55: Intonation and high pitch words, an introduction

An introduction to English intonation and high pitch words in yes/no questions.


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 55th episode.

We are entering a new area in our American English Pronunciation Podcast today - the world of intonation and pitch, otherwise known as the way humans can make their voice go up and down.

The words intonation and pitch are very closely related. Intonation is the use of pitch, just like mathematics is the use of numbers. Now, some people use these words interchangeably because the world of teaching is usually more concerned with helping students understand a concept than staying within the somewhat strict linguistic terminology. I'll use the word intonation more broadly, and the word pitch to refer specifically to the highness or lowness of the voice.

The best-known use of intonation is to make a statement into a question. Listen to the difference between the following sentences:


You drove to work.
You drove to work?


The first sentence, "You drove to work." is a statement, and the second sentence, "You drove to work?" is a question. Well, I'm sorry to say that the previous overused example has caused a major oversimplification of the uses of intonation. I'm hoping to help you understand the very complex aspect of American English intonation beyond the simple "make a statement into a question" use.

I hope you're ready to think, because the next few weeks' podcasts are probably going to challenge your English listening perception, as well as improve your listening comprehension, and hopefully, improve your own pronunciation of English.

Let's begin with an introduction to the terminology I use to teach intonation. Instead of considering all the different aspects of intonation at once, I break it apart into three categories:


  1. pitch words
  2. pitch boundaries
  3. starting pitches


Today we're only going to talk about pitch words. A pitch words is an individual word that a speaker chooses to set apart by raising or lowering their voice on that word. Pitch words convey which word of the sentence is most important, and how to interpret the importance of that particular word.

Every sentence has at least one pitch word, and some sentences can have many; it depends on the speaker's style and intention.

I'm going to focus on pitch words in yes/no questions today, just to get you to realize that it's more than the end of the sentence that carries the meaning in regard to pitch.

Today I'm only going to talk about high pitch words. The purpose of a high pitch word is to tell the listener that the word conveys new information and is the main topic of the sentence. Because of its topic-defining nature, high pitch words are one of the most common tools for guiding the conversation.

A high pitch word is most detectable because the stressed syllable of that word is said at a higher pitch than the syllables that surround it. In addition to the higher pitch, the stressed syllable of that word is usually said louder and for more time than surrounding words.

So, the main features of a high pitch word are as follows:


  • it conveys information new to the dialog
  • it guides the direction of the conversation
  • the stressed syllable of that word is said at a higher pitch than the syllables that surround it
  • the stressed syllable of that word is usually said louder and for more time than surrounding syllables and word


Now, let's see how to use a high pitch word in a yes/no question.

Say I ask you to following question:

"Did Lilly give you that necklace?"


If Lilly had given the necklace to you, the simple answer would be, "Yes." Of course you could add to your answer, "Yes, she did," or, "Yes, isn't it beautiful!"

But what if the answer to that question is no? If the answer is no, hopefully you were able to recognize what part of the question the speaker was giving the most emphasis to.

When I said the question before, I gave emphasis to Lilly. I'll say it again.


"Did Lilly give you that necklace?"


If the answer is no, I'm looking for the name of the person that did give it to you. The answer could be, "No, Tom did," or even, "No, I bought it at the street fair."

Because I gave the word Lilly the high pitch in the question, I was attempting to guide the conversation in the direction of where the necklace came from.

Now, I'll switch the high pitch word. I'm going to stress the word give.


"Did Lilly give you that necklace?"


The yes answer could be identical to the answers above, "Yes," "Yes, she did," or, "Yes, isn't it beautiful!" or any other appropriate answer.

However, if the answer is no, your answer should relate back to the original high pitch word, which was the word "give".

So, the no answer would probably be something like, "No, she's just lending it to me."

Let's play with one more option for this question. Let's make the word that the high pitch word.


"Did Lilly give you that necklace?"


Notice that the word that was not said at very much higher of a pitch; it was the word's duration, or how long it took to say the word that made it the high pitch word.

What purpose could I have for choosing to make the word that into a high pitch word? Well, we would assume this is a continuation of a previous conversation. The person I am talking to already seems aware that Lilly gave me a necklace, and that person now assumes that the necklace I am wearing right now is that specific necklace. Just as with all the other pitch word options, if the answer is yes, I have can answer a simple "Yes," or I can add to the answer and take my turn guiding the conversation.

If the answer were no, however, my answer should relate directly to which necklace Lilly did give me, since it isn't this one. The answer would be something like, "No, she gave me a different necklace."

I don't expect these short podcasts to be able to give you a complete understanding of the concepts I'll be talking about in the next few weeks. They are just too complicated, and they require more listening practice than listening to a few simple examples only one time. I'm happy to say, though, that there are more examples in the online lessons, and even more lessons being added every week.

Since listening perception is so important for full understanding of these concepts, there is now a listening exercise added to the high pitch word lesson, as well as a high pitch word listening quiz. Exercises and quizzes are only available to subscribers, lessons, however, are available to everyone. When the Rhythm and Intonation book comes out next month, these exercises and quizzes will be included with it as well.

Don't forget, you can pre-order the book now for a big discount! The full price of the ebook will be $38, but until April 18, you can purchase the book for $28. So you can save $10.

I'd like to make sure you all know that you don't need to be living in the United States to purchase the book, you can buy it from anywhere that PayPal accepts, and that is most of the countries that can download these podcasts.

I also need to say again that we rely on you, our listeners, to keep the podcasts coming every week. We had to increase our bandwidth again last month, which means it costs us not only time, but also money to keep publishing these podcasts. We now accept donations on the site, and we would be sincerely thrilled to receive a $5 donation from you to keep the podcasts available and free to the entire world.

I also want to remind you to sign up for the enewsletter, where you can receive a monthly coupon toward Pronuncian subscriptions and purchases. The April newsletter has already been sent, but sign up now so you can take advantage of the May coupon. When you sign up, you can mark if you are a student, teacher, or subscriber. Everyone gets the monthly newsletter, but we're going to start sending a notice to subscribers every time a new exercise or quiz has been added, so you will always get to use Pronuncian fully.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening everyone. I'll be back next week with another intonation-related lesson.

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