Intonation can be defined as the rise and fall of the pitch of the voice over a group of words, usually called a ‘tone unit’. A tone unit is a group of words (but can be a single word) under one single intonation contour. Tone units are combined to form paratones or ‘phonological paragraphs’. The phonological paragraph is similar to the paragraph that we observe in written language. It is assumed that when a (expert) speaker delivers a monologue in the form of an oral presentation, they break their talk up into paragraphs and these paragraphs are demarcated chiefly by pausing, discourse markers and intonation.

Paragraphs are normally closed with falling intonation, a slowing of speech and sometimes laryngealisation (or creaky voice). The start of the subsequent paragraph is marked usually with a pause and a high pitch. See example here PDF Document.

Controlling and utilising the intonation range when delivering an oral presentation is an important part of public speaking and students with ‘flat, undifferentiated’  ranges will have less options to signal the hierarchical organisation of the information. (Although see the article here which shows how a narrow pitch range can be used effectively in some cases. PDF Document)

Teachers

What terms and phrases do teachers use when discussing intonation?

POSITIVE TERMS

  • like a native speaker
  • appropriate rising and falling tones at right places
  • keeps listener’s attention
  • smooth delivery
  • intonation appears native
  • voice falling at right points
  • voice goes up on key point
  • natural sounding
NEGATIVE CONNOTATIONS
  • very jerky
  • not enough variety in tone
  • monotonous tone
  • start from a higher pitch
  • quite flat
  • didn’t have rises at key points
  • strange intonation
  • a bit boring nothing to spark your attention
  • just adding interest, more of a dialogue
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