Pitch In English Pronunciation: Definition and Examples

Updated on May 3, 2018
Seckin Esen profile image

Seçkin Esen is working as an English language teacher in Turkey. He obtained his Bachelor's degree in ELT from Hacettepe University in 2010.

Pitch is one of the vital parts of speaking and listening in most languages in the world. As English is a language in which meaning changes according to the tone and intonation of the speech, pitch and its range are an important part of spoken English. Pitch matters both at the level of individual words and at the level of longer statements. I will focus on pitch and the functions of the pitch range in utterances in this article because this aspect of language can cause some problems in both speaking and listening.

In this article, I describe pitch, pitch range and its functions in utterances, and make suggestions for teachers on how to teach pitch to their upper intermediate students with exercises.

What is Pitch?

Pitch is an important component of accentuation, or prominence, both at the level of individual words and at the level of longer utterances (Martha, 1996:148). The pitch of voice is determined by the frequency with which the vocal cords vibrate. The frequency of vibration of the vocal cords is determined by their thickness, their length and their tension. As Martha (1996:148) states, one’s natural average pitch level depends on the size of the vocal cords. In general, men have thicker and longer vocal cords than women and children do. As a result, the modal pitch of man’s voice is generally lower than that of a woman or a child.

Pitch Range

In addition to the modal pitch, every individual voice has a pitch range which can be achieved by adjustments of the vocal cords. By tightening the vocal cords, a person can raise the pitch of the voice by loosening them, one can lower vocal pitch. When the vocal cords are stretched, the pitch of voice increases. Pitch variations in speech are realized by the alteration of the tension of vocal cords (Ladefoged, 1982:226). These adjustments allow speakers to use pitch changes to achieve certain meaningful effects in speech.

The most important of all factors for the pitch of the voice is the vibration of vocal cords. When frequency of vibration increases, so does the pitch. Normally, a low pitch is not less than 70 Hz while a high pitch is not more than 200 Hz. (Çelik, 2003:101).

Pitch range can be divided into three parts as high, mid and low.

Most importantly, the pitch range of utterance shows the speaker’s attitude towards the information that s/he is conveying. As Brazil, Coulthard and Johns (1980:163) indicates, the neutral, unmarked, mid pitch range – which is the speaker’s modal pitch – is used to make a statement in a neutral manner.

In contrast, high pitch range indicates an informational contrast as shown in example (a). Because high pitch range implies a contrast even when one is not explicitly present in the discourse, it can be used to single out individual words for special attention as in the example (b).

a) I’m going to Harvard, not Yale!

b) I’d never do that.

Low pitch range is used when the speaker wants to assert that two items in successive tone units are in some sense equivalent, as in the example (c):

c) I told you already, dummy.

Here the low pitch range on "dummy" signals that it is to be interpreted as connected with "you."

Functions of Pitch Range in Statements

Martha (1996:149) states that the pitch of the voice falls when the speaker has finished giving all of the intended information—when an utterance is finished—and wants to signal the end of a turn at speaking. As long as the pitch has not fallen, it is an indication of unfinished information or an unfinished interaction. Typically, then, pitch falls at the end of a statement and stays level, or rises slightly at the end of a phrase where more information is coming, as illustrated in the following example:

The more uncertainty or incompletion is indicated, the more vocal pitch tends to rise. Whereas in the example above there was a low rise in pitch on each item in the list, for the following utterance, there will be a final high rise in pitch to indicate a high degree of certainty or incompletion in the meaning:

A yes/no question can be seen as half of an interaction. Since it indicates uncertainty (lack of information) and incompletion, it generally ends in a high rise, as in:

Rather than a high rise, so called wh- questions (question beginning with who, where, when, why, which and how), though they ask for information that is unknown to complete an interaction, typically end in high but falling pitch, as in:

It seems likely that non-native speakers might tend to produce wh-questions with a rising intonation, on the pattern of yes/no questions.

