Pitch In English Pronunciation: Definition and Examples
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.
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
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.
- Can you pass me that book? (said politely to a friend)
- Where were you last night? (angry father to daughter)
- Must it be printed? (polite question)
- Who is the one in the corner? (excitedly, to a friend)
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?
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?
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!
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.
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
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