58: Pitch Boundaries, Rising and Falling

Pitch boundaries organize conversations, and give important emotional clues about the speaker.


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 58th episode.

For the last three weeks, I talked about pitch words and how to interpret them. Today I'm going to continue talking about pitch, but I'm going to shift to talking about pitch boundaries. Remember, all this content is also available in my new book, Rhythm and Intonation of American English, as well as in our online lessons at Pronuncian.com.

The book comes out May 15, and you can pre-buy it now for a discounted price. Download the ebook and audio files directly onto your computer for $32, or have the physical book and CD audio sent to you for $42 + shipping. The ebook and physical book are both available from any country that PayPal accepts currency from.

Now, let's get back to pitch. First, I need to explain how a pitch boundary is different from a pitch word. A pitch word is an individual word that a speaker chooses to set apart by raising or lowering the pitch of that word's stressed syllable. Pitch boundaries happen at the end of intonation units and are really about keeping conversations going. Pitch boundaries are not dependent on stressed syllables the way pitch words are. Pitch boundaries mostly occur on the last syllable of the last word of an intonation unit.

Pitch boundaries have an organizational purpose and an emotional purpose.

Regarding organizing a conversation, pitch boundaries are the way speakers tell their listener that they are finished speaking, and expect someone else to take a turn. This is done with questions as well as statements.

When it comes to emotion, pitch boundaries express things like confidence and assertiveness, or uncertainty.

Let me give you a couple of examples of pitch boundaries, so you understand what I'm talking about.

In the following statement


Jane likes coffee.


the pitch word is the word coffee. The stressed syllable of that word, the first syllable, is at a higher pitch than the rest of the sentence. The pitch boundary is the last syllable of the sentence, the "ee" sound of the word coffee. I'll say the sentence again.


Jane likes coffee.


I said that sentence with a falling pitch boundary, and my listener could tell that it was a statement, and that I was sure of myself. I could have had a rising pitch boundary on the final syllable of the word coffee, which would sound like


Jane likes coffee?


If I did that, my sentence would no longer be interpreted as a statement, it would now be interpreted as a question.

That part of it is not so tricky, and I would bet that most people capable of listening to this podcast are already perfectly aware of this happening in English. The use of pitch boundaries that is difficult for non-native speakers and ESL students is how to use a rising pitch without signaling a question.

I'm going to make the sentence we've been using into a longer sentence.


Jane likes coffee, but I prefer tea.


That sentence had two intonation units, two different thoughts, two chunks of words divided by a pause. Listen to the different pitch boundaries of each part.


Jane likes coffee, but I prefer tea.


The first half, Jane likes coffee, ended in a rising pitch boundary


Jane likes coffee


and the second half, but I prefer tea, ended in a falling pitch boundary.

That sentence


Jane likes coffee, but I prefer tea.


uses a rising pitch during a statement correctly. It is used to tell the listener that I am not done speaking yet by rising on the word coffee. I don't raise the pitch as far as I would if I were asking a question. After I the falling pitch boundary on the word tea, then the listener knows I am done talking, and someone new is now free to talk.

I am not going to get into the use of rising pitch for questions today, other than the quick example I gave at the beginning of this podcast. Today I want you non-native speakers out there to start to pay attention to your own use of rising pitch boundaries on statements, especially if you aren't using it to ask a question or to tell the listener that you are going to continue talking about the topic in the first part of your statement.

Non-native speakers who use rising pitch boundaries too often sound less fluent. Unfortunately, many of my students are guilty of this. When rising pitch boundaries are overused, the speaker (native or non-native) is thought to be showing non-commitment or non-assertiveness. Let me give you an example of this.


Jane likes coffee, but I prefer tea. Mike likes juice, so we should buy all three.


That sentence, if it occurred alone, without another sentence right next to it that went on with more rising pitch boundaries, would be okay. But if I continued speaking like that, with an overuse of rising pitch boundaries, I would sound very uncertain of myself. If you are a non-native speaker, you will sound uncertain of your speaking abilities, which is not what you want if you are trying to convince someone else to trust you. You want to sound confident and certain. You want to use more falling than rising pitch boundaries on your statements. I'm not saying to never use a rising pitch boundary on a statement, they do have an important purpose; just don't overuse them.

If you want more information on this topic, go to Pronuncian.com to see the lessons on the topic of rising and falling pitch boundaries for spoken statements. If you are a Pronuncian subscriber, you also have access to the additional listening exercise and quiz on this topic. That exercise and quiz will also be in the new text, "Rhythm and Intonation of American English." Remember, you can pre-purchase that text now for a discounted price. Your Pronuncian subscriptions and purchases are what keep this podcast coming to you every week.

As always, visit Pronuncain.com for the transcript for this podcast episode as well as links from it to the related lessons. You can post any questions you have on this, or any other English topic, on our forums at www.pronuncian.com/forums. And you can email me at podcast@p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.com to let me know of any content you would like me to talk about during these podcasts.

Thanks for listening everyone.

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