So-called tag questions may have rising or non-rising pitch, depending on whether they are really meant to ask questions or not:

In a similar case, English speakers may use the expression you know to ask a question or not, as shown by the pitch:

Even an utterance in the grammatical form of a yes/no question can become a non-question, i.e. a statement, if the pitch falls:

In these last two examples, the speaker does not ask a question but states a belief, expecting the hearer to have the same opinion.

Suggestions for Teachers

Exercise 1:

Put your students in pairs. Make student A produce the utterances below if adhering to the "stage directions" given in parentheses. Ask them to indicate the pitch range patterns that might occur in the situations described for the following utterances.

  1. Can you pass me that book? (said politely to a friend)
  2. Where were you last night? (angry father to daughter)
  3. Must it be printed? (polite question)
  4. Who is the one in the corner? (excitedly, to a friend)

Exercise 2:

Play a dialogue from the tape two or three times and want all your students to practice it correctly in pairs.

A. Help! We’re lost!

B. Where are you?

A. I don’t know. There’s a supermarket and a river.

B. Oh, I think I know where you are… Can you see a bridge?

A. Yes.

B. Ok, well go across the bridge and turn right.

A. Turn right?

B. Uh huh. Now, can you see some trees on the left?

A. Yes.

B. Turn left after trees.

A. What, in front of the bar?

B. Yes, in front of the bar. You’ll see my house on the left.

A. It’s opposite the farm.

B. That’s it. Well done, you are here!

Summary

The pitch of voice is primarily determined by the tension and vibration of vocal cords, secondarily by the amount of air force coming from lungs (Çelik, 2003:111). Every individual voice has a pitch range which can be achieved by adjustments of the vocal cords.

Pitch is a very important part of speaking and listening. There are three parts of the pitch range: low, mid and high pitch. The pitch movement changes depending on the sentence is completed or not, or if it is a yes/no question, wh-question, or answer statement.


References

Brazil D., Coulthard M. and Johns C. 1980. Discourse Intonation And Language Teaching. London: Longman

Çelik, M. 2003. Learning intonation and stress. Ankara: Gazi

Ladefoged, P. 2001. A course in phonetics. San Diego: Harcourt Brace

Martha C. P. 1996. Phonology In English Language Teaching. London: Longman

Roach P. 1983. English Phonetics And Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Seckin Esen

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        12 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        Interesting, Seckin. We didn't have any of this at school, but then we picked up the stresses and pitch from our parents and family etc. A few smallish pointers, though (piffling maybe, but details can count):

        There are more ways of saying the same thing, depending on what you want to stress. However, when you say "I'm going to Harvard not Yale, the stress goes on 'Har-' and 'not'; you can say either "I'd never do that" with the stress on "nev-" and "that" (the whole word), or stress "do"; and we wouldn't say "I've told you already -", rather "I've already told you". The other version uses English words but the thought behind it is from German. "I've told you already" tends to be used by immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Central Europe. Remember, the language is English so the thought process behind what you say has to reflect that. In Exercise 1, 4: say "Who is that in the corner", not "who is the one in the corner", unless you have been told of more than one gathered together. Lastly, very minor, Exercise 2: "Turn left after the trees", not "after trees". Trees grow everywhere, your informant has told you of some trees in a specific location. Otherwise I can't fault your page.

        There are some things said in certain ways in different parts of the English speaking world. By and large Canada follows the British 'formula' aside from pronunciation, Commonwealth countries also largely follow the British way of thinking and speech aside from some islands in the West Indies (Caribbean, stressing the last three letters in the British manner, and the stress on 'rib' in the US).

        Gottit? Good. Maybe you can teach me Turkish one day (funny, we call the birds 'Turkeys' although they originated in the New World... that's a thought for another topic: anachronisms).

      • Seckin Esen profile imageAUTHOR

        Seckin Esen 

        4 years ago from Ankara, Turkey

        Hi teaches12345, I am glad that you found my hub beneficial for the teachers. Thanks for the vote.

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        4 years ago

        Good examples of pitch in English pronunciation. Seems that lots of teachers would benefit from this information. voted up!

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)