56: Extra-high pitch words for extra intensity

Add drama, correct someone, and try to not sound angry with these pitch words.


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 56th episode.

Last week I started talking about intonation and pitch, and I'm going to continue on that topic for a while yet. As a review, intonation in the use of pitch, and pitch is the way we make our voice go up and down, like we do when we're singing.

Everything I'm talking about in these podcasts is also in our new book, "Rhythm and Intonation of American English", which you can pre-buy as an ebook through April 18 for only $28; after that, the price goes up. I was told last week that I should mention again that you do not need to be in the United States to purchase the ebook. You can download it from any country that you can download this podcast from. So, as long as PayPal accepts your currency, and it accepts all the major world currencies, you can buy the book! Pronuncian, and these podcasts, cannot continue without support from our listeners, so please consider making a purchase from the site to help it continue to grow and provide these educational services.

This content, and extra listening exercises and quizzes, are also available online. Exercises and quizzes are available only to subscribers, so if you prefer more interactive learning, please consider signing up for a Pronuncian subscription.

Now, let's get back to intonation and pitch. At Pronuncian and Seattle Learning Academy, we break the study of intonation and pitch apart into three categories:


  • pitch words
  • pitch boundaries
  • starting pitches

Last week I talked about high pitch words, which have the following characteristics:



  • they convey information new to the dialog
  • they guide the direction of the conversation
  • their stressed syllable is said at a higher pitch than the syllables that surround it
  • their stressed syllable is usually said louder and for more time than surrounding syllables and words


This week I am going to talk about extra-high pitch words. Extra-high pitch words sound like intense, or extra strong, high pitch words. Their stressed syllable is said at an even higher pitch, and that syllable often lasts for even more time and is said even louder than high pitch words.

Extra-high pitch words have different uses than high pitch words. People use extra-high pitch words to


  • to magnify or dramatize a situation
  • to correct another speaker's assumption
  • to verbally defend themselves

Let's listen to a quick example of each of these. First, here is an example of adding drama (or excitement) to what we're talking about. Let's pretend I just got finished with a boring meeting, and you asked me how it was. I might say.



It was SO boring.


If I say that, I'm not trying to direct the conversation, I'm not even really trying to add details to the conversation. This is probably small-talk, or informal conversation. I didn't merely say that it was boring, I said it was SO boring. I added drama to the extent of boredom I felt during the meeting. This may be the most common use of extra-high pitch words.

Extra-high pitch words can also be used to correct someone else. The use of this more prominent and noticeable pitch helps the speaker be certain that the listener is aware of the correction.

The next example is on the website as a dialog between two speakers. The first speaker is checking again of the other speaker still cannot go somewhere with him tomorrow. The second speaker replies,


Oh I CAN come now. My meeting was canceled.


By using the extra-high pitch word on the word can, there should be no confusion if the second speaker is or isn't going to come along. She definitely is coming.

Hopefully you could tell from context that the above conversations that the dialog was friendly. Extra-high pitch words, however, can turn a conversation defensive, or even aggressive.

I get students from quite a few different countries that tell me that native English speakers have told them that they sound angry. I'm going to rephrase that sentence: a native English speaker is telling a non-native speaker that the non-native speaker sounds angry when speaking English. I'm not going to list the countries of students who tell me this, because I don't want everyone from those places to become unsure of themselves and stop using extra-high pitch words. But if anyone has ever commented that you, or others who speak your native language, sound angry, it could be because your intended high pitch words have accidentally turned in to extra-high pitch words, which can be used in angry situations. Let's listen to some examples.

I'm going to give you some potential parent and teenage child situations because it is easy to think of situations between a parent and teenage child that the teenage child is getting defensive. In the following example, the child is correcting the parent.

A mother might say, "Do you homework." And the child could reply


I already DID my homework.


Or, a mother might say, "Clean your room." And the child might say back


I CLEANED my room already.


Again, the child was correcting the parent, which teenagers love to do. Teenagers can also be dramatic and defensive toward their parents at the same time. Extra-high pitch words can easily convey both things to the parent.

A mother might say, "You have to be home by midnight on Saturday." The child might reply, in disgust,


You ALWAYS make me come home earlier than everyone else.


The major difference between an extra-high pitch word being used to show drama, correction, and self-defense, is the context. The context is how a native English speaking listener knows that their non-native speaking friend is not actually angry, it is just part of their accent. You can learn to tune your pitch appropriately, with listening and speaking practice.

Again, there are more examples of extra-high pitch words on Pronuncian.com. Those have illustrations of the highness of the pitch used, so you can look at that while listening to the short dialogs to learn to hear the difference between high pitch words and extra-high pitch words.

Feel free to ask for clarification on any of these topics on the forums, too. The pitch section of the forums has been sadly without activity. So, if you have questions, please post them there and I'll be happy to add some answers.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening everyone.

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