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Ministry of Education.


It's Not What You Said, It's How You Said It

So far, we have looked mainly at the segmental aspects of speech: vowels and consonants, how these are combined into syllables, how syllables are combined into words, and how words are put together in sentences.

There are other aspects of speech which are called suprasegmental features. These involve pitch and loudness and result in what is sometimes called "tone of voice".

As far as we know, no language is spoken in a monotone. All languages have variations in pitch, which we hear as the voice going up and down. These variations in pitch are sometimes called the "tunes" of a language, but they should not be confused with singing. You cannot speak out of tune. It is more accurate to refer to pitch patterns or intonation patterns.

In more than half the languages in the world, the meaning of a word can be completely changed just by changing the pitch in which it is said. Such languages are called tone languages: they include such African languages as Zulu, Yoruba, and Hausa and such Asian languages as Mandarin, Cantonese, and Thai.

For example, pitch movement on the word ma in Mandarin can result in four distinctive meanings.

Pitch movement Word Meaning

  • high level ma mother
  • high-rising ma hemp
  • low-falling-rising ma horse
  • high-falling ma scold

A five-year-old boy came with his mother to be enrolled at school in Auckland. He had a two-syllable Chinese name with a rising pitch movement on the second syllable. The mother insisted that the teacher practise this name many times with the correct rising tone, and eventually she said, "Good, now you say it right." Carefully pronouncing the name again, the teacher then said that she would introduce the child to the class, whereupon the mother said, "No, no. For school, we call him Vincent."

An example of how pitch movement can affect a single word in English is as follows:

  •  I won't lend my car to anyone. (That is absolute - no one can borrow my car.)
  • I won't lend my car to anyone. (I won't lend my car to just anyone, but I might lend it to certain careful people.)

We convey these two different meanings by a change of pitch on anyone. However, in English, it is unusual for this effect to be achieved with pitch movement on only one word.

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009