds. 1998), has a rising intonation for echo or declarative questions (He found it on the street?), and a falling intonation for wh- questions (Where did he find it?) and statements (He found it on the street.). Yes or no questions (Did he find it on the street?) often have a rising end, but not always. The Chickasaw language has the opposite pattern, rising for statements and falling with questions.

Dialects of British and Irish English vary substantially (Grabe 2004,[1]), with rises on many statements in urban Belfast, and falls on most questions in urban Leeds.


In the International Phonetic Alphabet, "global" rising and falling intonation are marked with a diagonal arrow rising left-to-right [↗] and falling left-to-right [↘], respectively. These may be written as part of a syllable, or separated with a space when they have a broader scope:

He found it on the street?
[hi faʊnd ɪt | ɑn ðə ↗stɹit ‖ ]

In the previous example, the global rise symbol is placed between the transcriptions for the words "the" and "street".

Yes, he found it on the street.
[↘ jɛs ‖ hi faʊnd ɪt | ɑn ðə ↘stɹit ‖ ]

In that example, the symbol for a global fall was placed before the transcription for the word "yes," as well as between the transcriptions for the words "the" and "street".

How did you ever escape?
[↗haʊ dɪdju | ɛvɚ | ɪ↘skeɪp ‖ ]

Here, the global rise symbol is place before the transcription for the word "how" and the global fall symbol is placed between the two syllables in "escape", after the small capital letter "I" which represents the sound [ɪ].

More specific transcription systems for intonation have also been developed, such as ToBI (Tones and Break Indices), RaP (Rhythm and Pitch) and INTSINT (Hirst & Di Cristo, eds. 1998).


  • Grabe, E. (2004). Intonational variation in urban dialects of English spoken in the British Isles.

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